The prospect of providing adequate oral care for pets often feels somewhat daunting for many pet owners, leaving them unsure of how to even begin. In fact, even though more people are dialed into the importance of regular oral care, very few are acting on it.
"It’s estimated that only 5 percent of pet owners actually brush their pets’ teeth daily or even weekly," says Debra Decker, director of marketing for Pet King Brands, Inc. "The lack of, or limited, oral care can be attributed to the pet owner’s time, convenience and also pet acceptance due to fear or lack of training."
That’s not to say pet owners aren’t trying, adds Michael Stoeckle, president and CEO of Ark Naturals. One factor inhibiting the effort is that brushing a dog’s teeth—and especially a cat’s—just isn’t a "realistic option," he explains. People give it a go, but then get discouraged when it doesn’t work.
The "scary truth," according to Melissa Gulbranson, is that throwing in the towel on mouth health can lead to a litany of painful problems for pets, and can even shorten their lifespans.
"The veterinarian community has done a great job over the last few years educating pet parents," continues Gulbranson, vice president of Oxyfresh. "Now the hurdle is around which products to use and if there are easy options that have healthy ingredients that really work."
Trends & Misconceptions
One of the most common complaints pet specialty retailers can expect to hear from their customers concerns bad breath, says Decker. There can be many causes contributing to this issue but regardless, if the bad breath is persistent, it’s a red flag signaling that something is seriously amiss with the pet’s oral health.
But there’s more to worry about than just stinky exhales. Neglecting oral health can result in periodontal disease, pain, bleeding gums, tooth loss, lack of appetite and even bacterial infections that can enter the blood stream, explains Decker.
"Periodontal disease is preventable, but even the most motivated, well-intentioned pet owner may have difficulty incorporating oral care into a daily routine," she explains. "It’s estimated that dental disease plagues more than two-thirds of all cats and dogs seen by veterinarians."
Julie Creed, vice president of sales and marketing for Pure and Natural Pet, explains that one mistaken idea among pet owners is that if a dental routine wasn’t started when the animal was young, there’s no point in pursuing it now.
"It’s never too late to start a dental regime," she asserts. "Not only does it improve the pet’s health, but it furthers the pet owner’s bond with the dog. There are so many good options available now in the marketplace that the notion of only using toothpaste is a big misperception."
In fact, adds Stoeckle, thanks to all manners of dosage formats—sprays, gels, chews and additives—the oral care category is igniting and will continue to do so as more formulas specific to individual pets enter the market.
Dog owners are looking for options, explains Gulbranson, and the key for retailers is to keep in mind that people are paying close attention to ingredients and looking for safe, non-toxic and eco-friendly formulas. Because this category is attracting more attention, she advises pet specialty retailers to approach new formulations cautiously.
"It is crucial not to use ingredients that are good for humans but harmful to pets," Gulbranson explains. "There are quite a few ‘let’s get into the game!’ dental products out there that don’t work or are dangerous, and consumers and retailers need to be careful and choose trusted brands."
In a similar vein, a big trend in this category is natural products as most oral care products are ingested, adds Creed.
To address both these wants, retailers should be carrying products pet owners can easily relate to with ingredients and benefits they can understand, says Eric Abbey, president and founder of Loving Pets.
Abbey says that although price is still a factor in oral care purchasing decisions, consumers don’t mind paying a "fair price" for products that help them improve their pet’s health and well being, especially when the cost of periodontal disease—figures cited by Abbey indicate that 80 percent of dogs develop some form of periodontal disease by age two—is taken into account.
"The average cost of a recommended yearly cleaning with sedation is around $350 to $450, and tooth extractions and recovery medications can end up adding thousands to the bill," he says.
Consequently, it’s incumbent upon pet specialty retailers to engage customers in conversations about the products carried in the store.
"Retailers are in a great position to share suggestions that can benefit the health of pets, and this starts with a simple conversation," says Decker. "Ask how many pets they have, if their pets are on medication, if they’re satisfied with the pet’s breath and what they currently do to provide daily oral care. Once the needs have been assessed, the conversation can progress to discussing features and benefits."
In addition to breed—as certain breeds are more prone to dental issues than others—it’s important to inquire about any health issues or allergies and, particularly, the dog’s age, says Creed. Decker agrees, saying that middle-aged and senior pets are often on medication that can affect the pet’s saliva production, causing dry mouth. This condition can lead to a variety of woes, such as bacterial overgrowth, bad breath and periodontal disease.
"The topic of oral care should be occurring on a regular basis," Decker says. "This creates an opportunity for repeat sales. Many retailers have found success creating a new puppy/new kitten display complete with food/water bowls, flea/tick treatments, collars and oral care. It’s also a great educational component for those offering new puppy/new kitten classes on care, feeding and training."
Don’t overlook the chance to enhance the sale by discussing the advantages of adding complementary products, such as joint and/or fatty acid supplements to the dental chew regimen, adds Stoeckle. She explains that the benefits of oral care solutions are multiplied when products are used in conjunction with each other. Cross-merchandising is crucial to ensuring greater profits.
As for merchandising to move oral care products, highlighting dental health year-round is a great idea, says Creed, but advises calling special attention to this category during February, which is Dog Dental Month.
"Retailers can boost sales by being consistent in their message and having dental social media promotions, in-store posters, POP, check-stand fliers and endcap displays," Creed says. "Add dental to your blog or newsletter and share dental content from your manufacturers."
As pet owners increasingly recognize the importance of oral care to overall health, pet specialty retailers can anticipate that interest in this category will accelerate, driven not only by the entrance of new products and manufacturer support, but by the now firmly entrenched perspective of pets as family members; ones deserving the same level of care—if not more—as their human companions. After all, who doesn’t want a fresh, clean, smile? PB