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Dog Marketplace: Make the Senior Connection

Posted: April 30, 2013, 10 p.m. EST


Communicating with pet owners about their dogs’ senior-specific needs can make customers for life.
By Somyr McLean Perry

Products designed to help aging dogs live more comfortable, mobile and healthful lives are taking off with customers, and retailers have become especially successful in this niche by establishing relationships with senior dog owners and learning about their particular pets’ needs.

Ann-Marie Fleming, founder of DogQuality.com, has built a business around products that help address these needs. Mobility issues as well as incontinence are common in senior pets, Fleming said, so she focused her online pet retail and manufacturing business on creating and selling pet strollers, booties, diapers and pads.

Located in Surrey, British Columbia, Canada, Fleming said she occasionally gets a person who insists that dogs are meant to walk, but her experience owning four dogs over the age of 7 proves that’s not always the case.

Help Owners with Senior Pet Needs
Treats that have functional benefits, such as mobility-supporting ingredients, target issues many senior pets experience. Sherri L. Collins/I-5 Publishing at Dogma in Irvine, Calif.

"My pug, Mackenzie, could only walk in small intervals [because of his health issues],” she said.

When she put Mackenzie in a senior pet stroller, however,  he was more active than ever because he could alternate between riding and walking, allowing him to walk more often and in longer intervals than without a stroller, she said.

While many products she sells are marketed for general pet use, Fleming said her products are designed for senior pets, including her latest offering, dog traction socks called Grippers.

"Due to conditions such as arthritis and hip dysplasia, [senior pets’] rear legs can become weak or unstable, and they can have some very scary falls on flooring such as tile or hardwood,” Fleming said. "Older dogs will even refuse to walk on these surfaces or find themselves unable to stand up from a seated position on these floors. The Grippers help dogs get upright when needed and give them the traction and stability they need to safely walk across slippery surfaces.”

To help senior dogs with mobility issues, manufacturers also offer supplements.

Gary Gunderson, territory manager of Valencia, Calif.-based Designing Health Inc., which makes The Missing Link brand nutritional supplements for animals, reported that the company’s senior formulas are selling well.

"What we see is that our hip and joint formula, as well as the Well Blend Plus with probiotics, are increasing every month to where it is at around 30 percent of our overall sales,” Gunderson said.

He noted that the company’s hip and joint formula and Well Blend Plus have surpassed the original skin and coat formula in sales, which might indicate that more senior pet owners are buying.

"We are continuing to see an increase throughout the fourth quarter of last year, and we believe we will experience record numbers for 2013,” Gunderson said.

Fleming also reported an upward trend of consumers purchasing products specifically intended for senior pets.

"All of our products are for senior dogs, and we have seen triple-digit growth each year for the past three years in sales,” Fleming said. "We will continue to grow at an accelerated rate as more pet parents become aware of their options. Our experience shows that it is not a question of whether consumers see the value in senior dog products; they just didn’t know they existed.”

However, not everyone agreed that pet owners are seeking out products made specifically for senior animals.

"We don’t see a trend toward clients seeking products specifically for senior pets,” said Steven Cohen, owner of The Dog Bar in Miami Beach, Fla.

However, he estimated that 5 to 10 percent of his sales are from senior pet products, including food and nutritional supplements, he said.

Instead, he said, consumers are seeking high-quality products that address pet health and wellness holistically, as well as individual pet needs, such as nutrition, regardless of pets’ ages.

Cohen’s 4,000-square-foot luxury pet department store specializes in pet food and nutrition. He noted that nutritional supplements formulated to address joint health, such as glucosamine and chondroitin, are the most popular products purchased for senior pets, including products by Ark Naturals and Liquid Health.

"We also do a lot of fresh diets these days to meet the needs of senior pets,” he said, as well as deer antler and flaxseed oil, which often are used for their anti-inflammatory properties.

Most insiders said there is a market for senior--specific pet products mostly because owners are more educated about their aging pets’ health as well as their own health.

"Many of the owners of senior companions are experiencing the same issues as their pets,” Gunderson said.

As pet owners realize the adjustments they need to make for their older dogs, they discover there are good years remaining, Fleming said.

Supplements for dogs
To meet the needs of senior pets, manufacturers continue to launch new products for hips, joints and more. Sherri L. Collins/I-5 Publishing at Kriser's in Irvine, Calif.
"Life is not over, it is just different,” she said. "And with the right products their dogs can continue to have fun, be happy and stay healthy.”

One way to educate customers on their aging dogs’ changing needs is to host guest speaker events, Cohen said. He partners with local veterinarian Larry A. Bernstein, VMD, who often lectures at the store on various pet health topics.

Cohen also suggested hosting senior-pet owner meet-ups where people living with senior pets can share successes and challenges in ownership and roundtable about what’s working for them.

To meet customers’ senior pet challenges, manufacturers, such as Ark Naturals Natural Products for Pets of Naples, Fla., are gearing up to launch new product lines this year.

"You know the expression ‘60 is the new 40’? That’s what we’re trying to accomplish with our senior products,” said Susan Weiss, president of Ark Naturals. "I thought carefully about who I thought would be candidates for these products. The dogs that would benefit most would be dogs that are qualified (chronologically) as senior, but who are not at the end stages of their lives.”

While formulating its new Gray Muzzle line, Ark Naturals identified issues that top the charts of the senior dog audience, including joints, congestive heart failure, canine cognitive disorder and coat dryness and odor.

"We are not just relabeling products [as made for seniors] from our regular Ark line,” Weiss said, noting that it’s an important distinction.

Fleming agreed that distinction is an important one to make for consumers. Her company’s pet strollers, intended for use by senior pets, have many features that general pet strollers lack, she said.

"We know most senior dogs have conditions such as arthritis and other joint-related problems, so comfort is the key,” Fleming said. "The canopy can be pushed forward so they can see their owners. As dogs get older they are more easily stressed and anxious, so being able to see their owners helps. We also sell an orthopedic memory-foam pad as an accessory that can be added to make it even more comfortable.”

Consumer involvement and feedback in product development is essential to ensuring that products meet the needs of senior pets, manufacturers and retailers reported.

"We are very fortunate to have extremely interactive customers who share [with us] their experiences with their older dogs and give us specific feedback on our products,” Fleming said. "Social media have given businesses an amazing opportunity to reach more people, and for us it represents a key channel for tapping into customer needs. We gain valuable feedback through Facebook, YouTube and Twitter both from customers and noncustomers on what they are looking for to help their older dogs.”

Like in Fleming’s case, personal experiences owning senior pets plays a big part in Ark Naturals’ product development.

"Our dog Lily is senior,” Weiss said. "She has issues with her kidneys not functioning well. She takes daily meds. She eats a special diet. We use special shampoo on her. I’m the target audience.”

Connecting with customers and understanding their senior pets’ needs is important to create a relationship and build a life-long customer.

"Ask questions and have a true concern in creating a solution,” Gunderson said. "Don’t look at how you can make a profit or a good sale. Give your customer a solution that works, and build a customer for life, not just a good order for the day.”

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