A pioneer in the natural pet products movement, Ark Naturals is staying ahead of the curve with its wholesome, solution-oriented approach to animal wellness.
When Susan Weiss launched natural pet health and remedy manufacturer Ark Naturals in 1996, she faced several challenges—not the least of which was her relative inexperience in the pet category and natural products arena. However, armed with substantial business experience, particularly in bringing consumer products to market, Weiss set out on an enterprise that would put her company squarely at the forefront of the natural products trend that is currently sweeping the pet industry.
Inspired by her experience raising a Standard Poodle named Jordan—whose lifespan turned out to be far too short despite receiving vigilant care using the products and best practices available at the time—Weiss founded Ark Naturals on a handful of pet vitamin products under the Nu-Pet brand, which she acquired from a company that had been selling into the veterinary channel. However, before bringing them into the retail market, Weiss worked closely with a holistic veterinarian and an experienced product formulator to improve the composition of the products, which included Nu-Pet Canine Chewable Wafers, Nu-Pet Granular Greens and Nu-Pet Feline Antioxidant—items that are still available.
While Weiss’ quickly mastered the learning curve with the right education and collaborators, convincing pet specialty retailers of the impact that natural solutions could have on animal health and their bottom line turned out to be far more difficult. “We were so far ahead of the curve, it was hard to ask for shelf space,” she recounts. “So we were faced with the challenge of convincing retailers that they wanted what was, at the time, a brand-new category. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in life, and if I had realized that we were so far ahead of our time, I probably would have said that it was just too hard.”
Having started a company in a new category, Weiss made a decision to solicit shelf space in both the natural product arena, as well as the pet specialty channel. She found the natural product arena much more receptive, as its shoppers were already accustomed to reading product labels and were beginning to extend their own nutritional standards to their pets. However, until about 1998, there was no welcome mat put out on the pet specialty side. Weiss credits her persistence—she kept attending the industry’s trade shows regularly, despite initially garnering little interest from retail buyers—and her background as an educator (she was previously a high-school history teacher) for making it possible to tailor her approach to the pet specialty side.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that pet owners eventually began to question the traditional products they were buying to care for their pets. “It started even before [there were problems with products from China],” says Weiss. “Americans felt betrayed in a number of product categories where they trusted manufacturers to be safe. This forced consumers to be more conscientious in doing their homework.”
At the same time, the rise of the Internet was giving consumers a new platform for obtaining information about product quality and safety, and how they impacted pet health. But while these factors certainly contributed to the mounting success of Ark Naturals, more important was the fact that the company’s expanding lineup of products was proving effective at addressing common health issues among pets. “Retailers saw that we were trustworthy and supportive,” says Weiss. “And once they could see the physical results [that our products produced] and got great feedback from customers, they were sold.”
It wasn’t just retailers and pet owners who were taking notice. Initially uninterested in the natural healthcare category, small pet distributors eventually grew more receptive to the fledgling segment and Ark Naturals’ products. Unsurprisingly, several bigger distributors came calling once sales began to rise steadily.
Also opening the door for Ark Naturals was the fact that Iams, once the pet specialty world’s biggest food brand, had jumped into the mass and grocery channel after being acquired by Procter & Gamble. “It created a need among [pet specialty] distributors to fill the void left by Iams and opened the door for new brands—particularly natural brands,” says Weiss. “As a result, retailers had to become more informed, because they were dealing with a whole new variety of products.”
Today, Ark Naturals is one of the leading manufacturers of natural pet products—thanks, in large part, to the company’s commitment to addressing common pet-related issues. “Our number-one goal is to solve problems,” says Weiss, pointing to the company’s Joint Rescue—which uses high-quality glucosamine to enhance pet comfort and mobility—as a good example of this approach. The quality of glucosamine used in products is something that should never be taken for granted, she says, noting that many manufacturers use sub-standard supplies of this important ingredient—something that Ark Naturals carefully guards against.
Another example of the company’s solution-oriented approach to product innovation is its Breath-Less oral-care line. Comprising both Brushless Toothpaste chews and a Plaque Zapper water additive, the line makes oral hygiene for pets easier than ever. Weiss explains that this not only provides the cosmetic function of making pet breath smell better, more importantly, it helps prevent the many health issues related to periodontal disease and other consequences of poor oral hygiene.
The same focus on solutions can be seen in Ark Natural’s newest brand—Gray Muzzle. Made up of products designed specifically to address common ailments among aging pets, Gray Muzzle is not simply a new product line, says Weiss, but rather its own stand-alone business. “[Caring for older pets] really is a category unto itself, so Gray Muzzle had to be in its own arena,” she explains. “Pets are living longer than ever, so they are subject to a variety of issues related to aging.”
Included in the Gray Muzzle line are soft-chews formulated to support heart health, joint health and cognitive function.
One thing that Weiss says retailers will never see from Ark Naturals’ product development team is a string of redundant SKUs. “We don’t make one product in a bunch of sizes, or with small, superficial differences,” she says. “We want to keep it simple, to help make it easier for customers [to navigate the category].”
Something else you won’t see from the company is a product that is not made in the USA, says Weiss. “From the start, supporting U.S. industry has been a priority for us,” she says, noting that her family got a first-hand view of the negative impact that exporting production can have when the textiles industry moved overseas. “And making our products here also helps with quality control, which is particularly important when you are making consumable products like ours.”
Ark Naturals’ approach has ultimately driven great success. According to Weiss, the company has the most shelf space of any natural pet remedy and wellness brand in the natural channel, and the company’s sales continue to increase at an even faster rate in pet specialty. “Pet specialty retailers went from disinterested to totally committed to natural [products],” she says. “In 1996, the natural category was virtually non-existent in pet specialty. Today, it is almost impossible to find a pet retailer that does not focus on natural.”
Despite this success, Weiss is eager to see more pet specialty retailers get ahead of the curve when it comes to natural pet healthcare. “I hope that [pet stores] will put more time into understanding the category [including the ingredients used in products] and achieving balance within their product selection,” she says.