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A Sleek Physique

When it comes to keeping Fido fit, dog owners often turn to pet specialty retailers for nutritional information and advice.


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It’s no secret that a lean, active dog is likely to enjoy a vigorous romp through life. However, similar to their two-legged counterparts, maintaining that svelte canine figure can prove an elusive goal. According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention’s 2015 clinical survey, veterinary health care professionals classified 54 percent of dogs in the U.S. as clinically overweight.

However, as the humanization trend continues, more pet owners are treating their pets like members of the family, and that includes an emphasis on “eating right,” according to Rashell Cooper, marketing director for Redbarn Pet Products in Long Beach, Calif.

“More consumers are looking to premium diets as a complement to their dog’s optimal health,” Cooper said. “With active ingredients that help address a dog’s health needs, like weight control, these premium diets offer pet parents a chance to understand what they are feeding to their pet.”

Pet owners continue to look for opportunities to prevent weight gain and help overweight pets return to an ideal body weight and promote a good quality of life, said company officials at Natural Balance Pet Foods in Burbank, Calif.

As busy lifestyles, residence in more urban environments and larger bowls for smaller dogs prevail, the call for strategic nutrition that will prevent excess weight gain and promote an ideal body weight becomes more crucial, Natural Balance officials added.

“Weight-management diets for dogs have definitely increased over the past decade, probably because the number of pets joining the household and living inside has increased incrementally,” said Mike Jupp, regional sales manager for Perham, Minn.-based Tuffy’s Pet Food, maker of NutriSource. “In addition, consumers are more self-conscious about their own health and that of their pet.”

For these reasons, customers often look to pet specialty retailers for diets that will offer sound nutrition to four-legged family members through different phases of life and health, said Bryan Nieman, brand director for Fromm Family Foods in Mequon, Wis.

“In a market where demand for variety continues to grow, many of today’s manufacturers offer diets that will assist pets on their journey from puppy to senior, and stages in between,” Nieman said. “Maintaining a healthy weight is increasingly important as pets age, and we find many pet parents turning to dietary solutions when a pet is at an unhealthy weight, or beginning to cross the line into obesity.”

Further, common health problems in overweight dogs include pancreatitis, diabetes, heart disease, disc disease, ruptured cruciate ligament, hip dysplasia and other forms of joint disease, surgical complications, compromised immune system, and even many forms of cancer, said Natural Balance officials.

With that in mind, Jupp pointed out, “By maintaining proper weight levels for our pets, we can possibly increase their life span.”

He added that with the increase in demand for grain-free diets, offering this option in a weight-loss formula is important.

“NutriSource has just recently introduced a new grain-free weight-management diet to help consumers maintain their pet’s weight,” Jupp said.

Because some light or lean diet formulas on the market are not formulated specifically for weight loss, and a pet deprived of elements such as amino acids, protein or vitamins to lose weight might not receive all necessary nourishment, consumer education is critical, according to Natural Balance officials.

“If pets are not provided with a proper weight-loss plan, they can experience skin and coat issues during dieting,” Natural Balance officials said. “The humanization of pets goes beyond selecting ingredients and following romanticized food trends, and similar to humans experiencing issues with obesity, pets are facing the same challenge.”

Customer Education

A Delicate Subject

Veterinarians throughout the country are having tough conversations with pet owners as they address the health consequences of a dog carrying extra pounds, according to company officials at Natural Balance Pet Foods in Burbank, Calif.

However, pet owners often turn to pet retailers for nutritional information and advice.

“The relationship between a retailer and their customer is a very important one, especially within the pet specialty channel,” said Bryan Nieman, brand director for Fromm Family Foods in Mequon, Wis. “Consumers look to their retailer as an expert regarding health and nutrition.”

Still, independent retailers walk a fine line when addressing a matter as sensitive as excess weight.

“I would never go down the road of telling someone their dog is overweight,” said Sandy Wingerd, sales associate for The Hitch N’ Post Feed and Tack in Tustin, Calif.

Instead, a customer at The Hitch N’ Post might be tactfully ushered to a selection of recipes addressing specific issues, including weight loss.

“I’d point out the formulations created for sensitive tummies, skin issues and weight loss,” Wingerd said.

Aquila Brown, owner of The Yuppy Puppy in Spokane, Wash., agreed that a diplomatic approach is essential when guiding pet owners toward a weight-loss diet.

Brown added that when it comes to specialty diets, a pet owner might search for senior food but not consider a weight-control recipe. The Yuppy Puppy’s well-trained groomers assist in this regard, keeping an eye on the waistlines of their four-legged clients and providing dietary recommendations if necessary.

“Customers don’t come in looking for weight-control food because nobody wants to admit their kid is overweight,” she said. “It all comes back to having a relationship with the client where you can approach them and tell them they need a weight-control food without saying, ‘Dude, your dog is fat.’ My employees would never say that.”

Lorin Grow, owner of Furry Face in Redlands, Calif., concurred and said that discretion is key.

“We absolutely will mention if a dog is overweight, but tactfully and gently,” she said.

However, this consideration is seasoned with some tough love.

“Humans use food to show love for their animals,” Grow said. “It often takes an explanation that weight control will keep their animals with them longer and they’ll be healthier.”

When a dietary change is called for, customers at Furry Face receive instructions regarding proper feeding. Normal treats are replaced with more appropriate freeze-dried, meat-only treats in significantly smaller sizes and quantities, and weight-loss progress is recorded with scheduled weigh-ins, Grow said.

“We celebrate every pound that is shed and recalibrate should they get off track,” Grow said. “Changing the viewpoint and providing better information to the pet parent is paramount to long-term good health for the animal.”

Educating Retail Staff

Knowledge Leads the Way

A well-trained staff is instrumental when it comes to imparting education and dietary advice, said Mike Jupp, regional sales manager for Perham, Minn.-based Tuffy’s Pet Foods, maker of NutriSource.

Customers value the opinions of educated sales associates, agreed Sandy Wingerd, sales associate for The Hitch N’ Post Feed and Tack in Tustin, Calif.

“It is very helpful when suppliers come in to discuss their products and provide training,” she said. “I am able to speak with more confidence, and that comes through to the customer.”

Ongoing education is a crucial facet to ensuring that staff members are knowledgeable when speaking with consumers about the benefits of a weight-loss-formula dog food, according to company officials for Natural Balance Pet Foods in Burbank, Calif.

Further, it is a retailer’s duty to obtain guidance and acquire a working knowledge of the resources provided by these brands, said Bryan Nieman, brand director for Fromm Family Foods in Mequon, Wis.

Assisting pet owners in helping their pets to have the best quality of life makes good business sense, said Natural Balance officials. Pet owners rely on store employees for in-store recommendations regarding the ideal products for their pet’s individual needs.

Lorin Grow, owner of Furry Face in Redlands, Calif., agreed that education is everything.

“Additionally, since almost all kibble-fed dogs eventually have weight issues, it is important that pet parents understand the effect an all-starch/carbohydrate form of food consumed day after day has on the metabolism and the body of a dog,” Grow added.

Marketing

Timing, Options, Promotion

Highlighting different diet types will help customers understand all their options in the natural and weight-loss marketplaces, said Rashell Cooper, marketing director for Redbarn Pet Products in Long Beach, Calif.

“In addition, working directly with the manufacturer to help educate consumers and store associates is paramount to correctly marketing premium weight-loss diets,” Cooper added.

Retailers can best market foods in the weight-management category by supplying options and spotlighting weight-management diets during months when consumers are attempting to manage their own weight, said Mike Jupp, regional sales manager for Perham, Minn.-based Tuffy’s Pet Foods, maker of NutriSource.

“For example, January is a great month to promote the category on endcaps or center aisle displays, because pet owners are making New Year’s resolutions, including weight loss,” he said.

Bryan Nieman, brand director for Fromm Family Foods in Mequon, Wis., noted that marketing and advocacy of weight-loss foods circles back to knowledge and expertise.

“We believe education is a vitally important part of the sales process,” Nieman said. “Once a retailer has a good working knowledge of the brands and products being offered, the next step is consumer education.”

That tutelage begins on the retail floor through visual merchandising and the utilization of shelf talkers, point-of-sale materials and other promotional aids, he said.

“Retailers can also benefit from the use of their social media platforms and other digital resources, like small distribution lists, to continue the conversation about healthy diets once the shopper leaves their store,” Nieman added.

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