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Dog Marketplace: Strength in Diversity

Posted: October 22, 2013, 12:30 p.m. EDT


Manufacturers of specialty foods recognize dogs’ unique nutritional needs, formulating diets for specific breeds, ages, sizes and health conditions.

By Stacy N. Hackett

When it comes to dog food, one size—or formula—does not fit all. A food meant for a cocker spaniel puppy will not provide optimal nutrition for an adult golden retriever, while the kibble meant to be palatable to a Saint Bernard might not even fit in the mouth of a Yorkshire terrier.

"The dietary needs of large breed dogs are different than [those of] small breed dogs,” said Chanda D. Leary-Coutu, senior manager of marketing communications for WellPet in Tewksbury, Mass.

To make sure breeds of all sizes receive optimal nutrition, Leary-Coutu said WellPet’s Wellness Small Breed Complete Health line is "tailored specifically to the needs of small and toy breed dogs, including ingredients for joint and bone health, a smaller kibble size and [formulas] to support their higher energy needs.”

Dog Diets
Foods for dogs of specific sizes—or even specific breeds—are showing up on shelves. Carrie Brenner/i-5 Publishing at Pet Supply

Similarly, Royal Canin USA considers the size of a breed when developing the 20 formulas that comprise its Breed Health Nutrition line.

"The kibble is designed in shape, texture and size for both puppies and adults of the specific breed, ranging from Chihuahua puppy to Labrador retriever adult,” said Brent Mayabb, DVM, director of corporate affairs for the St. Charles, Mo., company.

Weight Challenges
While grain-free diets often help with weight loss for dogs that need to lose a few pounds, manufacturers recognize the importance of foods formulated specifically for overweight dogs.

"Pet obesity is a serious issue in the U.S. that brings with it significant health risks, including diabetes, pancreatitis and osteoarthritis,” said Eric Emmenegger, senior brand manager for the Instinct line of foods from St. Louis-based Nature’s Variety. "Instinct Healthy Weight kibble…blends pure, delicious and fully satisfying freeze dried raw pieces with lower fat and fewer calorie kibble.”
 
Creating tasty low-calorie formulas is important. Dogs that have weight challenges should not have to sacrifice taste or nutrition, said Betsy Berger, communications manager of Amarillo, Texas-based Castor & Pollux Natural PetWorks, a division of Merrick Pet Care. Castor and Pollux’s Organix Weight Management Adult Dog Food uses organic fruit and vegetable ingredients as well as organic quinoa to provide optimal nutrition with fewer calories, she reported.

Natural Balance Pet Foods Inc. offers Fat Dogs for overweight pets, and several of the company’s employees use it for their own dogs.

"We proposed a Fat Dogs in-office challenge,” said Heather Govea, general manager of the Pacoima, Calif., company. "All the dogs who participated not only lost weight but also experienced increased energy, shinier coats and leaner overall appearance. We are proud of our in-office dogs who continue to benefit from this formula and are inspired every day by the many Fat Dogs success stories we hear.”

Life Stages and Lifestyles
Senior dogs often become less active as they mature, Berger said. Because older dogs need fewer calories for energy, weight loss formulas can support their nutritional needs, but senior-specific formulas also are available.

Villaggio Family Pets in Temecula, Calif., stocks Canidae Life Stages canned food for senior and overweight dogs. Because the store focuses on puppies, the shelves also display a selection of formulas for young dogs, including Eukanuba Small Breed Puppy canned and dry formulas and Nutro Max canned puppy formula.

"All puppies go home with a special starter package,” said Jesse Lopez, store associate. The package includes a small amount of food to introduce the new owner to optimal nutrition.

The nutritional needs of a puppy differ from those of an adult dog or those of a dog in its senior years, and many pet food manufacturers have created formulas that address these varying requirements.

"We have staff nutritionists and veterinarians that research, make and test superior pet foods,” said Kirk Young, executive vice president of Precise Pet Products in Nacogdoches, Texas.

The Precise Holistic Complete line, which offers several life-stage specific formulas, including diets for different-sized puppies and adult dogs, was launched in 2010 to meet customers’ requests for foods with human-grade ingredients, Young said.

Alaska Feed Co. in Fairbanks, Alaska, responds to customers’ requests by stocking foods that people repeatedly request by name.

"Just about every customer comes in looking for a specific brand or type of food,” said David Underwood, co-owner. "Large breed foods sell best at our store, because there is a higher percentage of large breed dogs in Alaska.”

Some customers’ dog food needs change seasonally, he said.

"They feed a maintenance formula during the summer and then switch to a performance food in the winter,” he said. "That type of food helps stave off the cold a little better for dogs that spend a lot of time outside.”

Draw Attention to Specialty Foods
Alaska Feed Co. markets different brands and types of food by offering a coupon in newspaper ads and rotating endcap displays every month.

At The Pet Stop in Murrieta, Calif., store owner Shelly Dillingham stocks a variety of dog foods—including formulas from Blue Buffalo, Merrick Pet Care and Canidae—in several large racks that are clearly visible from the front door. She makes use of signage provided by manufacturers such as Blue Buffalo to explain the benefits of the different types of food.

Manufacturers often suggest such an approach to displaying specialty dog foods.

"We encourage retailers to create a dedicated…section in their stores, and provide them with off-shelf displays, cross-merchandising and promotion, point-of-sale items and shelf talkers to educate customers and direct them to our specialty dog foods,” Natural Balance’s Govea said. "A successful display will draw in consumers and give them a reason to stop and inquire about what is being communicated.”

Royal Canin, Nature’s Variety and Dave’s Pet Food also provide in-store signage. Dave Ratner, president of Agawam, Mass.-based Dave’s Pet Food, also owns seven pet stores in Massachusetts and Connecticut called Dave’s Soda & Pet City.

"Because I am a retailer, I know what we need,” he said in regard to the shelf talkers he produces to accompany his foods. "Plus, I am all over YouTube and pet websites telling folks about the food.”

With today’s technology-savvy customers, social media can be a strong marketing tool.

"Marketing in the ‘digital age’ allows retailers to quickly find out what consumers want and need, and respond to their questions and comments efficiently,” Govea said. "Whereas once it may have taken a long time to research what product may be right for your pet, today consumers can ask a question online and get a timely response.”

Precise Pet Products also makes use of social media to help create awareness of its foods—an awareness that can help drive customers into stores.

"We do all forms of social media—websites, blogs—as well as a loyalty program to keep consumers coming back to the food,” Young said.

Still, personal, in-store interaction with knowledgeable staff remains a top marketing tool.

Manufacturers encourage store owners to inquire about customers’ dogs to help them find the optimal diet.
 
"Owners come to pet specialty retailers because they value the advice and service provided,” Royal Canin’s Dr. Mayabb said. "Ask questions about their pet. Find out if they have any specific needs. Speaking about the benefits for their pet helps them understand why you recommend a certain diet.”

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