A Growing Smile
When it comes to dental care, a bit of effort up front goes a long way in preventing problems later on.
Most people do not look forward to visiting the dentist, but they still understand the importance of taking care of their teeth. That is because preventive care, when it comes to our teeth, is half the battle. The same is true for felines—something an ever-growing portion of cat owners are recognizing and acting on.
“Traditionally, cat people were considered cheap,” says Courtney Taylor, director of customer care and marketing at In Clover. So, she says, it was assumed that pet owners would opt to spend money on products for the family dog, but skimp on necessities for the cat. But the tide is shifting.
“While cat owners still value price, they’re demanding more from their pet products,” Taylor explains.
How has this shift impacted the category? “Oral care products must check off all the boxes: value, quality, efficacy and ease of administration,” says Taylor, who reports that In Clover’s overall sales of feline supplements have been on a noticeable upswing—with feline dental health soft chews leading the pack.
Glen Novotny, vice president of sales and marketing at Emerald Pet Products, agrees that sales of cat dental products are growing. “At Emerald Pet, we have seen a steady double-digit increase for the past three years in our cat dental treats,” he says.
But value, quality, efficacy and ease of use make for a complicated category, meaning retailers need to be especially careful about product selection. “’As with the dog market, there are feline-specific toothpastes, foams and treats,” says David Frye, eastern region sales director at PetzLife Products, Inc.
There are also gels, toys and food additives. Retailers then have to vet each of those items, evaluate delivery methods and choose which to bring into their store—so, it’s no surprise that so many simply decide not to bother. But that’s a mistake. The category represents a large opportunity for retailers that manage to capitalize on the cat category effectively.
“Bacteria in the mouth build up on our pets’ teeth to form a yellowy, sticky substance known as plaque,” says Taylor. “If left unchecked, plaque turns into tartar—a hard, brown-gray substance that is very difficult to remove without professional cleaning. Poor oral hygiene can result in more than just bad breath. Mouth pain can cause cats to react negatively to being touched or handled, and may manifest as a refusal to eat food, resulting in malnutrition and weight loss. Dental disease has also been linked to other more serious conditions, affecting the cat’s overall health.”
And, according to Frye, it is much more common than most pet owners realize. “Seventy percent of cats begin developing plaque/tartar by the age of two,” he says. For that reason, in-home preventive options have grown in popularity over the last few years and are likely to continue to do so. These options are typically much less invasive and much cheaper than the veterinary treatments necessary once a problem has developed.
“Once decay and plaque are visible, the battle for good dental health is much more difficult to solve,” agrees Susan Weiss, CEO and founder of Ark Naturals Products for Pets.
With this in mind, retailers need to ensure that they carry a good product selection. “Retailers need to look behind the marketing puffery and ask, ‘Why and how does this work? Where’s the proof?’” says Taylor.
She also recommends carrying a good, better, best model and offering items with obvious modes of care. “It should be really easy for a customer to understand how to use the products and how they work.”
Brian Collier, advertising manager at TropiClean, says that retailers also need to think about what products would best serve their specific customers. How much time are these cat owners willing to put into their pet’s teeth? How important will convenience be for them?
“Our recommendation is to stock solutions that seem relevant to your customer,” says Collier. “We know you can’t carry everything, and [we] wouldn’t support that strategy in any store. But think about struggles cat owners face with dental care and find solutions that will make the process easier and effective.”
Novotny points out, as an example, that some customers are happy to invest in a toothbrush and feline toothpaste, and to work with their cats to acclimate them to having their teeth brushed. “But there are other owners who say the cat will not let them get close with a toothbrush,” he says.
For that reason, Frye says using a treat or catnip to help with the initial application of dental care products may be necessary. “Care must be taken to find the least stressful method,” he says, adding that lots of love and affection after application also helps reduce stress, while reinforcing trust.
Still, ease of application is an important part of product selection, and even if a store’s customers understand the importance of caring for their cats’ teeth, retailers will need to evaluate how likely those customers are to invest time and effort—in addition to their hard-earned dollars—into the cleaning process and make product decisions accordingly.
Retailers will also have to ensure that they are knowledgeable about the products they stock. The diversity of the products available makes education an even more important part of the sales process than in many other product categories. Weiss says that this is often the thing that sets stores that are successful with feline oral health products apart from those that are not—successful stores have people who really know what they’re selling. “So many times that is not the case,” she says.
“We try to help educate retailers on the importance of not only offering dental solutions specific to their feline customers, but also engaging those customers and asking probing questions about their cats’ oral health.”
For example, Collier says, store associates can ask, “Would you like fresher breath for your cat?” and “How are you currently keeping your cat’s teeth clean and healthy?” These conversation starters can lead to a broader discussion on the importance of oral health for cats. “We find that educated and empowered associates have the greatest impact on product education and sales,” he says.
“Asking questions and taking an active role in promoting your customer’s pets’ health is the most effective way an independent retailer can increase sales and customer loyalty,” he adds.
Retailers can often utilize tools and materials supplied by their manufacturing partners to help teach their staff how to do this effectively. “As a manufacturer, we work hard to provide the means and tools necessary for training store staff, but it still requires the owner/management to utilize those tools,” Collier explains.
Novotny agrees. “Each time a customer is in the store, it is an opportunity to educate them on what is new and what other pet parents tell you their cats like,” she says.
Many manufacturers also provide in-store marketing tools and displays that retailers can use to highlight the feline oral category. “Some shoppers prefer to learn on their own without asking a staff member,” says Taylor. “Placing literature on the shelves gives customers an easy way to become informed about your products.”
That way, says Weiss, “Education begins before the customer gets to the register.”