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East Meets Pets

Traditional Chinese medicine influences the pet market.
By Wendy Bedwell-Wilson

Could products and services based on traditional Chinese medicine be the newest progression of the holistic pet-product movement? Biff Picone, co-owner of Natural Pawz in Houston, Texas, thinks so. He recently hired Shelbi Pfluger, a pet nutrition consultant with experience in herbal therapy, and ordered a line of herbal supplements based on traditional Chinese medicine.

“Traditional Chinese medicine is an area that’s gaining a lot of popularity,” Picone says. “We’re bringing something new and different to the table and making it available to people. We definitely want to embrace it in our business because it really does match up with our values, our vision and our goals of providing holistic natural-type remedies for our customers.”

The American Pet Product Association couldn’t comment on whether the industry has seen an increase in products founded in traditional Chinese medicine. But Sarah Clemenson, marketing manager for Wapiti Labs in Ham Lake, Minn., says she’s seen more human supplement makers testing the pet market—and investing in it.

“There are more and more companies that are switching from the human market to the pet market with the Chinese medicine, or adding to their lines,” she said, adding that more veterinarians are including complementary medicine, such as acupuncture, in their practices, too. “The trade shows held by the American Academy of Veterinary Acupuncture and the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association have doubled in size every year for the past three years. More and more younger veterinarians are looking for a more holistic approach.”

Consumers are curious, too. According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine’s 2007 National Health Interview Survey, an estimated 3.1 million adults in the United States had used acupuncture in the previous year, and about 17 percent of adults used natural products, including herbs. They’re using traditional Chinese medicine practices and remedies on themselves—and more are considering them for their pets, as well, said Marc Smith, DVM, a certified veterinary acupuncturist and maker of Pet-Tao Pet Food in Fairview, Tenn.

“When you have more credible institutions teaching traditional Chinese medicine popping up, and people are becoming more open minded and taking care of their pets longer, then you’re going to see people practicing integrated veterinary medicine, which is a combination of the Western and the Eastern medicine and using that on their pets,” Dr. Smith said. “I think it’s going to gain in popularity.”

Melissa Stephany, marketing manager for Herbsmith Inc. in Hartland, Wis., agreed.

“People are asking more questions and getting smarter,” she said. “I see people embracing traditional Chinese medicine for themselves and their pets even more in the future.”

Herbal and Food Therapies

Traditional Chinese medicine, a 3,500-year-old tradition rooted in the ancient philosophy of Taoism, encompasses many different treatments, from acupuncture and qi gong to herb therapy and food therapy. According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, each treatment in traditional Chinese medicine stems from a central concept called yin-yang theory, which states that two opposing yet complementary forces shape the world and all life. A vital energy or life force, called qi, circulates through a system of pathways, or meridians, in a human’s or pet’s body. In traditional Chinese medicine, health is an ongoing process of maintaining balance and harmony in the circulation of qi using a blend of the different practices.

Thanks to the holistic movement, herbal therapy has made the strongest inroads into the pet marketplace, Stephany said. Manufacturers combine a variety of Chinese herbs designed to support health or address maladies, such as Waipiti’s Lab’s Chest Formula, a blend of chest-drying herbs, or Herbsmith’s Comfort Aches, a blend of blood-moving herbs that improves the flow of energy through the pet’s body.

Because the theory behind Eastern herbal therapy can be such a complicated concept for Western retailers to grasp and share with their customers, education is important, Stephany said.

“Many stores are really embracing this,” said Stephany, whose company has free webinars on herbal therapy for retailers and pet owners.

"You get all this great information in the hands of stores, but the transfer to the consumer can be very slow. The more a store understands it, the better off it is. But some of these concepts are foreign because they are so different from the traditional Western way of thinking.”

In addition to herbal therapy, food therapy is entering the marketplace. Using the Eastern food therapy principals of the yin-yang theory and the theory of the five elements—fire, earth, metal, water and wood—in selecting their ingredients, Dr. Smith and his colleague Casey Damron, DVM, developed several diets designed, for instance, to be fed at certain times of year or for certain age groups.

“We found in our practice that people were interested in food therapy and they wanted to pay for the premium ingredients, but the problem was it was too time consuming to put it together and make it work for their pet,” Dr. Smith said. “So we are trying to fill that niche with a commercial diet that does that and simultaneously meets the AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) standards for Western dog foods.”

Food therapy was of interest to Pfluger, too.

“The natural food segment is booming, and once people realize that the natural food is really important for their dog and notice how the food is changing them, they will look into food and Chinese herbs as a way to treat conditions,” she added.

Marketing Medicine

Picone said that since the pet food recall was associated with Chinese ingredient manufacturing, any product or concept originating in that region currently has some negative connotations, so safety is of the utmost importance to him.

“People are a little leery when you say ‘Chinese’ products,” he said. “So we really need to understand a lot of the sourcing of the products and ingredients. We built our business on making sure that we’re not getting things that could be harmful.... We need to understand all the ramifications. It’s an opportunity for another segment, but we need to look at the trade-offs and risks, and how people will embrace things from China knowing what’s happened in the past.”

Retailers stocking their supplement section with Chinese herbs or recommending traditional Chinese medicine-based foods should be well-versed in what the products contain, how they work and what they’re intended to treat, Clemenson said.

“And we always offer—if not recommend—product training when retailers bring on the Chinese herbs,” she said. “We’ll talk to them, send information and run through a quick training session with them to make sure they know the details about the products. You don’t want to use them in the wrong way, and you don’t want to recommend them to pets that don’t need them.”

Retailers may also want to distribute informational flyers, which many manufacturers provide for free, that describe the different herbs and their intentions, Stephany suggested, along with merchandising the products together in a natural-looking display.

“A lot of stores are limited in their merchandising space,” she said. “So we offer skinny brochures that explain each product we offer, and they fit into these handmade displays that are free to retailers with a minimum order quantity.”

Whether traditional Chinese medicine is the next progression of the pet industry’s all-natural trend is yet to be seen. But as more people incorporate alternative medicine in their own lives, they will likely want to do the same with their pets—just as they did with natural foods, Picone said.

“We believe that a lot of things that are good for people are also good for pets,” he said. “We see it in acupuncture; acupuncture for dogs is really big right now. We know from the food and treats that the healthier you feed your pet, the better health they’re in, just like for us.

“So we look at it as a natural progression to bring that kind of approach into our stores,” Picone said. 

This article first appeared in the March 2010 issue of Natural Pet Product Merchandiser

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