From Farm to Family
Founded as a manufacturer and distributor of health and nutrition products for farm livestock 25 years ago, Vets Plus, Inc., has evolved its focus to also support healthy pets in the home.
Just as modern pet stores have roots that can be traced back to the feed and tack stores that were once a cornerstone of rural communities across America, there are a number of pet product manufacturers that got their start by meeting the needs of farmers. Menomonie, Wis.-based Vets Plus, Inc., is one such company; and today it is leveraging its vast experience in animal health and nutrition to innovate the pet care category.
Founded in 1990 by president and CEO Raj Lall, Vets Plus started out as a supplier of probiotic and calcium gels and pastes formulated to support the health and nutrition of agricultural livestock—primarily local Wisconsin dairy cows. Through a licensing agreement with Chr. Hansen, the company began producing the Probios line of microbial products in 2002.
After it proved successful in the agriculture industry, the Probios brand was further developed to include products formulated for companion animals. However, not content to limit its pet care offerings to digestive support products, Vets Plus expanded the Probios line to include formulas that would address other common health conditions.
“We took the benefit of probiotics, which are really a digestive-type product, and combined it with condition-specific formulas,” says Dale Metz, director of Vets Plus’ companion animal business unit. “There is a lot of science saying that a pet’s overall health and a lot of conditions—whether it’s skin and coat, or joints—is related to the health of the gut.”
Vets Plus’ move toward condition-specific supplements continued with the creation of the company’s Pets Prefer line. Comprising products formulated for dogs and cats, the line addresses a wide range of issues, including joint, skin and coat, urinary tract and oral health, as well as hairball management, senior support and calming behavior. The products are available in the form of soft-chews and tablets for dogs and cats.
Committed to Companions
In 2014, Vets Plus ramped up its focus on pets with the creation of its companion animal business unit—a move that not only affirmed the company’s commitment to providing consumers with high-quality products for their four-legged friends, but also signaled a new go-to-market strategy that centers on pet stores.
While the Probios and Pets Prefer brands are formulated for companion animals, neither line is geared toward the pet specialty retail channel—Probios is primarily sold through farm and feed stores and veterinarians, and Pets Prefer is in grocery and mass. With a new mission to serve pet store shoppers with a more premium class of products, Vets Plus decided to leverage its expertise in animal health and nutrition to develop entirely new lines for specialty stores. It is a process that Metz says has gone quite well.
“A lot of the stuff we’re doing in the companion animal business, in terms of branded products, is relatively new,” he says, noting that the company has greatly expanded these offerings over the past year. This includes not only branded products, but also items that the company manufactures for other players in the pet industry. Contract manufacturing, says Metz, represents a significant portion of Vets Plus’ business—about 70 percent, by his estimation.
One of the first pet brands that Vets Plus launched through its companion animal business unit was the KaNoodles line. “KaNoodles are dental chews that are unique, in terms of their palatability, shape and mechanical action,” says Metz, referring to the chews’ patented, grooved shape that effectively cleans teeth. “And they are completely digestible because they’re not injection molded.”
Made with human-grade, easily digested ingredients, KaNoodles are available in six- and 12-ounce packages, as well as dispenser boxes that display individually wrapped chews.
Of course, as a company that is known for its health-supporting supplement brands, Vets Plus would not wait long before applying this area of expertise to the pet specialty channel. As a result, the company’s newest pet product lines are Smart Fido USA and Smart Kitty USA supplements and treats.
Developed specifically for pet stores, both lines are made in the USA and contain no gluten, corn or soy. The products address a variety of health conditions in pets. For dogs, this includes providing support for healthy joints, digestion, and skin and coat, as well as addressing other common issues. For cats, there are supplements formulated for hairball management, urinary tract health and to provide l-lysine.
“When we formulated the Smart Fido and Smart Kitty supplements—or any of our supplements—we wanted to make sure they had no grain, no wheat and no soy,” says Metz. “We wanted to avoid sugars, and we wanted it to be as natural as possible. So, we put a lot of time and effort into formulating as healthy a supplement as we possibly could.”
Smart Fido USA and Smart Kitty USA are similar to the company’s other supplement lines, in terms of the types of conditions they address. However, Metz says the company’s newest brands boast some important differences.
“We wanted to respect all of the various retail channels, so we have a line that caters to grocery and mass, one for farm and feed, and vet, and now a line that truly caters to pet specialty,” he says. “Each of the lines is meant to hit a different price point. Obviously, when we’re dealing in pet specialty, it’s a very discerning buyer, so the Smart Fido and Smart Kitty lines have a higher-potency than what you would find in the Pets Prefer line in grocery and mass.”
While its various product lines are formulated for specific retail channels, all of Vets Plus’ supplement lines are backed with the National Animal Supplement Council’s (NASC) Quality Seal. A non-profit organization developed to ensure the quality and safety of pet supplements, NASC verifies manufacturers’ ingredients and production processes, product and data monitoring, and product claims. Certification from the council is a distinction that Metz and Vets Plus believe is very important.
“I was one of the founding members of NASC, and I’m still the vice president and sit on the board,” he says. “NASC has done more to elevate the integrity of [supplements] than any other trade organization that I’ve ever seen. So the company is very committed [to working with the council].”
With several quality lines established in various retail channels, Metz says that Vets Plus will continue to leverage its large research and development team to evolve its approach to providing health and nutrition products for pets, with a focus on the soft-chew, functional-treat form that the company has been successful with in the past. “What we’re looking to do going forward in the Probios, Pets Prefer, Smart Fido and Smart Kitty lines is expand the number of healthy treats we offer, [with an emphasis] on the premium side of the market,” he explains.
According to Metz, this includes improving the bio-availability of key nutrients, so that the products can better address the health issues for which they were formulated. “We’ve got a lot of things in the pipeline, and it is pretty high-tech stuff,” he says. “We want to continue to be innovators in the category.”