Top brands in the flea and tick category have long touted how effective their products are at treating and preventing flea and tick infestations—and why wouldn’t they? After all, the products clearly work. But some consumers have begun to wonder: at what cost?
For decades, through the miracle of science, manufacturers have supplied dog owners with powerful products that effectively treat and prevent flea and tick infestation. But in recent years, these products have come under scrutiny as public awareness about the potential impact that some ingredients commonly found in traditional flea and tick treatments have on the health of both people and pets. Pet owners have become wary of the same ingredients that make these treatments so potent.
This increased consumer awareness about the potential side effects associated with these treatments has fueled demand for natural alternatives. To meet this demand, manufacturers are harnessing the inherent pesticidal characteristics of non-toxic botanical and natural ingredients to create products that pet owners can trust.
“Pet parents understand that some topical flea and tick products can cause serious irritations, skin problems and even life-threatening health concerns in both pets and people who handle the dangerous toxins,” says Dr. Adelia Ritchie, Ph.D., founder of DERMagic Skin Care for Animals. “While they want parasites off of their pets and away from their home, they do not want to jeopardize the lives of their pets to accomplish his goal.”
Consumers have become wary of insecticides and insect repellents, in general, as research has revealed the possible roles these chemicals play in the development of many health conditions.
“While today’s synthetic engineered repellents can be very effective, people worry about pesticides and carcinogens,” says Dave Campanella, national sales manager of Best Shot Pet Products, which manufactures a natural bug spray that repels bugs using a blend of tea tree, rosemary, sage, peppermint, citronella and other natural ingredients. “The perceived fear of possible cancer and neurological damage to their animals and themselves often discourages consumers enough to seek more natural alternatives.”
The public concern is not surprising, given the tidal wave of information that has emerged in recent years, following reports that these products can potentially do more harm than good.
“The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began reviewing flea and tick spot-on pesticides for pets several years ago, due to adverse reactions in pets,” says Ritchie. “The risks of an infestation of fleas and the resulting diseases they can bring must be carefully weighed against the risks of using toxic, imported chemicals to keep them away.“
So pervasive is the concern that many consumers prioritize natural over effective, says Campanella. “More folks are opting for organic and more natural remedies, and are consciously sacrificing the potency of synthetic brands for the safety and peace of mind offered by natural essential-oil blends,” he adds.
Still, the enduring question that most consumers have about natural alternatives to the tried-and-true traditional treatments is, will they work? Understandably, pet owners don’t have the same level of faith in the effectiveness of some the lesser-known natural ingredients found in newer products.
“Consumers have every right to be skeptical,” says Vin Hourihan, vice president of sales for Natural Chemistry.
The good news is that despite the perception—or misperception—that natural options are not as effective as traditional products, many companies say they have developed formulas that do get the job done without the use of the chemicals pet owners are hoping to avoid.
“Our flea products, just like all of our pet, pool and spa products, do work and are guaranteed to do what we say they will do,” says Hourihan.
DERMagic is another company that says it has hit upon a solution that customers can feel comfortable with. “Our goal was to create a product line that was both safe and effective,” says Ritchie, whose company uses diatomaceous earth as the main pest-destroying ingredient in its flea shampoo bar and flea dust products.
Still, as effective as these products may be, many consumers need some convincing, or at least a little guidance, when shopping for natural flea and tick products—and pet specialty retailers are on the frontlines of this movement. “Educating the consumer about non-chemical pesticide alternatives is the biggest challenge manufacturers and retailers must overcome, especially in the pet product marketplace,” says Steve Thomas, owner of Thomas Labs, makers of D/Earth topical insecticide.
Thomas says that in order for retailers to be successful at selling these products they must first understand why they work and how they should be applied. Next, they will need to be able to convey this information to their customers.
“Pass this knowledge to the customer as a service and responsibility to help keep pets safe and healthy,” he says.
Presentation is Key
How a retailer chooses to merchandise these products can also affect sales and sway consumers’ purchasing decisions. Ritchie recommends that stores display all-natural products alongside traditional treatments to underscore the idea that pet owners have options. “Many consumers don’t understand that there is a choice, and if they are in the market for these types of products, they should be presented with all of the information,” she says. “Displaying natural and synthetic products together affords an opportunity for employees to discuss the pros and cons of each.”
Hourihan says that stores should also consider cross-merchandising natural flea and tick control options with other natural products. Also, he says, retailers in cold-weather states should display a small assortment of flea and tick products all year around, especially since fleas can hatch in cold weather when the heat goes on. He recommends that retailers remind their customers that flea and tick control and prevention extends beyond just treating the pet itself, as well.
“They need to counsel consumers on the need to not just eradicate the fleas that are on the animal, but also the carpets, bedding, outside, etc.,” Hourihan says. “The fleas that they see may only be five percent of the total.”
Although the market for natural treatments continues to grow, most pet specialty retailers will likely want to offer customers a comprehensive assortment of products that include both traditional and natural options. Thomas adds that many pet owners may be best served by using a combination of both.
“Retailers need to understand that a ‘one size fits all approach’ to flea and tick products is not necessarily the best approach all the times,” he says. “Alternative pest control products can be used instead of, or in combination with, traditional chemical-based, topical pest control, often times reducing or eliminating the need to use chemicals at all.”