Can You Really Customize Your Dog’s Food Online?

natural, organic dog's food in a bowl with ingredients zucchini, carrot, eggs and raw meat

There is an interesting subset of dog food customization and delivery that I’m seeing more references to lately.  If you search for “Custom Dog Food”, Google returns over 43 million results.  I have a problem calling it customized dog food, because as far as I can tell, each brand presents a limited number of options, although they do walk prospective customers through a questionnaire to select the best option available for their dog(s).

This trend that builds on several trends in human and canine nutrition.  The popularity of meal kits, like Blue Apron and HelloFresh, the growing humanization of pets, concerns about the quality of pet food ingredients, concerns about individual pet nutrition needs, often related to digestive problems, weight management and allergies, have all converged and led to the launch of quite a number of brands marketing custom dog food options.  Purveyors range from small businesses to multinational pet food manufacturers.  It’s not hard to find articles designed to help people sort through the alternatives, here’s one from Consumer’s Advocate, and another from Reviews.com  but it still could be a daunting task with millions of alternatives!

Marketing for these foods, for the most part, focuses on quality, transparency, and customization.  Dog food is highly regulated because it is designed to serve as a single food source, but the terms used to describe ingredients and package labeling requirements can be confusing at best.   Some sites go to great lengths to explain these terms and how their foods are formulated, others focus on the quality of their ingredients without getting into the weeds of feed terminology and definitions.

The sites that offer custom dry or kibble foods rather than freshly cooked ones tend to make less detailed claims about their ingredients but still emphasize high-quality ingredients and customization as key benefits of their products.

One barrier to buying from these brands is the amount of work needed  to select a vendor and set up a profile, but for people expending a lot of energy dealing with a dog that’s not doing well on its current food, this could be a time saver in the long run if the food results in better health.   In researching this post, I went through a bunch of work on several sites to set up a profile only to discover all the “custom” options included some of my dog’s biggest allergens. Most of the food companies offer free shipping and flexible delivery options, so once those are set up, getting the food is a no-brainer, you just need to pay for it.

Which leads me to what I consider the biggest barrier to adoption of these custom foods in my opinion which is cost.  Doing a quick comparison for Marley, my senior dog with multiple food allergies, prices  ranged from  just under $40 for a 24 days’ supply from Purina’s Just Right kibble blend, which is comparable to the price of the premium kibble I feed my other dogs, to more than 8 times that amount, $334 dollars for the same days’ quantity of food from Fresh Food for Dogs. I’m going to add that I’m not 100% sure either food is completely free of allergens, as each food contains some things that were not included on Marley’s food allergy test.  So  I’ll just continue to make her meals with venison or chicken and green beans plus supplements at home, following the recommendation of Dr. John Smith DVM, our functional medicine vet it’s been working for her and for me, she’s worth the time and trouble.

 

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PetCoach Comprehensive In-Store Dog Support System

My husband and I are fans of Shark Tank, and we happened to watch a vintage episode from November 2016 where Pupbox was pitched,  The company was offering a subscription box to puppy owners which followed the puppies with age-appropriate offerings through adulthood, when they switched to an adult dog version of the box.  The segment ends happily as Shark Robert Herjavec makes an offer that the owners accept.

As the owners mentioned the struggles that inspired the business, which involved figuring out what they should be buying for their own pet, it struck me that had they only purchased their dog from a responsible, AKC Breeder of Merit type of breeder, they would not have had so much trouble, as a dedicated dog breeder will follow and support their puppy buyers throughout the puppies’ lifetime and often beyond.

But Pupbox, and in turn, Petco realized that not every dog or puppy buyer is so lucky. People acquire dogs many ways including, from friends and family who no longer want the dog, from rescues and shelters that don’t have the staff to engage in long-term follow-up, as strays that wander into their lives, and from breeders whose motivation to engage with puppy buyers ends at the point of sale. Petco acquired Pupbox in November 2017,  about 5 months after they acquired Petcoach, an online consulting service which also provides the same type of support that comes with a responsibly bred puppy.

In July 2018, Petco announced a retail experiment, turning PetCoach into a retail store in San Marcos, California.  The concept provides a select group of high-quality products and services inside a PetCoach store. Products include high quality, curated food selection, including custom formulations from Petco’s partner Just Food For Dogs and also offers comprehensive online record keeping for dog services available in-store.

In today’s world where specialty retail is under attack from both online vendors and the expanding pet product set in mass retailers, this provides a service level that will be very hard to match.  The question is whether this concept will generate sufficient loyalty and in turn profit, to survive.

 

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Marketing In the Gray Zone with Canine Cannabanoids

cannabis plant leavesProducts including hemp for dogs as well as humans are being introduced and promoted at a breakneck pace.   The editor of Petfood Industry weighed in on this topic in the July 2018 issue.  One of the most interesting things about this trend from a marketing standpoint is the legal standing not only of these products but also of the terms used to describe them. The products go by a variety of names, including CBD (cannabidiol) and PCR (Phyto-Cannabinoid Rich) or just simply hemp oil.  While marketing emphasizes that these products do not contain the psycho-active THC chemical, images of cannabis leaves are freely used in promoting the products, acknowledging the heritage the product shares with THC-rich marijuana.

The legality of the product itself is a subject of debate, with the product providers claiming any product free of THC is legal, while the U.S. government says they most decidedly are not.  Veterinary Practice News discussed some of the pros and cons of providing hemp oil options to patients in a July 2018 article. That said, what is most commonly referred to as CBD oils are being sold for both human and animal use with many retailers deciding to take the risk, and the first product containing CBD oil was recently approved as a human anti-seizure drug by the FDA.

In addition to the challenges of promoting a product which fits into a niche category that’s in a legal gray area, there are likely issues coming with the naming of these products as the manufacturer of the first FDA approved drug has applied to trademark the term “CBD”  and is expected to actively protect that trademark. Bark Avenue blogged about the challenges of marketing their CBD-labelled dog treats. 

I will watch with great interest as the questions of legality, nomenclature, and efficacy are explored, as more manufacturers and retailers decide to jump on the trend.  Stay tuned for updates to this post.

 

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Lose Weight in 2012 with Purina and Jenny Craig

project-pet-slim-down lgogPet Product News reported on  a co-marketing promotion between two of food giant Nestle’s divisions, Jenny Craig weight loss and Purina pet foods work together to promote weight loss for both pet owners and their pets.   Project Pet Slim down is  marketed  through veterinarians as a New Years resolution for the pet and is not mentioned on either the  Jenny Craig or Purina  web sites.  The Project Pet Slim down site has information on assessing your pet’s condition, tips for getting your pet more active, pet weight loss reality show videos  and reference to weight loss pet foods available by prescription from Purina.  The Jenny Craig part of the program is optional for pet owners and offers a 30-day trial to the program (food sold separately.)

The New Year’s resolution tie in is a twist I haven’t seen in marketing diet pet foods before, and another validation of  the pet humanization trend. While I doubt many pets are looking to make changes for the New Year, obesity in American pets is a growing problem, just as it is in their owners. I applaud Purina for making the effort to promote better health in both pets and their owners.

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Blame Dog Owners, not Marketing for Overweight Dog Epidemic

48 Pound Norwich Terrier
APOP Photo of Obese Dog

Petfood Industry reported on the pet obesity epidemic, which mirrors that found in the human population.   Research conducted by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention finds that about half of all pets are overweight and roughly 20% of those are obese.  The APOP has conducted annual pet weight surveys since 2007 and has found an upward trend  in the proportion of overweight pets that are obese.    It appears that the culprit is not the shift to more premium brands of dog foods (low-calorie dog food sales are up) but that the dogs, like people, are snacking more often and eating more high-calorie snacks than in the past. Dog treats are one of the fastest growing pet food categories and like human foods, often very calorie dense.  Owners admit to indulging their pets with treats, and use of this “affordable luxury” may be spurred by the challenging economy.

The solution, just as for human weight loss, is more attention to a balanced diet, which for dogs is easily achieved by feeding a high quality balanced dog food, avoiding snacks, and regular aerobic exercise – which can aid in keeping their owners at a healthier weight as well.

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PetsMart and GNC create line of pet supplements

PetsMart and GNC recently announced a partnership to create a line of pet supplements available exclusively through PetsMart retailers and website.  The supplement line launches in fall, 2010 according to an article on financial news site CDTV.

This is interesting development marks the convergence of several trends.  Vitamin and supplement usage is increasing for humans,  pet care is becoming more humanized, and people are becoming more interested in premium nutrition for their pets.  This is a great opportunity for both partners; joining two strong brands in an area where there are few well-known competitors.

My concern is that pets may end up being over-supplemented as many of them already eat a nutrionally balanced commercial diet.  If the worst that happens is that some dogs produce expensive urine when they excrete excess vitamins, that’s not a terrible thing.   But dogs as well as people are harmed by overuse of some supplements. Owners should make sure their veterinarians  are aware of the supplements as well as the food that their animals consume.

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Low calorie dog food study reveals problems

Overweight Dog A veterinary study reported on dogchannel.com found that dog foods labelled low-calorie had inconsistent labeling and feeding recommendations.  Content analysis showed that the food in the container  did not always match package claims.

Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University did an analysis of  44 different dog foods with labels indicating they would support canine weight loss. Such foods are required by federal law to show calorie counts, but unfortunately not only were these numbers  inaccurate,  the recommended feeding amounts would result in weight gain.

Dog obesity is a significant problem with nearly half of all dogs classified as overweight and nearly 10% obese in a 2008 study. Just as in humans, excess weight contributes to increased health problems, veterinary expenses, and decreased length and quality of life.  A recent study also found a correlation between overweight owners and over weight dogs.

Owners who want their dogs to lose weight need to think of the fundamentals – diet and exercise.  Unfortunately, dog food manufacturers are not always a reliable source of  weight loss advice.

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Pet Industry Overview from Pet Food Forum

The July issue of Petfood Industry magazine includes an article titled “Business is Barking” which summarizes Packaged Facts presentation from the 2009 Pet Food Forum.  Although I have to call Packaged Facts out on their creative cropping of the Y axis on a few charts for dramatic effect, the overall message is positive for the pet industry’s potential.

Total pet market spending was up 1.4%  in 2008 compared to the prior year with some indivdual brands up by double digits. Unfortunately, sales are forecast to see a slight (0.5%) decline in 2009, but are expected to regain momentum and continue climbing through 2013.

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Packaged Facts Pet Care Services Report

Packaged Facts recently released the 3rd edition of its Pet Care Services in the US report. I haven’t seen any online summaries of the report yet, but I could glean a few insights from the table of contents available online.  Total expenditures on pet care services in 2008 reached $23 Billion, hitting a 10 year high. Veterinary services are the fastest growing sector within pet services, with the increase in pet obesity with its health consequences as well as increasing numbers of geriatric pets helping to fuel this growth.  The number of households owning cats and dogs also continues to increase.

The report also covers changes in the structure of the pet services industry, increased corporate presence, more workers, and the growth of franchising.  Details about expenditures by service type, pet owner demographics and speculation about the  impact of the recession on spending are also included in the full report, which is available in a variety of formats on the Packaged Facts site.

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Dogtime Media’s Save-a-Dog Facebook app

MediaPost reports that Dogtime Media has just launched the Save A Dog Facebook application with the support of Frontline as its exclusive advertiser through September. The application allows users to check out adoptable dogs by breed and location, and then virtually foster, walk, and send dogs to their friends. Points are earned for downloading the app and all virtual interactions with the rescue dogs.

For every 2500 points earned, DogTime will donate the equivalent of one cup of food to rescuegroups.org, a technology provider which creates online solutions for rescue groups and will use the funds to lower the costs of their services to those groups.  This is the first time I’ve seen an organization looking for volunteers to provide technical services rather than the traditional food, toys and pet supplies for rescue.

A comprehensive campaign is planned utilizing DogTime’s network of advertisers, bloggers, and newsletter subscribers as well as its Twitter stream. Partners Frontline and rescuegroups.org will also participate in campaign extensions.

A personal criticism of the application’s functionality: The breed selection tool could be better, as my search for Bull Terriers near my zip code yielded hundreds of pit bulls, but I saw no actual “English” type Bull Terriers such as I own. Which reflects the balance of those breeds in rescue, I’m sure, – I just wish the listing “Bull Terrier” was better targeted to match the dogs.  This problem may be limited to breeds with similar names, but it reduces the attractiveness of the app for people who can’t find dogs like the ones they own to send to people who also own those dogs (who happen to make up the majority of my Facebook friends.)

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