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Roundtable: Pet Allergies

Natural Pet Product Merchandiser
Natural products and grooming go a long way in relieving allergy symptoms in pets, but a veterinarian’s involvement is essential in some cases.

Up to 30 percent of the pet population is afflicted with an allergic condition, according to the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine. Given that millions of companion animals are candidates for allergy remedies, the sales potential is great for manufacturers and sellers of natural products. Natural Pet Product Merchandiser brought together two retailers and two manufacturer representatives to discuss pet allergies.



Dr. Christine Bessent, a veterinarian and the founder of Herbsmith Inc.  Ken Niedziela, editor of Natural Pet Product Merchandiser
B.C. Henschen, a general partner and certified pet care technician at Platinum Paws
Dr. Kristin Holm, a veterinarian and the medical director at Healthy GOO
Brad Kriser, the founder and CEO of Kriser’s
NPPM: What is the most common allergy in pets?

Kristin Holm: By far it is the environmental allergy, which is the same kind of thing with people. Whereas people tend to have allergies that affect their respiratory systems—sneezing, coughing, that kind of thing—dogs get more cutaneous reactions on their skins and their ears.

So the things that they tend to be allergic to environmentally are the things that people are allergic to. We commonly see allergies to grasses, weeds, trees as well as indoor house dust mites and then indoor and outdoor molds.

NPPM: What do herbal allergy remedies accomplish that other remedies may not?

Christine Bessent: As a veterinarian trained in traditional Chinese medicine and traditional Chinese theories, I look at allergies a little differently than the average veterinarian. It’s not the allergens, per se, it’s the way the body responds to the allergens. From a Chinese perspective, that is too much heat and too much inflammation in the body. Dogs that have hypersensitivity reactions have way too much heat and tend to burn off the fluids.

I would use very cooling herbs that help to bring down the hypersensitivity reaction and help to change the way the body responds to the allergens, and I would recommend cooling protein sources that work as functional food to help decrease the inflammation that’s caused by this allergic response.

NPPM: When a customer’s pet is suffering from an allergy, has the customer sought veterinary care in most cases? What is your role?

Dr. Christine Bessent
Dr. Christine Bessent practices holistic veterinary medicine in Wisconsin, where she uses Chinese herbs, acupuncture, food therapy and chiropractic on all animals. After more than a decade of using Chinese herbal combinations in her practice, Dr. Bessent channeled her knowledge into Herbsmith Inc., a Hartland, Wis.-based manufacturer of herbal solutions for dogs, cats and horses.
Brad Kriser: A lot of people have consulted their veterinarians. We do not cross the line of being a vet; we will never make diagnoses. We have many different products that help fight allergies or build immunity against allergies. We have multiple protein sources that we can use, plus supplements and different things.

NPPM: Which allergy products do you sell for your customers’ pets?

B.C. Henschen: I sell products that will help support a good immune system and help with allergy symptoms. Typically, I’m going to recommend, regardless of allergies or not, a good probiotic. A really healthy skin and coat, I think, helps with limiting allergy issues.

NPPM: How do you display allergy products?

Kriser: We’re very particular about how we position products and how we display things so everything stays neat and fresh. We’re focused on having the staff trained on the products and then taking the customer over to that area and discussing them. If the customer wants to shop on her own and doesn’t want to have to work with anyone, everything is broken up into sections to make it easier for them to shop.

NPPM: How do you train your employees?

Henschen: The manufacturers are probably my No. 1 source, followed by the representatives. I also get information from publications like Whole Dog Journal and your publication. I don’t think any client of ours has ever walked in the door and walked over to buy an allergy or holistic supplement on their own.

It takes communication back and forth with the client (‘Are you seeing itching and scratching?’) and then finding the solutions.

Kriser: We have vendors  come into the stores. We also do conference calls, where they can train a number of different people, and we do webinars. We like it very much when manufacturers and vendors are involved with the training because some of this can be very difficult to understand. Having a good base of knowledge coming from them is definitely helpful.

NPPM: Herbsmith does a lot of webinars. How have they been received?

Bessent: Fabulously. We provide webinars that could be just for the stores, so we get a group of associates together and do an open forum. For an allergy webinar, not only would I educate them on the Chinese theories behind it, but then we would talk about other things like essential fatty acids and probiotics and foods and those sorts of things. We try to put together not just our products but the best knowledge available on how you can set up a nice foundation of health.

B.C. Henschen
B.C. Henschen is a general partner in Platinum Paws, a full-service pet salon and holistic pet food store in Carmel, Ind. He spends his days working with clients to determine the best food for their pets. B.C. also is a certified pet care technician and an accredited pet trainer.
We do a webinar series where we train stores first, then if the stores like that information, we provide banners for their Facebook page or email blasts or PDFs that they can print off, and then they promote it to their consumers, and three of four weeks later we do the same sort of webinar geared toward consumers, educating them without mentioning products. We also send our reps all over the country to meet with stores.

NPPM: How effective are today’s allergy products in general?

Holm: We’re finding that some treatments that have long been used for allergies really aren’t that effective, such as antihistamines, which have an efficacy rate of zero to 30 percent.

Fatty acids are very good when used with other therapies but on their own have about a 25 to 30 percent efficacy. The stronger drugs such as prednisone, which has been long used for allergies, is highly effective, though it does have a lot of side effects.

Cyclosporine is a medication that alters the way the immune system treats allergies. That kind of medication has about a 65 percent response rate, but it is very expensive and has a chance of side effects, although in my opinion it is favorable to prednisone or steroids.

As dermatologists, our main goal for allergies is to try to neutralize the actual reaction of the body. As Christine said, it’s not so much the allergen. Pollens are not bad things. Without them we wouldn’t have plants multiplying.

NPPM: What about food allergies?

Bessent: A small percentage of allergies are food allergies. And absolutely, eliminating the offending thing from a diet is common sense. But I would take it a little bit further.

We’re feeding scavenger carnivores a high-carbohydrate diet and every day generating this pro-inflammatory response. Lowering the carbohydrate diet and feeding a more species-appropriate diet is important. I would go with cooling protein sources like fish, duck or rabbit.

NPPM: What are some of the unusual protein sources you’ve seen on the market?

Dr. Kristin Holm
Dr. Kristin Holm is the medical director and co-principal at Healthy GOO, the manufacturer of Doggy GOO of Highland Park, Ill. She has been practicing as a board-certified veterinary dermatologist since 1999 and provides dermatology advice to veterinarians worldwide via the Internet.
Henschen: Everything’s becoming common. Five years ago venison was a fairly unique protein. In the raw foods, the sky is the limit. They have about any protein available.

Kriser: Addiction has some strange ones with the brushtail (New Zealand possum) and the unagi (eel). Not many people are interested in the kangaroo, from what we’ve found.

NPPM: What do you recommend for flea allergies?

Kriser: We don’t sell anything specific for flea allergies, but we do sell topical naturals sprays that will help with keeping fleas away. We have topical things from K9 Granola and we have some neem sprays. From a natural standpoint, we try not to use any chemicals at all.

Henschen: Being a holistic-type guy with my animals, I still use a topical, and I use a topical because it works—and works
100 percent of the time.

Bessent: Frontline and those sort of things are fabulous. I remember the day when animals literally died of flea infestations and we had to bomb our houses with terrible insecticides. I would also use something like milk thistle when I’m applying Frontline or those sorts of things to help the body resolve any toxicity from it.

NPPM: How do you decide which allergy products to sell?

Kriser: We go to a lot of trade shows. When we’re at the booths, our head buyer, Michele Suarez, and I do a large amount of talking with them and asking about where things are packaged, where the raw materials come from. We like to do a lot of research to make sure that what we’re putting into our pets is going to be the best possible.

Henschen: I look at the company behind the product and be sure it’s one we believe in and is using ingredients and marketing we believe in. I also look at the supply chain. If one of my distributors does not carry it or does not stock very much of it, then I’m going lean toward a different line. I don’t want to start a client on something that is great and then have a problem getting it down the road.

NPPM: Is regular grooming effective in managing an allergy?

Kriser: Yes. When pet owners come in, the groomer can help assess any issues they’re not finding. When you’re drying the dog, you can sometimes see directly to the skin. Grooming also can be very beneficial to dogs that have environmental allergies. They go outside and an allergen sticks to their coat.

So grooming definitely helps remove it from their coats, and regular maintenance at home—we have products that can do that, whether shampoos or wipes or regular brushing—can definitely have an impact.

Brad Kriser
Brad Kriser is the founder and CEO of Kriser’s, a retailer specializing in all-natural pet food and supplies. He founded Kriser’s in 2006 and now has seven stores in metropolitan Chicago and two in the Los Angeles area.
Henschen: I would take it a step forward. It gives an opportunity for our groomers to note, “Here’s an ear infection.” Then I can have a conversation with the owner: “Fluffy has an ear infection. Having an ear infection four times a year is not normal. There is something going on. Let’s look at some options or talk with your vet.”

NPPM: What about customers who come in with too much information about a condition but not necessarily the right information?

Kriser: It definitely takes a gentle touch. You want to appreciate the research they’ve done. You say, “How fantastic it is that you’ve done all of that.” Then we’ll talk about the specific issues and give our recommendations.

We’ll say, “After years of research and thousands upon thousands of customers, we have found that these approaches work very well.” You have to make them see that we care as much as they do.

Henschen: It all comes down to, “Is it working? Have you been on this miracle food for 30 days and seen results, or are you still seeing problems?” If a client has all the answers, then we’re going to support them with whatever products they need.

If we think they’re on the wrong path, we’ll try to get them to look at their pet and document what’s going on so they can see they aren’t getting anywhere, and we can help them once they want to try a different path.

Holm: I get these clients all the time. They’ve been to so many vets and have done all this research and have all these ideas. I get clients who have Excel spreadsheets of everything they’ve done. These are definitely special people who need a lot of attention, and we spend a lot of time educating them. 

Editor’s Note: The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

This roundtable discussion orginally appeared in the June 2011 issue of Natural Pet Product Merchandiser.


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