Parental Guidance

Puppy and kitten products help pet owners care for their new best friends and can help retailers build a bond with customers.




Puppies and kittens are cute, fun and needy, and that means opportunity for retailers. New pet owners have to buy many items when they take home their furry loved one, and they often don’t know which foods, toys, grooming and housetraining products they need. Retailers can help these shoppers select appropriate products, while building a bond with consumers who will need to shop long after the pets have grown. 

“Above all, new puppy parents want to be assured that they’re doing the right thing—that they’re getting their new puppy off to the best possible start,” says Ward Johnson, co-founder of Minneapolis-based Sojos. “There will never be a better time to build long-standing customer relationships than the first few months of puppy ownership.”

Sojos, a raw pet food manufacturer, recently launched two recipes specifically formulated for puppies. Sojos Complete for Puppies is the first life-stage food in the raw, shelf-stable diet category, according to the company. The new food combines lean, freeze-dried turkey and omega-rich salmon with a blend of superfoods and essential vitamins and minerals. The special “soft-serve” mix is designed to be beneficial to puppies with developing teeth and gums, and the food rehydrates in only five minutes. 

“It’s no secret that puppies require lots of attention and plenty of patience—so pet parents are also looking for food and treats that are cupboard-friendly and easy to serve,” says Johnson. Also new are Sojos SimplyPuppy raw, all-meat treats that have no byproducts, fillers or anything artificial, and nothing from China.

Puppy parents are eager to learn about new products, and while Johnson says shelf-stable raw foods are no longer a niche item, some shoppers have yet to be introduced to this growing nutrition category.  “For pet specialty retailers, it’s the perfect opportunity to introduce new users to the benefits of a safe, affordable raw food—and establish a feeding regimen, and customer loyalty, that will continue for years to come,” he says. 

Puppies also need toys. The trend now is to offer toys that provide a function, such as helping the pup with teething and providing comfort, and that also have a playful element so they can be used for interactive games and fetch, says Susan McCann, national marketing manager for Bloomfield, N.J.-based Ethical Products, Inc

“We offer a variety of toys sized appropriately for different stages in a dog’s life that combine these two characteristics,” she says. 

Ethical recently expanded its line of Skinneeez stuffing-free dog toys with new Mini Tugs and Mini Quilted toys that are sized for puppies and small dogs. Lil Spots is a color-coordinated line of plush toys for puppies that are soft and the right size, and the new line of Soothers includes soft and cuddly toys and blankets with a heart-shaped pouch filled with lavender beads to help calm and relax puppies.

Retailers should merchandise a variety of toys for dogs of various sizes, breeds and ages while making it clear which items meet specific needs. “Toys are impulse item purchases, so merchandising toys in a section specifically for puppies will help the consumer locate the toys designed for puppies,” says McCann. “Many times these toys are mixed in with regular toys which makes it difficult for the consumer to shop. Point of purchase displays such as ropes, clip strips or floor displays draw attention to these items and are easy to display in store.” 

Puppies develop their chewing style as they get older. “All dogs need to chew,” says Grant Adkins, senior vice president of marketing for Neptune, N.J.-based Nylabone, part of Central Garden & Pet. “Are they a scissor cutter? Are they a nibbler? Other dogs do a full chomp down. Different toys hold up differently.” 



On each toy’s packaging, Nylabone offers the Chew Meter, which ranges from Gentle to Extreme and shows where the toy fits on the spectrum. “You want different alternatives for your dog,” says Adkins. “You want to find out what intrigues them. Dogs want different toys for different things.” 

Nylabone’s bone-shaped Puppy Chew is designed for teething and soothing, and has a flavor such as chicken or bacon throughout. The new X-shaped bone is designed to be easy for the dog’s paws to hold. The company also offers a Puppy Starter Kit, which contains a starter chew and a graduate chew. The company plans to launch more puppy toys in the spring. “Puppy is very important to us and continues to be important for independents and big-box stores,” says Adkins. “That puppy owner gets the puppy and they make the first big purchase of food, a bed and toys. For pet specialty retailers, that gets the puppy owner into the franchise.” 

Puppies and kittens also need grooming and dental care, and retailers can benefit by offering the right products in these areas. 

“They should begin by making sure they are carrying a solid assortment of products that caters to kittens and puppies across all product categories,” says Steven Shweky, CEO of Fetch…for Pets! in New York. “Each pet is different, so what may work for one may not be best for another. In our dental category, we have many options. So, if a toothbrush doesn’t work, maybe a wipe or fingerbrush or water additive is a better option.” 

Fetch recently launched puppy and kitten dental kits under its Arm & Hammer pet dental care line. “They are a good launching point for introducing a pet dental routine to pets and are sized to last while the pet is young,” says Shweky. “Then when they outgrow the product, they can graduate onto our regular-sized product.”

The company also offers puppy products under the latest extension of its Burt’s Bees Natural Pet Care product line—Care+. The products contain rosemary oil, avocado oil, olive oil, chamomile extract, coconut oil and other ingredients. “Right now, the industry is focusing heavily on natural products that are more gentle and are better suited for young pets,” says Shweky. “You’ll see that in the grooming space where many puppy or kitten specific products are tearless without harsh chemicals and fragrances.”

Housetraining is another important part of puppyhood, as puppy owners quickly discover. “The mindset of the consumer is gleeful, then in three or four days you have this irrational animal peeing on everything,” says Adam Bledsoe, founder and CEO of Lennypads in Knoxville, Tenn. “Often the challenge is to calm the nerves of the new puppy owners so they can get back to the gleeful point.” 

The other challenge, Bledsoe says, is that consumers do not enjoy buying housetraining products. “When it comes to disposable pads, people hate buying them every two to three weeks,” he explains. 

Lennypads are washable, reusable pads that consist of four layers: a brushed polyester top, an absorbent soaker layer, commercial-grade vinyl and woven fabric mesh. They are more environmentally friendly than disposable pads, Bledsoe says, and they are made in the USA. 

To help retailers with merchandising, Lennypads offer shelf signage and information on the packaging to call out the benefits, which Bledsoe says are cost savings, comfort, easy clean up and ecofriendliness. The company will soon launch Lennyshield, a spray that neutralizes ammonia and can be used on the pads to control odor. Consumers can typically leave the pad on the floor or furniture for 48 hours, says Bledsoe, and the spray can help extend that by one day. Also, the company plans to launch pads with colors and designs, such as plaid.

Catering to Newborns
Some consumers shop for products for even younger puppies and kittens. PetAg, a brand of Kansas City, Mo.-based PBI-Gordon, makes puppy milk replacers Esbilac and PetLac, and kitten milk replacers KMR and PetLac—products that are seeing sales increases year over year, says Alyssa Guertin, brand manager. 

“A lot of people out there find a litter or foster a litter through their shelter or rescue, and suddenly they are in need of milk replacer and they have to go to the store,” she says. “This is a just-in-time type of product, and from a nutritional basis there is no substitute.” 

Guertin says shelters are using social media to inform potential volunteers and others about new litters and the needs these puppies and kittens have. “As more people want to be involved with making the world a better place, especially as pet lovers, they are reaching out to shelters,” she says. “Shelters have gotten more focused communicating their needs. They need more foster homes and they need more donations of product.” 

Retailers can succeed in this category by having at least a small shelf set that includes puppy and kitten formulas, in both liquid and the more shelf-stable powder. Last year, PetAg ran a buy-one-give-one donation campaign and promoted it with shelf displays. Shoppers were encouraged to donate a can of milk replacer to the local shelter, and the retailer would match the donation.

“This year and next we’d like to grow it,” Guertin says of the successful promotion. “It’s the No. 1 thing we hear from shelters for product donations. If retailers want to be engaged, it’s a great opportunity.”


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