Dogs are living longer than ever before, thanks to improved nutrition, advanced veterinary care and devoted pet owners who provide loving, lifelong care for a cherished member of the family. It is this trend toward care and longevity that has helped spark the creation of a full range of life-stage oriented pet products geared to improving the lives of dogs throughout their lifespans.
For retailers, the life-stage specific market presents a unique opportunity to introduce a wide range of new products to their customers, while also cultivating long-term relationships with customers as they set off on their journeys through life with their dogs.
Of all the product categories that address the needs of a dog’s varying life stages, food and nutrition is the industry’s strongest segment. Many companies gear their products to dogs of specific ages, creating entire lines of products designed for the unique developmental stages and abilities of dogs of every breed and variety. However, the food segment represents a significant part of the industry with a significant investment in selling to life stages.
Dog owners are smart, motivated, educated and curious. They do their research and they network with their friends to share ideas, information and experiences. Dog food companies figured out a long time ago that dog owners look food to meet their dog’s specific needs, including age-specific needs.
Fromm Family Foods, one of the industry’s oldest family-owned companies, has recognized this fact for many years, says George Johnson, director of sales. “Just as people have changing nutritional needs during their lifetime, so do dogs,” he says.
While most pet owners are very good at researching the growing amount of information available to them, the task does take some thought. Companies can help consumers by simplifying the decision-making process.
“For many dog owners, purchasing food for a specific life stage eliminates much of the guess work,” Johnson says.
Moreover, if a brand is successful at providing a product targeted at a particular point in the dog’s life, then that pet owner is more apt to stick with the same brand as the dog matures and its needs change. That’s good news for the retailer that wants to cultivate lasting relationships, he adds.
Food companies also acknowledge the value of an all-life-stages option for dogs whose needs vary only slightly from puppy to old age. Many companies that formulate, manufacture and market life-stage lines of food continue to offer formulas designed for dogs of all ages.
In fact, Dr. Tim Hunt, a veterinarian and owner of Dr. Tim’s Premium Pet Foods, believes most dog owners would do well to limit a nutritional strategy that tries to segment diet into a dog’s life from puppy to old age. He thinks life-stage products might be an effective business marketing strategy, but it also tends to reflect a growing trend among dog owners who try to humanize their dogs.
This is a mistake, he says. “A dog is not a small person, and a cat is not a small dog,” he adds. Most dogs do well with a diet that targets optimum metabolism—at least 26 percent protein, 16 percent fat. “If there is a medical issue that develops, there may be times when these amounts of protein/fat need to be adjusted.”
This is an important and simple point that storeowners and employees should always be prepared to discuss with pet owners who are looking for good information on their dog’s nutrition: a good diet for dogs young or old is one high in fat, as well as omega-3 fatty acids, high in protein and low in carbohydrates.
Fromm Family Foods has built a number of lines of holistic foods that offer dietary variety, as well as plenty of consumer choice. The company’s Classic line of original recipes has been joined by the Fromm Gold Nutritionals for Life Stage options and the Fromm Four Star line for All Life Stages nutrition. In addition, the company offers treats with the same approach to nutrition and formulations.
Dr. Tim’s has built three dog foods based on Hunt’s nutritional philosophy, and that philosophy is simple: use ingredients that support the nutritional integrity of the food, “not just as window dressing to lure the consumer.”
He uses a “slow-cook” method of production that enhances the digestibility of the food and enables the dog to benefit from the full nutritional panel the ingredients provide.
Most important, he says, empower store employees to “be open and truthful with your approach.” The pet owner will see the difference. “If I can teach a store staff, in very simple ways, what it takes to fuel a cat or dog efficiently,” he says, “they will understand and make educated decisions.”
Life Lived Fully
The life-stages movement is not just about fuel. Companies are increasingly developing products designed for specific needs, from food and watering systems to heating pads and cooling mats to strollers, diapers and pee pads. Companies understand the opportunities presented by the unique needs of dogs at each stage of their increasingly longer lives.
This year, Quaker Pet Group (QPG)—which acquired pet apparel maker New York Dog in 2010 and pet travel and safety company Sherpa Pet Group in 2011—launched its Silver Tails line of products for older dogs, in response to what the company has identified as a growing need in the industry.
“Our retail partners understand the needs of senior pets,” says Neil Werde, president and CEO of QPG. Those retailers serve on the front lines, bringing new products to market “to improve the lives of this fast-growing and underserved segment of aging pets.”
Industry reports say senior pets (seven years and older) account for 50 percent of the 80 million pets in the U.S., according to Werde.
The Silver Tails Line includes a hand-held massager, both standard and infrared; special dental care system designed for aging dogs; bamboo-charcoal pet bed covers and mats that absorb odor and repel moisture. The company has introduced magnetic therapy collars, the “Bottoms-Up” support harness, age appropriate chew toys, flavor-enhancing supplement powder and soft-chew treats.
These products enhance the lives of older dogs while “easing the stress associated with the care of older pets,” Werde adds.
Retailers who understand the opportunities of selling strategically for the entire life of a dog and its owner have the best chance of tapping into the long-term relationship with customers that will sustain and enrich their businesses.
Dan Headrick is a freelance writer who lives and works in Raleigh, N.C. Dan and his wife Pam Guthrie opened Wag Pet Boutique in 2003. The store received numerous community and industry awards.