Naturally Providing for Pets

Give your customers the tools they need to include their pets in their natural lifestyles.

Most pet owners say they are willing to do anything to give their pets long, healthy, happy lives, just like they would for their human family members. So, why feed, reward or supplement them with anything but the best? Pets are part of the family and have their own set of dietary and hygienic needs that can be amply addressed through natural products. Animal-loving, natural lifestyle customers will surely embrace these products to support many more years with their furry friends.

Starting with the Basics
For natural food shoppers, keeping their families healthy with whole foods and balanced diets is a primary concern, and it’s growing more popular to include the family pet in that endeavor. “As consumers learn more about potential contaminants in pet foods and treats, and hear more and more frequently about toxic ingredients, recalled recipes or consumables made with by-products, they are choosing a healthier diet for their families as well as their pets,” says Kristen Smith, brand ambassador at Planet Dog, Westbrook, ME.

The easiest way to improve a natural pet section in your store is to stock foods that avoid fillers, additives or by-products. Chicken meal or rendered animal parts are not desirable in pet foods and are unacceptable in human food. The rule of thumb is to feed pets similarly to how one would feed a family member. “Humans and their pets share a need for fresh meats, fruits, vegetables and a need for avoiding overly processed or low-quality ingredients,” says David Yaskulka, vice president of marketing communications at Halo, Tampa, FL. He adds that “4D” meats (diseased, disabled, dying or dead before butchering) have no place in pets’ diets. Not only is this due to the low health benefits and quality of these meats, but also because allergies can be just as prevalent in animals as in humans, and these low-grade, highly processed cuts may intensify allergic reactions.

Pets can develop food allergies to other ingredients often found in their food, like wheat, barley, oats and other grains. Luckily, grain-free and gluten-free pet food is available, as well as foods tailored to specific vegetarian or vegan diets, whether by owners’ choice or because of allergies. Just as you stock your shelves with sensitive-diet items for humans, so should you keep this in mind for pet owners who need special diet items for their hungry non-human friends. Yaskulka says, “[Co-owner of Halo] Ellen DeGeneres has said, ‘If you’re going to have pets, you should treat them like you’d treat yourself. I don’t mean you should treat them to new shoes or a fancy car; I’m talking about good food.’”

Ok, no additives or mystery meat: seem like no-brainers when it comes to food. But what about treats? What makes a treat something special and separate from what goes in the bowl at dinnertime?

Balancing Treats and Nutrition
A treat is often categorized as a reward or used as a bargaining tool when Fido just won’t get off the couch. Sometimes, that’s all it needs to be. “Treats are not intended to support a healthy lifestyle,” says Susan Weiss, founder of Ark Naturals, Naples, FL. “A treat is an extra…they taste good, end of story.” When a customer comes in after a successful, productive day, sometimes they want to reward themselves with something sweet without worrying about the nutritional value. But, that only works as an occasional splurge. Treats can be just that: Spread-out and special.

For those looking to incorporate treats into daily routines (e.g., for use in training), however, some options offer a little something extra to make them more nutritional while still being considered a reward. “There is a rapidly growing movement toward health and wellness for pets, and the momentum will push the trend into the private label products of large grocery/mass retailers,” says Bobbye Cochran, president of Lincoln Bark, Chicago, IL. She predicts low-calorie products without preservatives, artificial color, wheat, corn or gluten and enriched with vitamins, antioxidants and omega-3s will become the norm in the natural pet industry as well as meats like duck, bison, rabbit, venison and even kangaroo!

One way to add to your treats section is by following the same rule of thumb as with food, and stocking treats that keep the ingredient list straightforward with whole food ingredients. But, most importantly, as Karin Krisher, media relations specialist for Pet Naturals of Vermont’s, Essex Junction, VT, points out, “One of the biggest parts of making a treat functional is ensuring it still tastes like a treat!”

All-natural treats often contain “just five or six simple, all-natural ingredients,” says Smith, citing her company’s line of treats as an example. “No preservatives, no ingredients that we can’t pronounce. The Chicken and Pumpkin Pot Pie Flavor includes barley flour, rye flour, chicken, pumpkin, canola oil and ginger, while the Peanut Butter and Jelly Flavor contains barley flour, rye flour, all-natural peanut butter, real Maine blueberries and cinnamon,” she says. Other branded treats even include fish oil, spinach, coconut, sweet potatoes, chia seeds and beans.

And for owners looking to connect their pets with their roots: “Raw treats will continue to gain momentum in the marketplace because they provide dogs with a more natural ‘wolf style’ diet,” says Cochran. “These treats can be frozen, dehydrated or freeze-dried.” Others agree, including Marta Magness, natural grocery manager for Zuke’s, Durango, CO, who believes adopting a more ancestral diet with alternative proteins like rabbit and lamb is the key to pet health and longevity.

Pets Pet Care Cats DogsSo, to add to this hope for a long, healthy life, owners should start by considering changing how they’ve used treats in the past. “The truth is, the treat used to be a simple distraction,” says Krisher. “Treats have become a tool for health and engagement and activity, rather than a distraction so that owners can get a moment of peace and quiet.” Depending on the needs of the pet, treats are tailored to aid in everything from providing energy to cleaning teeth and freshening breath while they’re happily chewing away.

Treats can also aid in health problems: “Treats are an excellent delivery for vitamin-rich foods and functional ingredients,” says Magness. “Choose the treat that is right for your pet. If hip and joint health is an issue, find treats with glucosamine, chondroitin, and egg shell membrane, such as Zuke’s Hip Action.” These could be a good way to supplement pet diets as well, which we will discuss later.

Though many comparisons have been made to food, it’s important to remember the differences. “Treats should not be given every hour of every day; they are meant to be a complement to good nutrition, not a substitute for it,” says Cochran. Treats are to be administered alongside a healthy diet and exercise.

And, like anything considered a special treat in life, too much can be a terrible thing. “In the past several years, the consumer has demanded more natural treats and all-natural ingredients,” says John Brynda, program manager for PetSafe, Knoxville, TN. “It’s well documented that one in two American pets are overweight or obese.”

“Remember that calories in treats count!” says Yaskulka. “So, keep track of treating as part of your pet’s overall caloric intake, and make sure the treats add good nutrition at the same time!” Overfeeding and overtreating can lead to unwanted and unsafe weight gain, so advise your customers not to spoil their pets with treats, no matter how much they want to.

Teach an Old Dog New Tricks
Sometimes, a well-maintained diet isn’t all it takes for the family pet to age gracefully. Just like humans, they may need some help from supplements to comfortably reach old age in good health. “Supplementing for pets is just as important as supplementing for humans,” says Rick Jahnke, vice president of American BioSciences, Blauvelt, NY. ”In fact, maybe even more important; their systems age much faster than ours. A responsible pet guardian should be diligent about nutrition and supplementation from day one, and adjust as a pet ages because their needs will change.”

One of these changes will be adjusting to joint and mobility issues, like arthritis or dysplasia. “For hips and joints, there is good research behind glucosamine, chondroitin and MSM to alleviate pain and support mobility. However, these take up to six to eight weeks before they start to work,” says Michele McRae, CN, senior director of research, formulation and quality for Rainbow Light Nutritional Systems, Santa Cruz, CA. She recommends supplementing for both the short- and long-term problems a pet may be experiencing. McRae notes, “Rainbow Light’s Healthy Motion also includes soothing herbs and omega fatty acids to address inflammation and alleviate discomfort in just a few days, enhancing a dog’s mobility in the short term while the glucosamine goes to work for the long term."


Pet Health Offerings

Companies interviewed for this article offer the following products for natural pet care:

American BioSciences: DGP, NK-9.

Ark Naturals: Product line includes treats, topicals, shampoos and natural flea and tick solutions for dogs and cats.

Earth Friendly Products: Dander Out, Pet Shampoo, Pet Wipes, Pet Stain & Odor Remover, and Aviary Cage Cleaner.

Halo: Natural dog and cat dry and wet foods, natural treats, supplements and grooming supplies.

Homeopet: Products for anxiety, cough, digestive upsets, flea/insect bites, joint stress, bladder problems, hot spots, nose relief and skin and itch relief, all available in dropper bottles.

Lincoln Bark: Treats, including Sweet Little Butterpup, Treat Smart and Doggie Sprinkles and Kitty Sprinkles.

Pet Care Systems: Swheat Scoop cat litter, in original, multi-cat or lightly scented formulas.

Pet Naturals of Vermont: Products include SOOTHE Oatmeal Shampoo, CLEAN Shampoo + Conditioner in 1, FLEA + TICK Spray and Wipes, SILK conditioner, Scoot Bars, functional treats, joint health, dental, behavioral support, digestive health, multivitamins, bladder support, skin and coat, environmental health and immune support.

PetSafe: Product lines include fencing and containment, remote training and food and water systems, as well as new Lickety Stik, liquid treats for dogs and cats.

Planet Dog: Eco-friendly grooming products; the Shammy; hemp collars, leashes and harnesses; Orbee-Tuff toys; Wood Chuck and all-natural Planet Dog eats. The Wood Chuck is sold with and without the Orbee-Tuff RecycleBALL, which is made from leftover manufacturing scraps and recycled Orbee-Tuff material.

Rainbow Light Nutritional Systems: Active Omega Soft Chew, Complete Calm® Chewable, Healthy Motion, Immuno-Build, Whole Dog Daily, antioxidant superfoods for long-term health and vitality support.

Zuke’s: Full line of all-natural, functional, healthy and delicious dog and cat treats and chews.

Maintaining healthy immune systems for pets is important throughout their lives, but becomes more crucial as they grow older and need more help fighting off illnesses. “Problems related to a diminished immune system, whether by age, environmental factors, a life of processed foods, shots or illness, are on the rise,” says Jahnke. For immune support, some branded products turn to ingredients like olive leaf extract, green tea leaf extract and reishi, shiitake and maitake mushroom extracts.

Another reason to avoid highly processed foods for pets is that later in life, they can cause digestive issues. They are missing digestive enzymes and probiotics that are naturally found in raw, unprocessed foods. “Foods that contain fillers such as corn and wheat can also lead to excessive gas, bad breath and other canine digestive disturbances,” says McRae. “Supplementing a dog’s diet with plant-source enzymes, probiotics and whole, green superfoods can help to alleviate digestive problems and support more vibrant, long-term health in dogs.” Probiotics are beneficial for animals whether they’re young or old, and products may contain one or several strains.

As with humans, pets can get spooked and need some help calming down. Anxiety in pets can occur during trips to the veterinarian or groomer, if they have been newly adopted or relocated or if there are simply loud noises they can’t comprehend or place. This can cause behavioral problems, but there are supplements that can help calm them down before they start shaking in fear. “Soothing herbs and whole foods such as valerian, chamomile, ginger, lavender and pumpkin can calm the nerves and the digestion during times of stress and upset,” says McRae. They can help pets stay relaxed and well-behaved, even in stressful situations.

Coats can be shined from the inside-out with omega fatty acids, says Krisher, as they support hydration and resilience to make pets feel “fabulous,” while McRae agrees that omegas (such as those derived from flax) can not only help support an animal’s healthy skin and coat, but can also be used to support heart health. Other problems like dry skin can be helped by supplementing with essential fatty acids, like ALA and LA, or by eliminating dry food from pets’ diets, says Cochran. Skin can also be improved with a change to grooming routines, which we will touch on later.

Now, it’s one thing to say that supplementing is important for pet health, but it’s a whole other ballgame trying to get the supplements into a squirming cat or dog! Unlike children who refuse to take their vitamins, owners can’t use dessert as a bargaining chip. “The products that ‘sell the best’ are delivery methods that are easy to use, palatable (if required), are low maintenance and don’t require multiple uses per day,” says Weiss. “Sprays can be a hassle as some pets freak out when you spray them, and toothbrushes are also not a pleasant experience.”

For dental hygiene, many companies embrace the idea of a hard bar that can be continuously chewed as it scrapes off residue on teeth while freshening breath. This is a big step up from the days of trying to brush pointy teeth with a toothbrush. To make life a little easier while avoiding losing fingers when administering supplements to pets, Simon Power, sales director for Homeopet, Westhampton Beach, NY, has a plan: “All our products are in liquid form so the drops can be put directly in the mouth, in food or in water. It makes it easier with cats and dogs rather than trying to get a pill in the mouth.”

Don’t Overlook the Little Things
If a baby drops its pacifier, its mother does everything she can to make sure it is clean and sterile before putting it back in her baby’s mouth. Pet owners don’t need to go through this process with their animals, but there are some ways for them to control what goes into their pets’ mouths at playtime. Stock environmentally friendly toys; they are not only safer for the environment (for when the toys go forever missing somewhere in the backyard bushes), but also for the whole family. “Dogs play with their mouths and tend to puncture or tear apart their toys, so whatever is in the toy is in the dog,” says Smith. This is especially true for toys that allow a treat to be stuck inside; the gnawing wears away the material, which ends up getting digested along with the reward. “Dogs then lick the people who love them, so those chemicals and additives go far beyond the dog product,” she adds. Your customers are passionate about keeping a chemical-free lifestyle, so by promoting toys that are made of recycled material without chemicals, unknown additives or lead, you’re eliminating an avenue for unnatural intrusions that they may not have even considered before.

Another one of these possibly overlooked parts of natural pet ownership is cat litter. Indoor cats don’t have the same luxury of choosing where they want to go when doing their business as dogs or their outdoor counterparts do. But this doesn’t mean they have to settle for a litter box full of unidentifiable material and odor-eating chemicals. Conventional litter will often include a large amount of clay, which is not biodegradable, ends up in landfills after use and can also cause problems for the user.

“Clay is dusty and can cause respiratory issues. Clay is also not biodegradable so it is harder on the environment when thrown away,” says Mark Hughes, national sales and marketing director for Pet Care Systems, makers of Swheat Scoop, Detroit Lakes, MI. “Clay litter dust also may contain crystalline silica dust, a known cancer-causing agent.”

Alternatively, natural litters are made from corn, newspapers, green tea leaves and wheat. They tend to be biodegradable, so while keeping Muffin’s litter box natural and chemical-free, they’re also having less of an effect on landfills than clay-based litters after disposal. “Wheat is 100% biodegradable so it will dissolve and go back to the Earth,” says Hughes. “The biggest benefit for cat owners is that our product is guaranteed odor free, no matter how many cats you own.”

Rub-a-Dub-Dub, Pug in the Tub
Bathing comes as no exception to the rule of treating pets as family members; the days of dousing the family pets with generic soap from under the sink and spraying them down outside are long gone, with the understanding that the hygienic needs of a domestic animal aren’t so dissimilar to our own. Just like humans, animals can be sensitive to chemicals and may benefit from specially formulated products, like shampoos and soaps, but also detergents for their blankets and cleaners for cages, to avoid skin irritation, painful allergic reactions or the possibility of accidental poisoning.

“Many traditional household cleaners contain ingredients that are toxic to pets,” says Gil Fischbach, vice president of sales for pet products at Earth Friendly Products, Winnetka, IL. “Natural cleaners that are non-toxic, chlorine-free, phosphate-free, formaldehyde-free, and made without petroleum ingredients are safer around the pet, and are safe for the environment.” She adds that using chemical-free products can also avoid drying out the skin and coat because they include ingredients, like lemon and lavender oils, that can complement the naturals oils found in the animals’ skin and fur, resulting in a smoother, often shinier coat.

Another thing to keep in mind is that all hair is not created equal. Just as someone with very dry hair can benefit from a moisturizing shampoo, the same consideration should be put into what the family pet’s locks need. As mentioned earlier, diet and supplements can help support a luxurious coat, but there are external aids as well. Direct your customers away from the theory that any shampoo will do the trick on their pets, especially those made for human hair. Additives, like sulfates, in shampoo strip away excess oil in hair, which may be desirable for some, but not for animals; the oils being stripped away are there for animals’ protection from dirt and grime. “Shampoos for dogs should contain less sulfates than that found in shampoos for humans,” says Fishbach. “That is because the concentration of sulfates in shampoos for humans causes dry skin, itchiness and may lead to the pet licking or chewing excessively.” Excessive chewing leaves the pet open to possible infection from sores or open cuts on the over-worked skin. If using any topical flea and tick or medicated creams, human shampoo can strip away these products, as well.

There are other aspects of human shampoo that are of no concern to pets. “Dogs and cats don’t need perfume. That’s a human issue,” says Weiss. “Dogs and cats don’t need high sudsing…and don’t need to be shampooed as often as their owners think.” She adds that certain aromatherapy ingredients and tea tree oil can be toxic to pets, so it may be beneficial to stick with natural cleaners without any added scent. The aforementioned natural oils found on animals as well as instinctual self-grooming are enough to protect against daily grime.

But this is not to say your customers can’t feel comfortable washing Fido in the backyard when the time comes! In fact, by switching to natural pet products, it’s even more welcomed and environmentally friendly to do so! By using products that are “biodegradable, natural, cruelty free, pH balanced, and free of fillers and oils,” says Krisher, “these skin care formulas allow people to wash off the dog with the hose and feel good about the suds on the lawn and the way their pup smells.”

So, whether your customers’ pets are young and spry, or old and a little slow, do their business inside or out, groom themselves or need a little help, keep a well-stocked pet section, just like you would for any other member of the family. WF

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, March 2013