The latest headlines on nutritional supplements are bound to leave consumers confused and perhaps their medicine cabinets closed but whether they carry that confusion into the Petco aisles is unclear.
Last month’s headlines had omega-3s increasing prostate cancer risk. Earlier this year, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force announced that vitamin D and calcium could not be recommended to prevent osteoporosis in women and another study found that men who took high doses of vitamin C were more likely to develop kidney stones. In 2011, a University of Minnesota study suggested women who took multivitamins had an increased mortality rate.
But has that confusion and caution entered the minds of pet owners? Industry experts NBJ interviewed for its upcoming Animal Nutrition Industry Overview issue are unconvinced. “People don’t follow the controversies for pets as closely,” says Bill Bookout, vice president for sales at Kemin and the founder of the National Animal Supplements Council, who points out that similar research for animals is rare and human studies don’t necessarily apply. “I think it’s dangerous to take one study that may suggest one thing and apply it universally.”
The emergence of functional treats may also lessen the impact of the human supplement headlines. Functional treats contain supplement ingredients like glucosamine and omega-3s but they don’t look like pills. They look like food. Just as humans are told to get their vitamins and minerals from a varied diet, pet owners may think they are doing the same for their pets. When the supplement claim is presented as food-based, the association might not be there at all. Pet product marketing consultant Chuck Latham says he has seen the “OK, I’ve got to put blueberry in my food!” fads run through the pet food industry. The beneficial ingredients seem to be accepted when it’s food, even though “there might not be the science behind it,” Latham says. Treats carry an entirely different set of consumer perceptions than veterinarian-prescribed supplements. “They're a little bit of an impulse item,” Latham says.
The education curve is also different. Supplements for pets are new to many people. Paal Gisholt at SmartPak, an equine supplement maker, says many of his customers are just now becoming aware that their horses are not living as they evolved to live in the wild and that the extra stresses may require extra supplements. “When horse owners are aware of the problems and how they can be managed with supplements, they incorporate supplements.”
It can’t be lost on dog owners that their pets are not running with the wolves either. The only varied diet they are likely to get is what falls off the kitchen counter.
The recent headlines are unlikely to have any immediate effect on the pet supplement business, says Joel Adamson, a senior consultant with Brakke Consulting, a Dallas-based firm serving the animal health and nutrition industries. You can’t base a business plan on headlines, says Adamson. “You have to make your decisions on branding and launch and packaging on other things than what you think the next study will say.”
For NBJ's full analysis of the dyanmics driving growth in animal nutrition and pet supplements, check our August issue publishing later this month.