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Cat Marketplace: Education is Key to Selling Senior Cat Food

Posted: Oct. 17, 2012, 7:45 p.m. EDT


Marketing diets for mature cats starts with education and awareness about age-related issues.
By Maggie M. Shein

As cats age, their dietary needs change, just like any other animal. Often, cat owners come into a store inquiring what to do about physical activity, mood or appetite changes, but they might be unaware that the issue could be attributed to their pet’s age. Many retailers reported that mature and senior cat life stage foods can be a good answer to the special needs of aging cats—and can help keep them healthy and active.

There is a range of options on the market to target a cat’s specific nutritional needs, whether for weight management, joint issues or general senior health, according to industry participants. Retailers that are successful in this area agreed that asking the right questions, as well as educating the consumer on senior cat health issues and signs of aging, makes all the difference in selling appropriate life stage diets.

“One of the biggest things people notice with their cat aging is it becoming finicky,” said Donna Walker, co-owner of South Bark Dog Wash in San Diego. “That’s one of the first signs for us that they have an aging cat. Indoor cats are living longer, and humans may not notice the signs of their cat aging until later, so we will explain health issues to pay attention to.”

An Educational Role
Selling senior diets to cat owners takes a lot of knowledge and education on the part of the retailer to make sure they are fulfilling their clients’ needs and making the overwhelming number of choices in the marketplace just a little less daunting for the pet owner.

Senior cat diet
Employees can help customers pick out an age-appropriate diet for their cat. Sherri L. Collins/BowTie Inc. at Kriser’s in Irvine, Calif.
“Education plays a much more dramatic place than ever before,” Walker said. “One of the things I am happy to see is that people really do want to trust the shopkeeper, but they have questions about sourcing, meats and packaging. They also understand that as their cats age, they need to get a cleaner food—not necessarily a cheaper food.”

South Bark Dog Wash focuses on giving the customers information to let them make their own choices based on the characteristics of their particular senior cat, she said.

“We don’t believe in saying this one food is better than another,” Walker noted. “We say, ‘Here are some options; which ones match your cat’s particular tastes?’”

For their part, manufacturers of senior cat food formulas are doing their best to help provide that education to the retailer and the consumer to increase awareness about life-stage foods.

“Education is critical,” said Kari Liu, nutritionist at Natura Pet Products in Fremont, Neb. “If the customer isn’t educated, then all the bags tend to look the same.”

Natura Pet, which recently announced a formulation upgrade of its Innova brand foods, including a weight management formula for cats, also launched a website this year called SeeBeyondtheBag.com. It allows retailers and consumers to click on products and ingredients and educate themselves about the company’s nutrition and origins of particular ingredients, such as apples or chicken.

Earlier this year, Petcurean Pet Nutrition launched a free online education program for pet specialty retailers to obtain in-depth information about the company, its ingredients and products, such as its Now Fresh Grain Free Senior Recipe for cats, and the ways diet can affect a pet’s health.

“Customers might not necessarily recognize that they need to change their cat’s diet, but as pets age, things such as metabolism and activity slow down and choosing a life-stage formula can be a great way to ensure that protein, fat and other nutritional levels are appropriate for that particular age of cat,” said Jaimie Turkington, marketing manager for the Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada, company.

Educating customers about aging issues and life stage formulas is particularly important because pet owners often are unaware that some of the symptoms or changes they see in their pet may be associated with aging, according to retailers and manufacturers.

In Dec. 2011, The Pet Outpost opened its doors in Shorewood, Wis., with the mission of sharing high-quality information and education with its customers on issues such as these.

Industry Voices
What is most important to the consumer with senior cat formulas?

“Weight control seems to be the biggest issue we talk to our customers about when it comes to senior cats. People come in saying, ‘My cat is getting fat, what can I do?’ and so educating them on the alternatives is most important. People want less preservatives, more variety in flavors, and quality ingredients.”
Stefanos Tsartsalis, general manager at Pet Central in New York City

“People usually come in talking about health issues or problems with their cats first, and we try to pinpoint specific needs. They really like local brands; that is a big one, even for life stage formulas. People also gravitate toward options that are biologically appropriate for their pets.”
Sherri Losby, owner of The Pet Outpost in Shorewood, Wis.

“Most important is ‘What is in it?’ and ‘Why should I use it?’. Customers also want to know that you are there to help them for the right reasons—to increase the quality of life for their animal. The client wants you to tailor a food toward their animal, not the animal toward a specific food.”
Donna Walker, co-owner of South Bark Dog Wash in San Diego

“It’s all about having that conversation with the customer up front,” said Sherri Losby, owner of The Pet Outpost. “Most people who are conscious about what they feed their pet understand the need for a diet change during different points of life. We converse with them about their pet, how old the cat is, and if any of the cat’s needs have changed over the years. When a mature diet is appropriate, then people are very receptive to having that conversation.”

Losby carries a small number of diets targeted for senior cats and weight control, including those from Fromm and Lotus Pet Food.

More Options for Seniors
As consumers continue to recognize the role that senior formulas can play in a cat’s life, manufacturers are stepping up with even more options to answer their needs with low-fat and weight-management foods, joint formulas, and life-stage diets that include breaking up mature cat formulas by age ranges.

Hill’s Pet Nutrition, which has a number of wet and dry cat foods for mature and adult cats over seven years old, recently launched a dry food called Science Diet Senior 11+ Age Defying that comes in a smaller kibble for easier chewing and digestion, targets brain and cognitive function and organ and bladder health, and promotes lean muscles, according to the company.

“Fifty percent of the U.S. pet population is in the mature adult [age seven-plus] category,” said Christopher Rector, director of marketing at the Topeka, Kan., manufacturer. “Through proper nutrition, senior cats are living longer lives with better health and quality of life.”

Cats’ longer life spans can be credited to good nutrition, advances in medical care and an emphasis on preventive care, said Dr. Brent Mayabb, DVM, manager of education and development at Royal Canin USA, St. Charles, Mo.

“These are all good things, and cats are living longer and longer, but one of the byproducts of an aging cat population is seeing more age-related diseases with cats and a progression of these over time,” Dr. Mayabb said.

To target the aging cat population, Royal Canin has a line of food for felines over 12 years, as well as a line for cats ages seven to 12. The company recently released its Spayed/Neutered 7 Plus and Instinctive 7 Plus diets, which are the first stage for senior cats with decreased muscle mass and early joint issues, Mayabb reported.

“What is different is that problems will continue to progress as the cat ages and it can be important to provide really precise, healthful nutrition that helps with those problems, such as even lower phosphorous, higher antioxidants, and more glucosamine and chondroitin,” he said.

In addition to age-specific foods, another popular option that retailers are increasingly recommending for older cats is wet food formulas. Particularly as cats lose their sense of taste or smell, an enticing canned food can provide a welcome alternative for senior cats, according to industry participants. Wet formulas also provide much needed moisture, which can help keep a senior pet from becoming dehydrated—a common problem seen with older cats.

“Senior cats need a lot of water, and so we often recommend a quality canned food, which really helps,” said Stefanos Tsartsalis, general manager at Pet Central in New York City.

Weruva canned food is one of the retailer’s most popular canned foods for aging cats, Tsartsalis said.

Educating staff on the health issues and signs of aging that many senior cats face is the key factor to selling mature life stage diets for felines, Tsartsalis noted. Particularly with the number of options in the marketplace and specific nutritional targets for different problems or ailments, consumers find it invaluable to rely on the advice of those in the pet industry to help them keep their cats healthy and active, he said.

“The aging process is as different for every cat as it is for each of us,” said Dana Watkins, director of nutrition and technical services for Fromm Family Foods in Mequon, Wis., maker of the Fromm Gold line of cat foods, which includes options for mature cats. “It’s important for retailers to be educated, both on relative topics concerning animals, as well as the brands and products that they sell. Retailers get to know their customers and a certain level of trust or rapport is achieved. They are often a very important part of the decision-making process when a customer is looking for a food for their pet.”

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