Grocers Need to Address the Needs of Aging Pets

Grocers Need to Address the Needs of Aging Pets

Princess Jones Curtis
Contributing Editor
Grocers Need to Address the Needs of Aging Pets

He’s an old fella, but he’s still got a lot of life in him,” says 28-year-old Michelle Williams, referring to her 10-year-old pit bull mix, Blue.

Although relatively healthy for his advanced age, Blue still needs more frequent veterinary care and medication for his kidney issues. A receptionist at an Austin, Texas, veterinarian’s office, where she sees senior animals every day as part of her job, as well as owning one, Williams also depends on specially formulated dog food and supplements to keep Blue healthy. “I just want his golden years to really be golden, you know?” she adds.

According to the Kansas City, Mo.-based North American Pet Health Insurance Association, more than 60 percent of households own a pet, and today’s pets are living longer than ever. Their higher longevity stems from a number of contributing factors, among them the increased personification of pets by their humans.

“The pet-and-owner relationship has evolved over the years, and pets have truly become part of our families,” asserts Joe Toscano, VP of trade and industry development at St. Louis-based Nestlé Purina PetCare Co., which offers both Purina One Smartblend Vibrant Maturity and Purina One Vibrant Maturity cat food for senior pets. “As such, there is a better-for-you trend in our country today, where owners not only want better-for-you items for themselves, but also better for their pets. 

“Pet care is currently ranked eighth out of 305 supermarket categories by IRI InfoScan, and it’s growing two times that of the overall center store, according to Nielsen Scantrack data,” adds Toscano. 

“Pet care also has the potential to boost total store traffic, triggering more trips than any other category, according to a Nielsen shopper study. It’s an anchor to center store, as the No. 2 reason consumers leave the house to go to the store, and it’s shopped by 75% of U.S. households.”

Key Takeaways

  • Pets’ longer lives are attributable in part to the rising trend of personification by their human owners.
  • Senior pets have unique health problems that younger animals don’t experience, requiring specially formulated products.
  • Education, product placement and variety are important factors in creating a winning senior pet section.

“As more people view their pet’s health as equal to their own, the more conscious they become with their pet-related purchasing habits, from the food and treats they buy to fitness trackers, grooming products, and more,” notes Chanda Leary-Coutu, director of consumer experience for Tewksbury, Mass.-based Wellness Natural Pet Food, which has a number of options under the Wellness Complete Health Senior brand, including a version for small dogs and a paté option.

“We see pet parents proactively seeking recipes that contain natural, wholesome ingredients — similar to the natural foods they seek out in their own diets — which often command a higher price point for better ingredients, and real, wholesome meat compared to alternatives that are often comprised of fillers like meat byproduct, corn or soy.” 

“Pets are part of the family, and pet owners want to ensure that their dog or cat has the best life possible,” observes Tom Baldwin, VP sales planning and category for Franklin, Tenn.-based Mars Petcare North America, whose robust senior lineup includes Iams Protective Health Mature Adult, Nutro Wholesome Essentials and Royal Canin Indoor 7+ Dry Cat Food.

“Whether that’s ensuring they get proper nutrition and veterinary care, or hiring a dog walker to keep their dog active during the workday, pet owners want their dogs and cats to get the most out of each and every day.”

Adds Baldwin: “These consumers are looking for products that are specifically designed for senior pets. That’s why it is important that pet owners feel knowledgeable and comfortable about the food they’re feeding their pets.” 

Senior Pet Health

Like humans, the needs of animals change as they age. Senior pets have unique health problems that younger animals don’t experience.

“Our scientists have been studying aging in pets for more than a decade and discovered that nutrition can positively impact canine cognitive health and feline longevity,” says Purina’s Toscano. “According to the experts, cats and dogs both begin to experience changes around age 7. For dogs, the glucose metabolism in the brain begins to change, which can affect memory, learning, awareness or decision-making. For cats, their bodies begin to change, affecting the immune and digestive systems, as well as body weight and skin condition.”

Metabolism and brain function aren’t the only things that change in senior pets, though.

“Consumers are not only focusing on pet food, they are working to implement healthy habits such as feeding their dog a daily dental chew, or protein-packed mixers made with raw protein ingredients and farm-grown produce,” explains Wellness’ Leary-Coutu. “Functional treating is a fast-growing category. What’s driving this? A mindset shift. Pet parents are asking themselves, ‘I clean my teeth each day; why shouldn’t I clean my dog’s?’” 

Grocers Need to Address the Needs of Aging Pets

In answer to this hypothetical question, Wellness launched a dental treat product, Whimzees Daily Use Packs, to help pet owners care for their aging pets' teeth, a particular concern for senior pets. According to Leary-Coutu, periodontal disease is the most common disease in adult dogs. “It affects over 87% of dogs over 3 years of age,” she points out. “Whimzees, a non-GMO Project Verified brand of ours, are specifically engineered for the way dogs chew, and equipped with innovative grooves and ridges to help remove plaque and tartar. And because they are two times more effective at reducing plaque and boast a three-times-longer chewing time than leading competitors, pet parents won’t need any convincing to reach into the treat bag seven days a week.”

In terms of audience, senior pet products will appeal to any pet owner who’s aware of the health needs of their animal.

“Pet parents who are actively having conversations with their veterinarians about the needs of their aging pet will likely be the main audience for senior pet food,” says Leary-Coutu. “Because they are aware of their pet’s nutritional needs and changing habits, they understand the importance of feeding pets the correct nutrients, vitamins and minerals to support their current life stage.”

Educating the Consumer

It’s said that location is everything, and there are few situations that test this theory as well as a retail store’s shelves. But one challenge that retail grocers will have when selling these products is that many consumers may not know that such items exist. That being the case, there may have to be a bit of awareness building on the part of the retailer. 

Leary-Coutu suggests a two-pronged approach of education and product placement. “If retailers are educated on the importance of feeding pets food correlating with their age and activity level, they can convey these benefits to customers,” she notes. “We encourage pet parents to have a discussion with their veterinarian first to assess what added nutrition would benefit their pet, and then have a conversation with an informed retailer to point them in the right direction. Product placement is another way for customers to become aware of senior pet offerings. Displaying these products in the front of the store will certainly help catch the eyes of shoppers and make an impression.”

“With any targeted pet food, there is a consumer education opportunity, and this is especially important when it comes to promoting foods targeted for senior pets,” advises Toscano.

"According to a 2019 Senior Dog Owner Survey by Purina One, most dog owners are unaware that at age 7, their dog is considered a senior. That fact tends to creep up on dog owners, but it is important information to know. As dogs and cats age, their needs change, which makes it a good time to consider a diet that helps keep them healthy in their senior years. So there should be educational information included in any in-store and out-of-store promotions of senior pet foods.”  

Mars’ Baldwin also stresses consumer education. “One way to do this is to include information near the product display that shows how and why the product meets the unique needs of a senior pet,” he suggests. “This ensures a consumer is armed with the information and reassurance they need to know it’s the right product for them.” 

Variety on the Shelves

Product variety is also important to selling senior pet products. As Leary-Coutu puts it: “Retailers will always want to offer the best variety for customers in an effort to beat out competitors — so the more products, the better. A store that has ample options for senior pets will often be the one that consumers shop at, especially if other stores don’t have as diverse of an offering. For consumers, the opportunity to have options is beneficial — this gives them the ability to compare and contrast products, and ultimately choose the right one for them.” 

Toscano agrees that choosing the right assortment is important. “Stocking the right mix of product enhances a retailer’s chance of converting a shopper into a buyer,” he says. “In many cases, these tailored diets [like those for seniors] can be more expensive on a price per pound, thus offering the retailer an opportunity to increase sales and profits.”  

Don’t overwhelm customers in the quest for shelf variety, though. “With so many products on the shelf, it can be difficult for pet owners to know which food to choose,” cautions Baldwin. “It can be an overwhelming choice, but it’s an important one, because giving your pet the proper nutrition helps fuel a healthy and active life.” 

Instead, consider displaying senior products together, as opposed to grouping them by brand. This will make them stand out on the shelves. 

About the Author

Princess Jones Curtis

Princess Jones Curtis is a contributing editor at Progressive Grocer.

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