Many of your customers are sure to have pets whom they value like members of the family and wish to sustain with a wholesome diet. In fact, according to poll cited in a report by Nielsen, 95% of pet owners consider their pets to be part of the family, up 7 points from 2007 (1). This means pet owners are willing to make personal and budgetary sacrifices to keep their pets healthy and happy. According to that same report, 55%of American and French pet owners, if on a strict budget, would give up chocolate in order to pay for high quality pet food and 43% of American pet owners would be willing to give up their Netflix subscription.

Considering this information, it isn’t hard to see the value of stocking one’s shelves with high quality, natural pet food, supplements and hygiene products. However, for many customers it can still be difficult for them to know how to pick the right foods, with so many manufacturers claiming superiority and the sheer magnitude of options.

Just like people are putting more thought into their own diet, so too are they realizing the importance of providing their animal companions with the nutrition they deserve. Stocking your shelves with delicious and nutritious pet selections can be a great way to keep your customers in the store for longer, put more items in their cart and have another reason to come back.

Taking Pet Food SeriouslyFirst thing is first, eating healthy. Good health means good food. “Pet foods have evolved over 21 years and from my point of view, a pet eating better food is no different than a human who eats better food versus a human who lives on hot dogs and macaroni and cheese,” says Susan Weiss, president, Ark Naturals, Naples, FL. Of course, the meaning of healthy can differ depending on the person, particularly when it comes to pet health. Increasingly, more conscientious consumers are differentiating less between what is high quality pet food and simply food, toward what has been coined “humanized” pet food.

Consider concerns about food that we humans have, such as refined grains, preservatives and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). These are factoring into purchases of pet foods. Nielsen conducted a study to determine the limits or breadth of the “humanized” trend among 3,652 American and French consumers between the ages of 18 – 65 who own at least one dog or cat. Just as natural consumers have experienced heightened anxiety about the prevalence of GMOs in their food, so too does this anxiety translate to pet food.

According to the study, 50% of French  and 33% of American pet owners ranked “non-GMO” in their top three claims, out of ten, beating out other claims related to “organic” or “human-grade” ingredients (1). When asked what claim they would willingly pay more for, 48% chose “non-GMO,” more than any other claim.

Additionally, when pet owners collectively evaluated thousands of product concept alternatives to dog and cat foods containing a variety of different combinations of health benefits and ingredient claims, “no genetically modified ingredients” appeared in 74% of all concepts preferred by consumers across food types and countries (1). Non-GMO in many ways translates to “natural” and that is another major factor for pet consumers. While most consumers have relied on specific formulations to meet their needs by purchasing food labeled “scientifically formulated,” increasingly, consumers are putting more faith in products marketed as natural to achieve this goal.

According to Nielsen, only 10% of consumers strongly believe that all-natural pet foods will lack important nutrients and over the past five years, pet foods in the U.S. bearing the claims “natural” and “no artificial preservatives” have experienced dramatic sales growth (1). And a variety of manufacturers are going the extra mile to meet these needs, such as St. Louis, MO-based Riley’s Organics, which makes dog treats. According to Hyran Son, R & D director for the firm, all their products are made with 100% human-grade ingredients that are USDA Certified Organic, Non-GMO Project Verified, Certified Vegan and made in bakery located in the United States with Global Food Safety Initiative, Safe Quality Food (GFSI SQF) Level 3 Certification, which he says has the most rigorous and highest food safety and quality management system. In a market with consumers extra-concerned about their pet’s health, this level of commitment to quality integrity makes owners feel much less guilty about spoiling their pets with treats.

While we’ve discussed the importance of non-GMO claims, other claims such as “human-grade” are also rather important for determining quality. The term “human-grade” differentiates a product from those that contain lower quality feed-grade ingredients, which make up a majority of commercially available pet foods. Feed-grade ingredients have higher allowances for certain toxins than human-grade ingredients, such as mold-producing myco-toxins and contain “meals” such as “meat and bone meals” or “by products” rendered from often questionable meat sources (2). These sources include what remains of animal carcasses slaughtered for human consumption as well as food waste from human food industry such as grease and outdated supermarket meat and even diseased livestock (including from disease and euthanasia) (3).

However, it should be noted, that “human-grade” has not been defined officially by any regulators. According to the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines products fit for human consumption as “edible” and “must be manufactured, packed and held in accordance with federal regulations in 21 CFR 110, Current Good Manufacturing Practice in Manufacturing, Packing, or Holding Human Food” (4). Pet foods must meet these same standards to make human-grade claims, therefore, relatively few pet food products can legally make that claim.

For the term “natural,” AAFCO defines natural in pet foods to mean “a feed or feed ingredient derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources, either in its unprocessed state or having been subject to [processing], but not having been produced by or subject to a chemically synthetic process and not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as might occur in good manufacturing practices” (5). While a majority of U.S. states have adopted AAFCO’s standard, requiring pet foods to meet this definition in order to carry “natural” on its labels, USDA has not yet defined natural in relation to pet food labeling.

It’s also important to understand the various other ways pet foods are labeled so that you may responsibly stock your shelves and guide your customers. According to AAFCO, product names must follow rules referred to as the “100%, 95%, 25%, ‘with’ and ‘flavor’ rules” (6). These rules essentially govern the way a product is named and that its name must be a reflection of its contents. Therefore, a product labeled “all-beef” would be following the 100% rule, since it contains only that ingredient, most likely with the exception of water and perhaps trace amounts of preservatives and condiments. A product following the 95% rule would be called something like “Spot’s Beef Dog Food” or “Fluffy’s Chicken and Rice Cat Food,” removing “all” from the name because the named ingredients make up at least 95% of the product by weight, not counting added water.

When a product name is following the 25% rule, the nomenclature changes more distinctly to include a descriptor such as “dinner,” “entrée,” or “platter.” For example, a product named “Turkey Dinner for Cats” contains at least 25% turkey by weight not including the added water. Each named ingredient must meet this limit. A product called something like “Cat Food with Tuna and Rice” would be following the “With” rule, which allows each named ingredient to make up at least 3% of the product. Finally, the “flavor” rule doesn’t require much of an ingredient in a product named something like “chicken-flavored.” One will likely find fat or some other ingredient in the ingredients list which provides the designated flavor.

In addition to understanding how pet foods are named, it’s valuable to understand what ingredients specifically should be avoided. Check ingredient labels for chemical preservatives like Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA), Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT), and Ethoxyquin. BHA and BHT are added to oils and fats for preservation and are known carcinogens, with BHA placed by California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment on their list of Known Carcinogens and Reproductive Toxicants and BHT was shown to cause kidney and liver damage in rats (2). Ethoxyquin is illegal for use in human foods, but can be added to pet foods, however, because it can often enter food through fish meal, it may not appear on the ingredient label (2). That is why instead of chemical preservatives, natural consumers look for options like vitamin C and E instead.

Another chemical called Propylene Glycol is used as a moistening agent in some soft dog foods and treats and is chemically derived from antifreeze, which is toxic despite being often touted as non-toxic and non-absorbent to your pet (2). Food dyes such as Blue 2, Red 40, and Yellow 5 and 6 have been documented to cause hypersensitivity reactions, behavior problems, and cancer in humans, while caramel color, which contains 4-methylimidazole (4-MIE), is a known animal carcinogen (2). Ultimately, food dyes are there to be more aesthetically pleasing to the human consumer but adds nothing of value for the pet and can harm them in the process.

Rendered fats, used to enhance flavor can also be dangerous because they can be a source of microorganisms such as Salmonella and toxins such as heavy metals. If rendered fat in dry food is exposed to moisture, harmful bacteria and mold can flourish (2). Unfortunately, what is unacceptable for human consumption is all too often considered acceptable for our pets. Customers may be very surprised to learn of these harmful ingredients and how product quality is distinguished, particularly if they have naively purchased poor quality products in the past. Helping them understand the differences in quality between pet food products is essential to convincing less-informed pet owners to spend money on the quality products you provide and an informed, quality selection will make you a trusted source for conscientious pet owners in your community.

Do Pets Need Supplements?The simple answer is, it depends. Veterinarians may recommend supplements in certain situations, such as large breed dogs who may need targeted joint support while other times pet owners may take it upon themselves to add extra support to their pets’ diet.

“A healthy dog or cat who lives a typical life — pretty low key and fed a good diet — does not need supplements,” says Weiss. “However, animals whose health is compromised and who are being treated for a variety of health issues and animals (particularly dogs) who live a very active life — agility, hiking, dock dogs, service dogs — which do not fit the profile that pet foods are formulated for, they need supplements.” So, just like humans, proper nutrition starts with food and we go from there.

Pet owners should take the time to understand the nutrient content of the foods they are feeding their pets so as to not exceed the upper limits of certain nutrients. Unfortunately, this can be difficult to do as many pet foods only state the crude protein, crude fat, crude fiber and moisture in their foods. Examples of nutrients which pet owners should take care to not overuse are selenium and vitamin D, both of which can be toxic at high levels, even if only by a little (7).

However, essential faty acid supplements do not pose these same risks. “Omega-3 fatty acids are one of the key pieces of the nutritional puzzle for dogs and cats,” says Erin Hay, sales representative, Retail Pet for Nordic Naturals, Watsonville, CA. “Following human health trends and reflected in the benefits shown in our interwoven lives with our pets, omega-3 supplements are one of the fastest growing segments of the pet supplement market.” Omega-3 fatty acids support immunity and inflammatory response in pets such as cats and dogs, she continues.

Similar to pet foods, supplement manufacturers are also taking the same level of care in pet supplement formulations as they do for human supplements. For example, Nordic Naturals produces pharmaceutical grade fish oil for their entire product line, sustainably sourced from Friend of the Sea certified fisheries and manufactured in a green state-of-the-art facility in Norway. Preserved only with vitamin E, their products are also Non-GMO Project verified and molecularly distilled for purity. Clearly, the humanized trend is spilling over into the pet supplement category as well.

Another method of supporting a pet’s health is homeopathic medicine, says Dr. Frank King, founder and president of King Bio Natural Pet Pharmaceutical, Ashville, NC. “When made according to the standards in the HPUS (Homeopathic Pharmacopoeia of the United States), [homeopathic remedies] have no known negative side effects and no known drug interactions,” he explains. Interestingly, the firm’s products are formulated in the same way as their human line of products in multi-ingredient and multi-potency formulations for a broad spectrum of support.

“Homeopathic medicine is not species-specific and has been used successfully on everything from birds to horses and everything in-between,” says King. “Homeopathy matches remedies to symptoms, not to specific species or to disease labels. However, to meet U.S. Food and Drug Administration requirements, our pet products are labeled for either dogs or cats.”

The targeted support of certain supplements and homeopathic remedies may be a great solution for natural pet owners who are otherwise providing a balanced diet, but find that additional support may be necessary. For example, supplementing with omega-3s may be helpful for the very active animal to fight inflammation in joints, sustaining their ability to be active later in life. Compliance is another factor to consider when consumers purchase a supplement, so make sure customers have various delivery systems to choose from. For example, while some may not have trouble giving their pet a tablet or softgel, others may prefer a liquid that can be drizzled on food or mixed with water such as King Bio’s pet products which employ a taste-free pure water base, making dosing as easy as pouring a designated amount into the water bowl.

Hygiene and GroomingBathing and grooming our pets is not always an easy task and paying for it can also be prohibitive, but it is an important part of our pets’ health, just as it is an important aspect of ours. With the natural consumers acknowledging their skin as their body’s largest organs, the desire for chemical free washes and shampoos is passing onto pet products as well.

“Shampoos with harsh surfactants like SLS and artificial dyes/fragrances should be avoided,” explains Matt Arkin, director, ECOS for Pets!, Addison, IL. “These cause a host of problems including irritated coats, disrupted hormones, allergic reactions and respiratory ailments. Additionally, you should avoid flea shampoos because they use poisonous insecticides. There are natural ways to avoid fleas, such as using shampoos containing peppermint oil.”

Arkin recommends that dogs be bathed once a month, but some breeds have more oily coats that require bathing as frequently as once a week. However, bathing a dog too frequently can dry out their coat. For touch-ups in between baths, Arkin suggests wipes or grooming sprays that can remove dirt, dander and malodors. Wipes, he says, “are especially great to use in the sensitive wrinkle folds around the face where bacteria and grime can quickly accumulate.”

An obvious but often neglected hygiene factor is oral health. This, says Weiss, is crucial for a pet’s well being. “The simple problem is bad breath, the more serious issue is that dental plaque breaks off teeth and goes into the blood streams, possibility compromising the health of a major organ,” she explains. For pets like dogs and cats, it’s important to regularly brush their teeth as well as using other aids independent of brushing such as rawhide bones (for dogs), dental health chews or other products. King Bio, for example, has oral health formula in their line of homeopathic pet products.

Frequently brushing our pets is another important aspect of promoting a pet’s health. The most common type of brush is double-sided, with a bristle on one side and pins on the other. The pins detangle and the bristles distribute oil. “[The brush] distributes all the sebaceous oils…providing a coating which is protective and conditioning in nature,” explains Joel Weinstein, V.P. sales and marketing for Bass Brushes, Chatsworth, CA.

Brushing one’s pet can be laborious and often a person can be limited by their tools. Weinstein, therefore, describes his firm’s new brush (Bass Fusion Groomer) which consolidates the pins and bristles on one side of the brush to make for more effective brushing. He explains that the bristles alone do not penetrate the top layer of the animal’s coat to properly disperse oil throughout the undercoat. The detangling side of the brush helps this process, but by placing both pins and bristles on the same side, the brush can penetrate more deeply, detangling and shining at the same time.

While it may seem like it’s not a big deal, when a tool makes your life easier you are more likely to use it and the pet will benefit. Customers are always looking for a solution to something so it’s good to be the person to provide those solutions. “It used to be that the consumer wanted good stuff for their pet, then great stuff, then you started hearing this term in the industry, ‘human-grade,’” says Weinstein. This cuts across all categories, the mindset that, “If it’s not good enough for me, it’s not good enough for my pet.”

  1. “The Humanization of Pet Foods: How far are pet parents willing to go?”, Accessed 1/29/2017.
  2. P. Mahaney. “Pet Food: The Good, the Bad, and the Healthy.”, Accessed 1/29/2017.
  3. D. Spector. “Pet Food (What You Need to Know) for Your Pet's Sake.”, Accessed 1/29/2017.
  4. “Human Grade.”, Accessed 1/29/2017.
  5. “Natural.”, Accessed 1/29/2017.
  6. “Reading Labels.”, Accessed 1/29/2017
  7. “Supplements.”, Accessed 1/29/2017
Published in WholeFoods Magazine March 2017