Rescue and Relief

Supplements and remedies offer dog owners effective solutions for maintaining their pets’ health, resolving problems and avoiding vet bills.


Every category in a pet specialty store offers growth potential, but some provide more opportunities than others simply because their products have just started making inroads into pet owner awareness. Supplements and remedies are two such categories. Although humans have been embracing supplements and over-the-counter remedies for a fair number of years now, pet owners have been a bit slower to reach for these products when it comes to their canine companions. 

However, thanks to several key factors, consumer awareness of these solutions is on the upswing. Pet specialty retailers that hone in on these categories stand to make their stores a destination for shoppers who are seeking to improve their pets’ quality of life, and address or prevent pet health issues. 

“Each and every day, pet parents are becoming smarter about the products available to them,” says Joe Zuccarello, director of innovations and promotions for TropiClean, a Wentzville, Mo.-based pet product manufacturer. “And as education and awareness of the benefits become more of a priority for manufacturers and retailers, we anticipate these categories growing steadily.”

People are taking better care of themselves by using supplements to support this effort, and they are increasingly doing the same for their pets, says Chris Bessent, D.M.V., CEO of Herbsmith, Inc., a Heartland, Wis.-based company that produces supplements and treats for dogs, cats and horses. Interestingly, many of the same concerns that cause folks to take supplements and apply non-prescription remedies are of the same sort affecting their four-footed companions. These issues include maintaining good dental health, joint and bone care, keeping energy levels high, promoting digestive health, easing aches and pains and stomach discomforts, reducing anxiety, and enhancing and supporting general wellbeing. There are also formulas addressing ear and skin infections, and skin and coat health.

Just as people strive to stay out of the doctor’s office themselves and avoid those high medical bills, pet owners are trying to reduce the number of visits to the veterinarian’s office, says Joseph Braha, CEO of Edison, N.J.-based Pet Life LLC

“Although the overall pet industry did remain constant during our latest down economy, make no mistake, pet owners are absolutely feeling the burden of their vet bills,” says Braha, whose company provides pet products under several brands, including VITAWAG Liquid Supplements. Although veterinarians are a critical support system, he adds, it makes good sense to try other alternatives in an effort to limit such visits. 
“As veterinarian bills take their toll on dog and cat owners, this may very likely translate into pet adoption rates declining across the country, given the still-volatile economy we’re living in,” Braha explains.

Scott Garman, president of natural pet supplement manufacturer NaturVet, has a similar perspective. “The rising costs of joint-related surgeries and prescribed drugs is cost-prohibitive to many pet owners,” he says. “They really love their pets, but these high costs put a big financial strain on their family budget and may force them to make a tragic decision on the pet’s future.” 

As promising as these products are in terms of their ability to help improve pets’ health, they do not necessarily sell themselves. Explanation, educational signage and visibility on the shelf are essential if supplements and remedies are going to head out the doors. This can be a bit challenging at first. Garman has found that many store employees are intimidated by natural supplements because they’re unfamiliar with the ingredients and how to explain them. To assist, Garman says, NaturVet offers a monthly newsletter—NaturVet University—providing uncomplicated ingredient descriptions, FAQs and so on.

Ryan Holden Singer, founder of the K-10+ brand of natural pet supplements, understands the challenges retailers face in marketing these products. “Selling pet supplements often requires pet specialty retailers to educate themselves as well as their staff to new and often more complex ingredients, as well as on specific health needs,” he says. “Sometimes, retaining this amount of new information is challenging. 
“[However], educating the staff to directly discuss and further educate their customers about their specific pet needs…will hopefully get more owners using supplements.” 

It is also important for retailers to keep their supplements and remedies assortments fresh by incorporating new products. This is something that some stores struggle with, points out Harald Fisker, president of Grizzly Pet Products LLC, a Woodinville, Wash.-based company that markets and sells krill oil products for dogs and cats.

“Lack of information and knowledge about new supplements often seems to be a barrier to retailers letting older-type supplements go,” he explains. “Further, supplements need to be sold through an engaging dialogue with customers, who otherwise don’t even think of buying supplements. Supplements are often not very visible in the store, so an engaging dialogue and advice are musts for success.”

There’s good reason to make this effort because these products can make a significant difference to a store’s bottom line, Fisker adds. “While dog food is the backbone for pet stores, supplements can easily be the icing on the cake, not least because the margins are very good and customers see results. So, it’s repeat business, just like foods.”

These categories, perhaps more than others, afford pet specialty retailers a good opportunity to become essential to their customers, serving as informed health consultants, says Bessent. This may require retailers to stretch themselves and their inventory.

“Some supplements sell quickly and easily, but to truly be that health consultant, the retailer also needs to carry products that are less frequently used,” Bessent explains. “But when these products are used, they provide an incredible benefit to the pet parent, which in turn leads to a solid relationship. The retailer becomes the go-to person for the pet’s wellness concerns.”

Retailers must also exercise great care over their assortments. Because these categories are getting more attention from pet owners, and because natural supplements and remedies aren’t yet regulated by the FDA, manufacturers can make whatever claims they want, true or false, says Braha. 

Additionally, says Bessent, a substance or ingredient may be present, but may be in amounts so small as to deliver no therapeutic benefit. “The pet owner loses money, but what is worse is that the pet doesn’t receive the nutrients needed to support health,” she says. “My concern is, it doesn’t help the pet and it promotes the idea that supplements don’t work. It’s a lose/lose for the pet, the owner and the industry.”

Pet specialty retailers can avoid this outcome by educating themselves on effective active ingredients in supplements and remedies and what constitutes therapeutic levels. Retailers should also thoroughly investigate manufacturers, working with those able to substantiate their product claims. Working with FDA-approved manufacturers and with those that go through basic testing protocols are additional safeguards, says Braha. Retailers are also advised to look for products that carry the National Animal Supplement Council (NASC) seal.

“There is a serious group of pet supplement manufacturers who are very concerned about producing good and effective supplements, while adhering to good manufacturing practices and NASC guidelines,” says Fisker. “But there will always be the others who emphasize marketing more than product quality; we see them come and go all the time. It’s unfortunate, but like in other industries, it can’t be avoided.”

Although supplements and remedies need their own area—and be sure to call good attention to these sections with signage, POS material, endcaps and so on—retailers should not overlook cross-merchandising opportunities. For example, locating digestive supplements with food is a natural fit, since Singer says that stomach issues are an increasingly common complaint.

“This seems to be caused by the transition to new diets,” Singer says. “As more and more companies come out with the latest trends in food, many owners feel compelled to make a switch. Dogs can experience an upset stomach or digestion problems because of the introduction of these new foods and new ingredients. Probiotics can be extremely beneficial in this case.”

This section is a good fit for other kinds of supplements since most can be added to food or water, or be given at feeding time. Additionally, because some dogs develop allergies to certain foods, resulting in skin irritations, hot spots and other infections, remedies intended to address these issues are appropriately housed here as well. Joint aids can also find a home here, for example next to diets for senior dogs, since as Garman points out, dogs are living longer and will probably experience joint issues. 

Remedies such as those formulated to reduce anxiety can be located near the leashes, collars and harnesses, or crates and kennels, which are often used during travel. Up front and by the register might be a great placement for oral care products, prompting a potentially lifesaving dialogue.

“Pet parents have slowly begun to understand the importance of oral health for their pets,” says Zuccarello. “Since oral health is the gateway to overall health, pet parents who provide oral health products for their pets could extend their pets’ lives as a direct result.”

Most importantly, encourage your staff to initiate conversations with customers that may lead them to consider these products. Providing employees with questions to get the dialogue flowing will help. Bessent suggests inquiring about any issues the pet may be experiencing—this is the No. 1 question to start with, she says.

“Have the customer describe what’s going on,” Bessent advises. “Many ailments in today’s pets can be resolved with good nutrition. And as a holistic veterinarian, I think good nutrition entails good food as well as appropriate supplements.”

Bessent says that every dog should be receiving probiotic and joint support—two components vital for health but not found in shelf-stable commercial food, she adds.

Asking about the dog’s age and overall health is important, says Singer. It’s also useful to inquire about the type of food they’re feeding the pet, since certain foods can be missing important ingredients. The breed can be revealing, as well, since there are many conditions that are breed-specific.

Tout the benefits but at the same time don’t oversell; this is especially important when it comes to supplements. “Managing expectations of what a supplement can provide to the pet should be important to the retailer,” says Zuccarello. “Supplements are just that, supplements. They’re designed to work in unison with the pet’s diet, exercise and overall health-focused lifestyle.”


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