How to Position Yourself As the Pet Nutrition Expert in Your Community

Micro independents can become nutritional resources for pet owners.

Years ago, I had a bad reaction to a prescribed medication. The drug was added to my medical files and my pharmacy records so I would not be prescribed it again. Last year, I was prescribed a medication I had never tried. I picked it up from my pharmacy, and when I got home, my lovely wife said, "You can’t take this—you are allergic to it." 

This was a chance I don’t have often, so I puffed up my chest and said, "No honey, you are mistaken. I have my list of allergies right here, and that drug is not on the list." She explained that the drug was in the same family as the one I am allergic to and I, therefore, could not take it safely. A phone call to the pharmacist confirmed she was correct.

In that moment, my wife knew more than the doctor and the pharmacist. And you know what? She should. Actually, I should. It’s my health and my body, and, ultimately, I need to make sure I’m doing what is right for me. I think we, as a society, do not like to question our doctors at all, but that is ridiculous and needs to change. You might see your doctor only a couple of times a year; don’t expect them to remember your full history or read your entire file. Make sure to remind your doctor of your allergies and conditions. If they recommend something, make sure you do your own research before implementing it. 

The same philosophy needs to be applied to our pets. 

Because of the Great Grain-Free DCM Scare, I’ve had more than the usual number of conversations with customers whose veterinarians advised them to switch foods. I never wanted to be in a place where I am suggesting that people should consider switching veterinarians, but I’m seeing a lot of unethical advice, which leads me to believe the veterinarians are not doing what is best for the animal and owner. I’m sure you have all seen the "16 brands" sheet making its rounds through veterinarians. It lists the 16 brands associated with the canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) issue and advises people to steer clear of those brands. 

Why should a veterinarian ask a client to switch foods if the pet is healthy and the owner is happy with the food? If it’s the "better safe than sorry" mentality, then the veterinarian really should recommend against all dry extruded kibble, because that correlation is easy. I wish those with the fancy lab coats would understand correlation is not causation. Instead of blindly having a customer switch because of fear, why not check the whole blood taurine level of the dog? 

How do we defend ourselves against veterinarians switching our clients from the foods we know are safe and doing well for a pet? Empower the consumer. We can do this by asking questions, providing answers and, most important, explaining how we arrived at the answer.

Was the recommendation based on something the veterinarian discovered? Obviously, if the veterinarian has found a health condition and is making the recommendation based on that, we have to tread very carefully. It would be bad to be accused of practicing veterinary medicine without a license. That’s where I will talk about the fact I am not a veterinarian but I have some products that may work in tandem with what the veterinarian recommended. I will then talk about the veterinarian down the street who mixes conventional medicine with holistic and alternative care including nutritional counseling and vaccination consulting. 

Let’s say a customer walks in the door looking for a popular pet food found in the grocery world. I would respond, "I’m sorry, I do not carry that brand. It has artificial ingredients like coloring and preservatives. There is so much controversy around the safety of those ingredients, especially for pets that eat the same food every single day. I only carry foods without those items. Let’s face it; dogs don’t care what color the food is." That leads me into a conversation about the products and manufacturers I do carry, including their manufacturing philosophies, ingredients and safety. I would also mention the pitfalls of Big Pet Food, which would lead to my investigation into what the customer’s pet needs. 

Once I have determined the best fit, I’m going to work into the conversation something about rotation. "I think this food is going to be wonderful for Fido. Feed this for a couple bags; then, when you come back in, I will pick another great brand for you to try." The customer will always say, "What? I thought you were not supposed to change your dog’s food?" Bam! Now I can chat about the variances in vitamin and mineral packs manufacturers use, the wide range of nutrient levels allowed, and the risk to the pet of having deficiencies or excesses over time. I’m sure most of you use a similar closing line, "If there was a perfect pet food, that’s the only one I would carry, but since there’s not, I carry a few manufacturers that all meet the guidelines we talked about." 

I know a store owner who ends his conversations with a handout listing more than 300 veterinarians, from both his local area and nationally, who support feeding real foods.

Micro independents need to flaunt any nutrition education they’ve received. Build a resume listing anything to do with nutrition. If you go to a seminar at one of the industry trade shows, list it. If you take an online course, list it. I go as far as placing routine conversations on the list; for example, if I stop and talk to the chief veterinarian for B.C.’s Pet Food Co., it will go on the list as "conversation about taurine with Dr. Smith from B.C.’s Pet Food." 

The resume serves several purposes. If I receive questions about my education, it’s a perfect sheet to give out. I also refer to it often to get ideas to promote on our social media channels. I might run a Facebook ad mentioning that at last year’s SuperZoo I had an opportunity to sit down with Dr. Bessent from Herbsmith. Then I might mention some of the topics we talked about and the products she manufactures. 

In next month’s column, I will look at the many great opportunities there are to expand your education in terms of pet nutrition. 

The Likely Impact of Investing in Glass-Front Freezers in a Pet Store

B.C. Henschen is a well-known champion for pet owners who want the best in their pet’s food. He is the Association for Truth in Pet Food (ATPF) consumer advocate, and is a past director with the World Pet Association (WPA). Henschen is a popular speaker at industry events and meetings. A certified pet care technician and an accredited pet trainer, he is a partner in Platinum Paws, a full-service pet salon and premium pet food store in Carmel, Ind. His knowledge of the pet food industry makes Platinum Paws the go-to store for pet owners who want more for their pet than a bag off a shelf.