The Booming Pet Health Market

Experts address the state of the market after the surge in pandemic pet adoptions, ID 5 top concerns of pet parents, and offer up 4 retail success strategies.

The past 18 months have been tough, but our fluffy pals have a way of making stressful times just a little less so, and we love them for it. To show that love, we will spoil those sweet fur babies rotten. And right now, as we’re feeling more financially secure, we’re really in the mood to shower our pets with love.

Check out this data from IRI Consumer Connect Q2 2021 survey (2):

  • Consumers are in a better financial state compared to Q1, and many are optimistic that finances will continue to improve in the second half of the year.
  • Dollar sales of pet products increased 7.1% in Q2 over 2020—the highest growth for this category since 2017.

Presenting more data, Kristen Johnson, CEO & Founder of Wagleaf, reports that for the first time ever, pet industry sales surpassed the $100 billion mark, fueled at least in part by people buying or adopting new pets during the pandemic. And Susan J. Hewlings, Ph.D., RD, Director Scientific Affairs Nutrasource/GRAS Associates, points to findings from the budgeting app Mint, which shows Americans increased spending in this category more than every other spending category assessed other than investments. “Americans were home and perhaps they turned to their best friend and recognized the need to reward him for providing solace during such a stressful year, and did so by spending money.”

Introducing a pet health product? Read this!

What are keys to consider to help ensure that you get that product to market quickly and efficiently? Susan J. Hewlings, Ph.D., RD, Nutrasource/GRAS Associates, offers advice: “First off make sure the ingredients are safe and can be sold to pets in the form you are planning to provide it in. Make sure you are following all regulatory guidance and that any marketing claims can be substantiated. Hiring a third party regulatory agency can streamline this process.”

It can also help you avoid common mistakes. “Making sure that the labeling is done correctly and that all claims are truthful and not misleading is key,” says Dr. Hewlings. “Many companies overlook dosage requirements and how those change based on weight, size, sex, and age. Make sure that the product is safe for the species and life-stage you are intending it for and of course make sure the product does what it’s intended to do. I think another big mistake companies make is going to market without considering all of these things and not knowing how to interpret the science. They may be aware that there is efficacy and safety data on a product or ingredient, but they may not know what to do with it. Nutrasource/GRAS Associates can help connect the science to the marketing and can guide companies from concept to claim. We can review labels, advise on regulatory requirements and interpret any existing science to determine what claims can be made. In addition, we can assess safety data and determine dosage. We can design and oversee clinical trials. Again, concept to claim Nutrasource/GRAS Associates can guide you to market with assurance that you are doing it within guidelines as effectively and efficiently as possible while providing a safe and efficacious product to consumers and their beloved pets.”

Indeed, our pets were a silver lining. “While tragic in so many ways, last year’s pandemic had many positive lessons for all of us,” says Douglas Bibus, Ph.D., Founder/CEO Lipid Technologies, LLC, and Past President, The American Oil Chemists’ Society. “The significance of family and loved ones and companion animals was never so apparent.”

What are pet parents buying? IRI reports that during Q2, 32% of survey respondents reported purchasing more pet treats than in Q1—and wellness is paramount. IRI data shows that purchase decisions are driven by health and nutrition first, followed by pet preference and price. More than half (51%) of consumers shopping for pet food consider health and nutritional standards before purchasing, while 46% consider their pets’ taste preferences and 42% shop for a good price.

It makes sense after all we’ve been through. “Many people started to pay much closer attention to their own nutrition and diet and their ability to support immune function to fight COVID,” points out Dr. Bibus. “A greater focus on our own immune function and health empowering dietary practices has also transcended to the health of our pets with the realization that their diets are incredibly important to them as well.”

Andrew Fuente, Sales Director QRILL Pet – Americas, Aker BioMarine Antarctic US, agrees. “We are seeing that many pet parents are seeking out healthy foods with proactive ingredients for their pets. ‘What’s good for me is also good for my pet’ is what drives many pet owners, and with this in mind, pet parents are increasingly concerned about preventive health care.”

In addition to healthier food, they are reaching for natural solutions for pet health concerns. “Our sales to veterinarians have doubled since 2018, and remained strong through this past year,” shares Beth Lambert, CEO, Herbalist & Alchemist.“We’re anticipating continued growth, especially considering how many more people became pet owners during the COVID lockdown.”

Summing it up, Johnson says: “2020 brought the health, wellness and self-care focus front and center. Interestingly enough you will notice that pet product purchasing trends mirrored that same focus. If we look at the pet products being purchased in 2020, you will see an increase in pet supplements specifically, and a greater focus on what we feed our pets. We saw all of this increased revenue despite supply chain issues due to the shortage of workers and supplies.”

In Demand

The list of needs for pets is a long one. Key for all is a healthy lifestyle, according to David Louvet, Founder and CEO of Innovet Pet Products. “Diet and exercise are two of the most important components of a healthy pet’s life,” says Louvet, “especially since we’ve been in lockdown for so long and most of us are still working at home and not moving as much.”

When it comes to food, Louvet says, a proper diet can consist of raw, home-cooked, or dry food. “I personally make all my dogs food, but sometimes it’s necessary to give extra supporting supplements like glucosamine because age causes joint wear and tear as well as gives pets arthritis.”

Considering those nutritional needs is key, agrees Dr. Bibus. “Companion animal nutrition typically relies on a single dietary source, a single pet food. While having a variety of foods in our own diets generally ensures that we have adequate intake of nutrients, pets typically are not afforded this luxury. We, as care providers, have the very important job of providing what pets need to be happy and pain-free. Therefore, nutritional adequacy of pet foods is of utmost importance. Pet food minimal nutritional compositions are directed and overseen by AAFCO (American Association of Feed Control Officials). While guaranteeing nutritional minimums for adequacy, optimal nutritional needs may differ for many pets based on a variety of factors.”

Case in point: “Omega-3 fatty acids were not originally recognized as essential by AAFCO so many foods completely ignored omega 3 composition,” Dr. Bibus says. “This practice, coupled with the use of ground corn in many pet foods, led to pet foods that were high in omega-6 and very low in omega-3. High omega-6 to-3 ratios suppress metabolism of omega-3 and reduce overall omega-3 status. Coromega Pup Packets are a great way to provide omega 3 fish oil to our pets. The emulsified formula acts like a gel, so it’s easier to give and that’s a key thing—for pet owners to stick with a program—so making it easier should help long-term supplementation of
this nutrient.”

Beyond the basic building blocks for maintaining health, there are several concerns that are common to many species of companion animals. As Nena Dockery, Scientific & Regulatory Affairs Manager, Stratum Nutrition, explains: “Our pets are living longer now; and with those additional years come some of the challenges that we humans face as we age. Arthritis, diabetes, and even Alzheimer’s-type cognitive disorders are conditions that have become increasingly more commonplace in companion animals as lifespans have increased.” And just as is the case in humans, she notes, a sedentary lifestyle and obesity are frequently contributing factors (3).

Also important to keep in mind: While that IRI survey shows wellness is the top priority for pet parents, pets’ taste preference was not far behind. “As more pet owners transition into foods and supplements that are formulated to address specific health needs or are more natural, they may find that Fido and Fluffy don’t like the taste,” notes Dockery. “This can present a challenge for formulators and manufacturers of these products, who want to create products that the animals will consume. And these formulators must also keep in mind that some ingredients, additives, and processing aids can be harmful to certain animal species. Beneficial supplements added to tasty chews have been around for a while and are still one of the most efficient ways to deliver an efficacious dose of most ingredients. For convenience and ease of administering new technologies, such as VitaSperse, can now deliver fat-soluble ingredients in a form that is dispersible in water. Ingredients such as high-absorption forms of curcumin that have been demonstrated in multiple studies to provide antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and hepatic support for several animal species, can easily be administered in a pet’s drinking water for continuous delivery throughout the day.”

4 Strategies to Drive Sales

“It is an exciting time for product retailers in this space,” says Dr. Bibus. “There has been an explosion of quality foods and pet-based dietary supplements over the past decade that have significantly added opportunities for sales in this space. Why wouldn’t people want to give the same great nutritional advantages to their beloved pets!” Our experts offered up their success secrets.

1. Ease pet parents’ concerns with transparency & education. “When people seek out natural products to support the health of their companion animals, their top concerns are quality and safety, so have that information available,” advises Richard. “We offer a free quality brochure that can be given to pet owners describing our NOW Pet products and the expertise of our formulator Dr. Barbara Royal. Also, each NOW Pet product also has an information sheet available which can be sent as a pdf. Because NOW is widely trusted, you are recommending a brand your customers already know is dependable. The ingredients in our pet line are human grade, the same ones we use for the supplements millions of people take regularly. NOW works hard to provide products that are as close to nature as possible, free of adulterants, minimally processed, and tested for pesticides and heavy metals. We source clean ingredients that are non-GMO and organic, whenever possible. All our NOW Pet Supplements have earned the right to carry the National Animal Supplement Council (NASC) seal on the label. Separate from the NASC logo, the Quality Seal is earned by adhering to NASC’s quality standards and undergoing an independent audit to ensure compliance with rigorous quality system requirements. We must successfully pass an independent facility audit every two years to keep the Quality Seal on our products.”

Words of wisdom from Dr. Bibus: “My biggest advice would be to read and learn about pet nutritional needs so that you can effectively communicate with your customer base. If you have pets at home that struggle with pain, skin or behavioral aspects, try a 30-day regimen and observe your own pets’ progress or lack thereof. An additional tool that I have seen for human-based supplements are sign-up sheets where consumers can comment on what products/supplements have worked for them. It is simple but also a strong endorsement for dietary factors or strategies that have worked in their own lives and something that could easily be adapted for pets.”

2. Take advantage of tools to educate staff. “Pet parents want to be sure anything they use is safe for their animal companions, so sharing the care with which products are formulated and made is effective,” Richard says. “We enlisted the help of our formulator, Dr. Royal, to create a video that retailers can use to train employees about our line. Dr. Royal goes into detail on how and why she formulated each of the products. Stores can also stream the videos so pet owners can learn more about the products.”

To that, Louvet adds:“It’s essential that retailers are aware of the ingredient list in products and know what they support, both for themselves and their customers. They need to be able to answer questions like, ‘What does hemp extract do?’ or ‘Why ashwagandha?’” Retailers and brands need to have a very close relationship to bridge the information gap, as retailers need to provide pet owners with the best possible solution for their needs.”

3. Tune in to trends: “Retailers need to keep up with the trends in the industry to help anticipate the wants and needs of the end consumer,” says Dockery. “As people return to busy lives, they need products that are both convenient and beneficial. At the end of the work day, owners want to see the big slobbery grin from the family pooch bounding to the door to greet them or the sly approving glance from their kitty companion. Products that can achieve this will appeal to the end consumer and result in long-term purchases.”

Listen to your customers and their needs, encourages Johnson. “Pay attention to common complaints and try to fill the gaps in what’s missing. Stand out from the herd. This market is extremely saturated with much of the same things and it’s all about individuality now. I cannot stress enough the importance of also adopting a more sustainable approach. People are becoming more hip to the marketing loopholes of natural product claims like ‘made in the USA,’ which many times means the product was physically put together in the U.S., but contains ingredients from China. Natural and Organic does not always mean it’s true. Pet parents want what’s best for their companions, so lead with passion and do the right thing.”

4. Connect with online consumers: Despite consumer optimism and the return to some pre-COVID behaviors, IRI’s Q2 Consumer Connect survey suggests other 2020 shopping trends will linger, and that includes online shopping. More consumers are ordering pet products online, and 31% of online shoppers note they visit fewer brick-and-mortar stores as a result. “With an uptick in e-commerce sales, there is an increased opportunity for CPG retailers and manufacturers to promote health, nutrition and pet products to pet parents,” said Joan Driggs, Vice President of Content and Thought Leadership, IRI. “IRI anticipates younger consumers will buy even more pet products in the coming year. Now is the time to build relationships with them and strengthen brand loyalty.”

At NOW, reports Richard, “The growth we’ve seen in our NOW Pets category over the past year or so has come primarily from companies shifting to online sales, reflecting the change in buying patterns across most industries during this pandemic. Increased traffic to our website suggests pet owners are researching our products. We offer quite a bit of information on the site to educate the consumer, which has been important at a time when people are not in stores asking the staff for guidance as often.”

Taking a closer look at common concerns for pet parents:

Pain/Musculo-Skeletal Joint Support: “Pain is a part of all of our lives and especially as we age,” says Dr. Bibus. “Pain certainly happens in companion animals throughout their life cycle but especially as they advance in age. Pain for our pets can be more difficult to identify as they often are not able to fully communicate when they are hurting. Obsessive licking and difficulty in walking stairs or jumping up onto a couch or bed may signal joint based inflammation and pain. While essential and required for proper health, omega-6 fatty acids can also be converted into hormone-like compounds called prostaglandins that trigger pain and swelling. Omega-6-related inflammation triggers pain, swelling, and discomfort in our pets and is often the target of pharmaceuticals used to treat pain in our pets (COX2 inhibitors). Adding omega-3 (anti-inflammatory) to the pet’s diet and especially the long chain marine-based omega-3s, EPA and DHA, can balance out omega-6 fatty acids and reduce the hormone like inflammatory mediators that cause pain. Quality pet foods that include fish like salmon/tuna or dietary fish oil supplements, provide the daily omega-3s that our pets need to strive for.”

Dockery notes that weight loss and exercise are essential for slowing down the progression of cartilage breakdown and joint dysfunction in the aging animal, but there are also nutritional supplements that can provide beneficial support as well. “One such supplement is NEM brand eggshell membrane from Stratum Nutrition. NEM has a long history of research related to its benefits to human joint health, including 16 clinical trials as well as safety, MOA and animal studies. Together, these studies provide an extensive portfolio of research supporting NEM’s benefits in controlling the pro-inflammatory processes that contribute to joint pain and stiffness. In addition, NEM has been shown to reduce levels of a biomarker (CTX-II) that is a strong indicator of joint cartilage breakdown.” She adds that a 6-week, multi-center, randomized, double-blind, placebo-
controlled veterinary trial was conducted in a canine population to evaluate NEM’s efficacy, safety, and tolerability in the treatment of sub-optimal joint function in dogs (4). “Results showed that supplementation with NEM significantly reduced joint pain and improved joint function rapidly (CBPI 1-week) and demonstrated a lasting improvement in joint pain (VCSA 6-week) leading to an improved quality of life (CBPI 6-week).”

Also helpful, notes Lambert: “Botanicals that are supportive in this category are helpful in reducing the stress some of the pharmaceutical alternatives put on the eliminatory organs.”

Anxiety: “A concern for many is their pet’s mental health from the anxiety of them having to return to their offices after a year of being by their pet’s side every single day,” says Johnson.
“According to a recent Banfield Pet Hospital survey, 30% of pet owners consulted their veterinarians for advice on how to make this transition as smooth as possible. Some suggestions included hiring dog walkers and pet sitters, doggy daycares, and behavior modification training. Another solution could be the addition of nutraceutical supplements as well as pheromones and homeopathic treatments. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, nutraceutical supplements containing ingredients like Valerian root and L-tryptophan can help to increase serotonin levels in the brain and reduce symptoms of anxiety like aggression and hyperactivity.”

Pet anxiety can result in problems such as inappropriate soiling and even aggression, Dr. Bibus adds. “Early research in animals suggested that animals raised on high omega-6 and low omega-3 diets tended to act out aggressively. Similar diets have been linked to aggression and anxiety in humans. Several studies have shown that dogs with aggressive behavior are low in DHA and have an elevated omega-6 to -3 ratio. This is consistent with modern, commercial dog foods and meat-based diets that are generally high in omega-6 and low in omega-3. By including a high purity omega-3 supplement with guaranteed levels of EPA and DHA and highly absorbable, it may be possible to address the physiological component that may contribute to aggression in dogs.”

Immune health: “Immune System dysfunction and auto-immune issues are increasing, not only as dogs age, but we are seeing these issues in young animals as well,” reports Lambert. “Adaptogens and Alteratives are extremely helpful in supporting the body to manage these issues.”

Kidney & Liver support: “Pharmaceutical drugs, certain foods, such as bad ‘treats,’ and environmental challenges like pesticides put stress on the eliminatory organs,” says Lambert. “Formulas that support Kidney and Liver health are extremely helpful in managing these issues.”

Also offering an assist here, Dan Richard, Vice President of Global Sales & Marketing, points to NOW Pets Kidney Support Powder for Dogs and Cats. NOW’s pet line is formulated by holistic veterinarian Dr. Barbara Royal, DVM, CVA, and carries the National Animal Supplement Council (NASC) seal of assurance. This formula is designed to support normal function and health of the kidneys and help enhance renal function, in a powder that mixes into pet foods.

Cancer prevention: “I would say a top concern is cancer in dogs,” says Johnson, noting that approximately 1 in 2 dogs are expected to get cancer in their lifetimes. “As of about 50 years ago there has been a drastic increase in cancer rates largely due to an industrialized food system and highly processed foods, with dog foods being even worse quality…A remedy for this would be to switch your pet to a whole food, human-grade diet. Dogs have much shorter intestines than humans, so most of their digestion takes place in the stomach. With most kibble being very hard to digest and highly processed, they don’t receive the proper nutrients they need, which further increases their risk for cancer. Have you ever noticed when your dog vomits, no matter how long ago they ate their food comes up in whole pieces, still intact but larger? That’s because it’s impossible to digest and swells in the stomach causing bloating and gas. A grain-free, low-carb, filler-free dog food is recommended.”

Making a Positive Difference

Similar to the nutraceutical space, there is increasing emphasis on establishing more sustainable food systems, clean labels, and transparency in the pet food industry, in line with consumer demand, reports Andrew Fuente, Sales Director QRILL Pet – Americas, Aker BioMarine Antarctic US. “The call for action on sustainability is growing all around the world and that means many people are considering how they can shift to a more sustainable consumption.”

That call is largely led by the younger generations, adds Kristen Johnson, CEO and Founder of Wagleaf. “Pet parents, especially millennials, simply want to feel good about their purchases and the affects those products are having on their pet’s health and on the environment.”

As an industry, Fuente adds, we can serve those consumers’ needs while making a positive difference. “We face global challenges that will impact the future of our business, such as loss of biodiversity, resource scarcity, lifestyle diseases, and climate change. The use of sustainable pet food ingredients is crucial to ensure that the world’s oceans are healthy now and in the future. We can all protect our oceans and its ecosystems by choosing marine ingredients for pet food that are obtained from a sustainable fishery, like krill.” Aker is deeply invested in this. “To further its commitment to the industry, Fuente reports, “QRILL Pet recently joined the Pet Sustainability Coalition (PSC), a U.S. based non-profit accelerator of environmental and social sustainability in the pet industry. QRILL Pet and the PSC share the same ambitions and are dedicated to addressing any sustainability challenges in a positive way.”

More brands want to see ingredient suppliers making such efforts, Johnson notes. “With more consumers being more concerned about what goes into our foods and the effects of our food systems negatively impacting the health of the planet, we have seen a surge in brands with a focus on sustainability and clean ingredients for both human and pet products. By supporting brands that engage in more ethical and organic practices, you get better results. For instance, Wagleaf Organics sources all ingredients from local New York farmers that align with our ethos of ethical farming practices and sustainability, and contain zero chemicals or fillers. The shorter the food travels, the fresher and more nutrient dense it is. Not only that, but its keeping money in the hands of communities instead of large corporations who don’t care about the health of the masses and the planet.”

On the Horizon

What’s next for pet health? Several pandemic trends are expected to continue. Richard notes that people who use supplements tend to think of them for their companion animals as well, so this category will continue growing. And Fuente predicts that functional pet food ingredients will continue to be a focal point of pet food and supplement brands in the years to come. “We foresee a rise in the number and variety of pet food choices highlighting the inclusion of nutraceutical ingredients such as probiotics, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins, and more.”

Dockery calls out the fact that many pets have had almost constant owner contact as people worked from home, as well as limited outside activities during COVID. “This presents a tremendous opportunity. As integral members of the family, many owners will endeavor to provide the best care possible for their furry friends. But these new pets could have a harder time adjusting to their owners returning to the workplace and may exhibit signs of stress or anxiety. Even cats and dogs who have been family members for several years will have become accustomed to more attention from their owners and may have difficulty adjusting to their owner’s increased absence. Fewer outside walks and reduced play time might also lead to weight gain in many animals. Supplements that have been researched for their effects on cognitive functioning, including mood, will likely begin to increase, as will foods and supplements that support healthy weight reduction. They may also seek out foods and supplements that support their pet’s healthy aging.”

Vets will also get more tuned in. “Veterinarians who want to integrate herbs and supplements into their practices will need and ask for more educational support to help them integrate these modalities,” says Lambert. She adds that H&A has had many veterinarians and consumers use the company’s herbs to treat animals for years, and they are members of NASC. “I am on the Board of the VBMA—Veterinary Botanical Medicine Association—and helped develop their educational programs. Through the years we have had many requests for pet-specific products, so later in 2021 we will be launching an Herbalist & Alchemist pet line of herbal products.”

Fuente brings up another important consideration: “The human population is growing, and we are also seeing an increase in pet ownership. This growth will affect the demand for proteins, fats and carbs for pets globally, and will require us to search for new sources as well as new ingredient trends. As 70% of our earth is covered by water, it is only natural that we turn to the sea for new resources. We need to harvest new resources at lower trophic levels, and we need fisheries that are sustainable in the long term. For Aker BioMarine, sustainability has been a core part of the business since the outset, and the krill fishery is one of the strictest regulated fisheries in the world. Made only from Antarctic krill, QRILL Pet delivers long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, marine proteins, choline, and the antioxidant astaxanthin. Focusing on keeping pets healthy and happy, this unique functional marine ingredient also carries the highest-ranking sustainability certificate (MSC) on the market.”

There’s concern on the horizon as well. Johnson notes the potential for a slight decrease in the increased revenue that we saw in 2020 and 2021. Contributing factors: people spending less time with their pets as WFH ends, and people who adopted pets during the pandemic returning those animals. “Analysts predicted this would happen while discussing the out performance of pet stocks in 2020,” she explains. “We are in a bullish pet market right now, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it evens out in the next few years. While I don’t expect a significant decline, (revenues have only gone up year after year), it is something to watch out for. I think that companies that prioritize sustainability will continue to see more and more success as wellness becomes more of a societal focus.” WF

Team WholeFoods’ Pampered Pets!

Malibu joined Maggie Jaqua’s family during the pandemic and gets healthy treats to help with her puppy training.

Christina Smith’s puppy Roxy takes a daily probiotic supplement to help support healthy digestion.

Maggie’s cat Whiskers loves to sleep, but is also still as playful as a kitten at the age of 12 thanks to a healthy diet!

Julia Peterman’s dog Axl eats homemade food to keep his weight down, to protect his joints.

Rachel Appleton’s trio of cuties, Pepper, Petey, and Darla, have shiny coats thanks to their favorite liquid omegas supplement.

Julia’s cat Ham gets lots of play time to keep him healthy.

Bree Williams’ pup Penny takes a daily omega-3 supplement, to help prevent summer allergies.