With knowledge and the right product mix, pet specialty retailers help their customers’ pets play while their owners are away.
By Wendy Bedwell-Wilson
How do pet owners keep their latchkey pets entertained while they’re left alone all day? That’s a question that concerns the majority of dog and cat owners—and it’s one that pet retailers should be able to address. From boredom-busting toys and calming remedies to automatic feeders and containment gates, products for home-alone pets represent a significant category that continues to expand, with most of it centering on keeping Rex and Fluffy engaged and worry-free.
Courtesy of Veterinary Ventures
Courtesy of Petmate
|Retailers can offer products, such as automatic feeders and waterers, that ensure the basic needs of their home-alone pets are met. |
According to the American Pet Product Association’s 2009-2010 National Pet Owners Survey, 59 percent of dog owners and 73 percent of cat owners surveyed in 2008 left their pets home alone during the day. While most cats can fend for themselves, dogs require a bit more preparation, said veterinarian and animal behaviorist Ian Dunbar, director of Sirius Puppy Training in the San Francisco Bay area.
“The maddening pace of present-day domestic dogdom necessitates teaching a dog how to enjoy spending time at home alone,” Dr. Dunbar said. “It not only ensures the pup adheres to established household etiquette when unsupervised, but it also prevents the dog from becoming anxious in its owner’s absence. Normally, these go hand in hand, because when dogs become anxious, they tend to bark, chew, dig and urinate more frequently. The dog needs to be taught how to entertain itself quietly, calmly and confidently; otherwise it most certainly will become severely stressed when left at home alone.”
When dogs aren’t trained to entertain themselves, boredom and separation anxiety can plague pups that are left home all day, said Krista Nixon, senior brand manager for Premier Pet Products in Midlothian, Va. Both can lead to destructive behavior, such as chewing, scratching, barking and inappropriate house soiling—and pet owners often turn to knowledgeable retailers for solutions.
“Owners of home-alone pets often ask retailers how to deal with destructive chewing and separation anxiety,” she said. “Lots of times, the destructive chewing is an outlet because of the anxiety after the owner leaves. Nobody likes to come home to a trashed house, or picking up the little shreds of what used to be their mail on the counter. We find if they have a toy that they like and it keeps them busy, it can actually be very soothing. It combats all of those destructive behaviors that they would otherwise be engaging in.”
Online pet-product distributor Sheri Scarborough, co-owner of GoToRovers.com, said that interactive toys—anything to engage the dog and keep its mind busy—help to calm anxiety and alleviate boredom.
“Anything interactive is going to be good,” she said. “The treat-release toys, the toys by Canine Genius and the puzzle toys, they’re interactive. A lot of people will even put peanut butter in a Kong, put it in the freezer and right before they walk out, they’ll give it to the dog.”
Must-Have Products for the Stay-at-Home Pet
Coaching customers on what they’ll need to keep home-alone pets happy, healthy and safe? Consider these must-have items:
- A good variety of stimulating and treat-dispensing toys
- Herbal or pheromone-based calming formula
- Containment gate or appropriately sized kennel
- Automatic or gravity-fed feeder and water dish
- Indoor bathroom area or training pads
- Enzyme-based cleaning products
Toys that stimulate the senses will keep the dog coming back for more, Nixon added.
“If it appeals to the dog on a lot of different levels, the dog will stay engaged longer,” she said. “He can see the treats, he can smell and taste the treats and he can feel the rubber on his teeth. It keeps the dog actively engaged with the toy, as opposed to just playing with a tennis ball. There’s reward for the dog interacting with the toy, which stimulates him mentally and physically—and he’s not destructive to his owner’s shoes.”
Amy Dyck, manager at Ropp’s Pet Paradise in Brooks, Alberta, Canada, said she points customers to toys that offer rewards.
“I would go with the Busy Buddy line as well as anything from the Kong line,” she said. “Anything that keeps a dog occupied, that gives them something to do. And then you put a little incentive in there, like a treat or something, which will reward them.”
Retailers should encourage their customers to keep their anxious dogs occupied for the first 10 minutes after they leave the home, said Chuck Costello, vice president of marketing for Kong Co. in Golden, Colo. If they’re busy and distracted, they don’t get into that cycle of anxiety, he said, also recommending a good variety of toys to busy bored pups.
|Providing an array of interactive toys—i.e., anything that engages the dog and keeps its mind busy—can help owners to calm their pet’s anxiety and alleviate boredom. Courtesy of Premier Pet Products|
“Just before the pet owner leaves, they should hand the dog a stuffed toy,” he said. “It’s happy, it’s engaged and they leave. They don’t make a big deal out of it and the dog is occupied for that critical time period that veterinarians and behaviorists say is critical to help ward off separation anxiety.”
Herbal and pheromone-based calming remedies can also help soothe stressed pets, said Daniel Martinez, senior marketing manager for Central Life Sciences companion animal health brands in Phoenix.
“Most dogs consider their human companions members of their pack and when those human companions are not there they miss them,” he said. “They may be fearful or stressed as a result of being left alone for long periods of time. Dog-appeasing pheromones, which mimic a natural pheromone secreted by mother dogs, can help soothe them in times of stress or fear.”
Though pet owners often seek products to alleviate boredom and separation anxiety, they also want to ensure the dogs’ and cats’ basic needs are addressed, said Sarah Julian, director of corporate communications for Doskocil Mfg. Co. Inc. in Arlington, Texas.
DAP Reduces Anxiety, Fear in Puppies
If customers complain of anxious puppies, retailers may want to recommend dog-appeasing pheromones.
According to a study published in the Dec. 15 issue of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (Vol. 233, No. 12), DAPs can reduce anxiety and fear in puppies during puppy classes, resulting in improved socialization.
Canadian researchers Sagi Denenberg, DVM, and Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, with the support of a grant from CEVA Sante Animale, France, sought to evaluate the effectiveness of dog-appeasing pheromone in quelling fear and anxiety in puppies, and to examine its effects in training and socializing them.
Forty-five puppies between the ages of 12 to 15 weeks old participated in the randomized, controlled clinical trial. Using puppies enrolled in puppy classes, researchers randomly allocated them to one of four groups: two large-breed groups (one control group and one placebo group) and two small-breed groups (one control group and one placebo group).
Classes lasted eight weeks. Researchers asked the owners, who were unaware of the pheromone treatments, to fill out a questionnaire about how much the dog learned and how much fear or anxiety the pup displayed before the first lesson and at the end of each lesson thereafter. They also conducted follow-up telephone surveys to gather information on subsequent socialization of puppies at 1, 3, 6 and 12 months after the classes ended.
The results: Dogs in the pheromone and placebo groups showed significant differences with respect to degrees of fear and anxiety. In the pheromone groups, the puppies enjoyed longer and more positive interactions, including play, between puppies and humans. Data from follow-up telephone surveys indicated that they were better socialized and adapted faster in new situations and environments compared with puppies in placebo groups.
Though the study did not examine home-alone puppies in particular, it’s safe to say that these DAPs may also be helpful to calm anxious or fearful pups when their owners are away.
“Depending on the length of time owners leave the pet alone, there is always a degree of worry associated with it,” she said. “Will the pet have anxiety? Is he lonely or bored? But in the end, pet parents worry about the basics the most. That’s where a lot of the convenience products come into play in feeding and watering. All pet parents have busy lives, so to ensure the health and wellbeing of the pet, retailers can help pet owners find products to help them do the job.”
Automatic and gravity-fed feeders and watering bowls ensure the latchkey pets have an adequate supply of food and water while their owners are away, said Kristyn Lingenfelter, marketing coordinator for Veterinary Ventures Inc. in Reno, Nev. Water is especially important, she emphasized.
“The fountains definitely increase water intake, and one of the best benefits is the fact that they don’t have to replace the water every day,” she said. “Pet owners have a water supply for their pet and they don’t have to worry about them running out of water.”
To keep stay-at-home pets out of forbidden areas, Scarborough said gates and containment strategies are a must. “A lot of people contain their dogs,” she said. “They’re either kenneling them in an actual crate, or they’re blocking access to the whole house so that they are stay put. Richell, for instance, has a great line of décor gates. They’re very nice looking, and I think a lot of people use gates like these to contain their dogs in a smaller area versus letting them have full access in the house.”
Merchandising and promoting products for stay-at-home pets can be a challenge, especially when it comes to the larger items, like the gates, said Barbara Button, product and marketing manager for Richell USA Inc. in Grand Prairie, Texas.
“You would almost have to have one of the gates set up,” she said. “Looking at the label on the box just doesn’t give it justification. You really have to be able to look. People like to touch and feel things.”
That tactile marketing approach works for the toys, too, Nixon said.
|Pet gates and other containment strategies, such as crates and kennels, can be part of the home-alone solution that retailers recommend to their customers. Courtesy of Richell USA Inc.|
“If someone’s trying to choose between two toys, retailers should have them out on display so customers can touch them and feel them,” she said. “Just being able to see how easy it is to put a treat into it or feel how sturdy the rub is can make all the difference.”
Retailers can also educate their customers about the importance of these products with signs and point-of-purchase materials, Julian said.
“Retailers can showcase products as solutions to problems and help owners understand the impact the purchase will have on their life and the life of their pet,” she said.
Simply spending time with pet owners to identify their specific needs will not only build rapport between the retailer and the customer, but it will also benefit the pet, Costello said.
“Retailer should illuminate their customers just a little to some of the features of these products,” he said. “If a customer comes in there looking for a toy for their dog, they can ask them about their dog and what kind of behavioral challenges they’re encountering. Then they can show them the different toys they have, the different features that the toys have and what problems they may address. It’s just a minute of time spent asking questions and another minute just explaining some of the toys and their features. That’s very helpful.” <HOME>
Wendy Bedwell-Wilson, a writer, book author and former managing editor for Pet Product News International, has been tracking the pet industry for nearly 10 years.
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