Profits on Paws
By Melissa Brunner
People are expected to spend more than $55.5 billion on their pets this year. This 4.1 percent growth from 2012 is fueled by entrepreneurs and investors introducing innovative products and increased luxuries to the marketplace.
Pets are big business and Topekans who make a living off our four-legged friends say the reason is no secret: people consider pets a part of the family.
Need proof? APPA's survey found 53 percent of dogs and 38 percent of cats received Christmas gifts, while 12 percent of dog owners and three percent of cat owners show their love with Valentine's gifts for their canine and feline loves. And think of all those Facebook pictures of Fido and Felix decked out for Halloween.
With all the attention on health care, pets aren't forgotten. The use of pet medications and supplements continues to rise as people strive to help their pets live longer, healthier lives. What's even more impressive is that these numbers have grown during an economic time when other industries absorbed a downturn, making it clear the pet care industry is here to stay—no bones about it.
Hill’s Pet Nutrition
One veterinarian's quest to help a guide dog overcome kidney failure through nutrition has grown into arguably one of the biggest success stories in the pet industry, and it's based right here in Topeka.
In 1939, Dr. Mark Morris met a blind man named Morris Frank and his guide dog, Buddy, who was ill. Dr. Morris set to work developing a new dog food to help Buddy's condition. Word of the food’s success spread, and soon, Dr. Morris' wife, Louise, and three other women set up a canning operation in the family's New Jersey basement, packaging what was then known as Raritan Ration B in glass Ball jars.
By the 1940s, World War II made glass scarce and the demand was outgrowing the basement business, so Dr. Morris contracted with Burton Hill at Hill Packing Company in Topeka to can the food with a new name. The year was 1948 and Hill's Pet Nutrition was born. In 1951, Dr. Morris established a research laboratory in Topeka to continue developing new pet food formulas.
According to information provided by company spokesperson Luce Rubio, Hill's now has a team of more than 150 veterinarians, nutritionists and food scientists working at the Hill's Global Pet Nutrition Center to ensure all products deliver not only balanced nutrition, but also the desired therapeutic benefits with flavor pets will eat up.
"Discoveries made in the Nutrigenomics lab enhance our understanding of how nutrients and ingredients in pet foods interact in the body," Rubio said. "Through this cutting-edge research, Hill's has developed an exceptional understanding of the molecular basis of disease and health, the biochemical response to food and the role that nutrients play in the health of dogs and cats. By performing our own research, we develop pet foods that promote pet wellness and reduce the health risks to pets that can occur from excess or deficient nutrient levels."
CONTINUED GROWTH & DEVELOPMENT
The research has allowed Hill's Prescription Diet and Science Diet lines to regularly add new products for both dogs and cats based on factors like age, size and specific health conditions, from gastrointestinal troubles to urinary ailments to weight control. Just last year, Hill's introduced its first new brand since the 1960s, Ideal Balance, a line of natural pet foods. Rubio says Hill's researchers also are the only researchers in pet food manufacturing applying nutrigenomics to developing feline products, starting with development of the cat genome.
It all adds up to a story of growth into the future. From its humble beginnings in Dr. Morris' New Jersey basement, Hill's is now a $2.2 billion global subsidiary of Colgate-Palmolive. From the Raritan Ration B that alleviated Buddy's kidney problems, Hill's line now includes more than 80 Prescription Diet and more than 90 Science Diet foods sold in more than 90 countries around the world. Products are made at facilities in Topeka and Emporia, as well as Bowling Green, Kentucky.; Richmond, Indiana; Holland; and the Czech Republic.
University Bird and Small Animal Clinic
Dr. Larry Snyder is excited by the possibilities of new legislation creating a stem cell research facility at the University of Kansas Medical Center. He's seen the success of such treatments in his own patients.
"Some get back to acting like puppies because they feel so good," he says.
Snyder treats patients of the fourlegged variety (feathers and scales, too!) at University Bird and Small Animal Clinic. In November 2010, the clinic became the first veterinary clinic in Kansas to offer in-house Adult Adipose Stem Cell Therapy.
NATURAL FORM OF MEDICINE
"When I got out of school, it was medicine and surgery, and you learn very soon that doesn't always work," Snyder said. "I had been looking for as natural forms of medicine as we can, letting the body heal itself. This fit in very well. We're using cells from the animal to heal himself."
The treatment involves collecting fat from behind the shoulder blade or from the body cavity and breaking it down to release stem cells. The cells are then activated with platelet-rich plasma and stimulated with a certain light frequency. Several hours later, some stem cells are injected back into the animal, while the excess are stored for later use.
Snyder says the treatment is effective for dogs or cats dealing with arthritis or injuries or damage to muscles, bones, tendons or ligaments. He says drugs do have their uses, but they can cause stomach upset or bleeding or in the stomach lining and, often, are just a band aid for the underlying problem.
"Stem cells actually heal the arthritis. It will actually regenerate normal cartilage," he said.
Plus, he says, of the more than 100 dogs and cats his practice has treated, they've seen no negative side effects. What they have seen, however, is improved cognitive function and decreased anxiety. The treatment also is now being used in cats with kidney failure, dogs with hip dysplasia and animals with knee injuries, where the stem cells can reduce inflammation and speed healing.
INVESTING IN THE LIFE OF YOUR PET
The vast improvement in the number of cells becomes important when considering cost. Snyder says the initial extraction, processing and treatment is about $2,000, more for a larger animal. Treatments may need to be repeated in six months to a year, especially if an animal is more active or damage is more extensive. Once an animal has cells banked, followup treatment is $300 to $400.
Snyder says not all animals will return to the puppy and kitten level of activity, but most do see mild relief. He believes humans are seeing a glimpse of the future in the relief stem cells are bringing their furry friends. "It's not the cure for everything, but it's another tool in our toolkit," he said.
Tom Schmar Mobile Vet
There's no dragging your dog or coaxing your cat through the doors of Dr. Tom Schmar's veterinary clinic. In fact, you don't bring them through the doors at all.
That's because Schmar comes to you. His veterinary practice is based on house calls.
"When I went to vet school, I thought I'd be a large animal doctor and work the farm - and that's what house calls are," Schmar said. "Being stuck in one place all the time doesn't make me happy, so this is perfect for me."
Schmar graduated in 1989 and went to work for a traditional vet clinic in Topeka. Two years later, they parted ways; with the agreement Schmar wouldn't open a competing clinic. He made a living doing relief work, including a regular gig in Omaha, where he came to know a couple house call vets. Schmar observed them, asked questions and decided he could make the approach work in Topeka.
“I cater to a clientele that loves the convenience and they like the way I do veterinary medicine.” Schmar said. "I'm not a white shirt, white coat, bowtie vet."
While Schmar is proud of his personalized service, the disadvantage is he can't do everything at a house call. For surgery, dentistry or radiological tests, he has a network of colleagues who allow him privileges at their hospitals or to whom he will refer a client. Even then, he will pick up the animal from the client’s home or meet the client at the facility.
Thanks to technology, Schmar business functions much like a regular clinic. Medical records are computerized, with the pet's photograph on invoices and documents; smart phones allow him to text orders; he's able to print out certificates and labels on site; and he's able to accept credit and debit card payments.
“The love that pets give you—that’s what I’m trying to give back to people and trying to make a living while doing that,” he said.
Dog Day Afternoon
It's Layla's first day and she's getting to know everyone. She gives a tentative nudge of the hand to say hello, while Dallas seems glued to a visitor's feet and Wrigley wiggles into the visitor's bag, trying to smuggle away the car keys. Inside, Jovie has commandeered a suitcase as her resting spot while Moose peaks out from a playhouse.
Yes, life is "ruff" for the guests at Dog Day Afternoon, a doggie dude ranch off SW 10th and Auburn Road.
"I feel like an imposter," says owner Julie Castaneda about her success as a businesswoman, "like someday someone will come and say, 'Enough of this fun!'”
Julie and her husband, Phil, started the businesses in March 1999 in an old warehouse-type building at SE 2nd and Monroe, near downtown. Back then, they would welcome maybe a couple dozen dogs a day for daycare, grooming and training. Within a year, they outgrew the space and moved to the property off Auburn Road, with five acres of outdoor space.
DOGGIE DUDE RANCH
"We changed the concept from dog daycare to doggie dude ranch so as to capitalize on the country setting and vast property for dogs to run," Julie said. "Year after year, the business grew and word spread about our unique business."
The ranch setting is complete with an old west theme. Smaller dogs have "Dodge City" indoors all to themselves. Other animals are separated based on factors such as breed, size and temperament into fenced play areas such as the OK Corral and Little Big Horn. The groups take turns running the Open Range, where humans can expect to get a little muddy as the fourlegged guests jump into the pond, chase sticks and chase each other along a trail through the woods, only to splash down into the water again.
"Gone are the days of dogs being left in the back yard to fend for themselves while busy owners conduct their own lives," Julie said. "Today's responsible dog owner is looking for more. They want a safe, stimulating, social interaction for their dog. They love our atmosphere and the positive energy that is felt as soon as you walk in the door."
LABOR OF LOVE
Dog Day Afternoon now averages 80 dogs a day and will regularly see numbers topping 120 when weekend boarders arrive. Originally staffed by herself and her husband with afterschool assistance from their nine children, Dog Day Afternoon now has 17 staff members—a few of them their now-grown children.
Julie admits it is labor intensive to juggle dozens of dogs at a time, ensuring everyone is getting along and making sure any evidence of a muddy romp through the Open Range is erased by the time doggie parents arrive, but she thinks it’s the best job in the world.
"When you do something you really love, it doesn't feel like work," she says.
Topeka Area Grooming Shuttle
Jennifer Walker's office is on wheels. And if she leaves visitors feeling washed up, that's a good thing.
Walker owns and operates Topeka Area Grooming Shuttle, a mobile grooming service. No loading up a dirty dog and driving to a salon—this salon comes to you.
"They get in, they get bathed, they get groomed, and they're back in the house," Walker says.
SALON ON WHEELS
Unlike a traditional house-call groomer who will use the owner's home bathing facilities, Walker’s van is actually a mini salon.
"Everything in the van is made so it's ideal working conditions," she says.
Walker prides herself on pampering pooches to the max. Each bath begins with a blueberry or plum facial, making sure the areas around the eyes and mouth get extra-clean. Nails are filed smooth and nail "pawlish" is optional. Shampoos are all natural and no visit is complete without a dab of canine cologne.
Walker will do creative cuts or even coloring, if requested.
"I think people are getting more and more inclined to treat pets as family members," she said. "In the economy of the past couple years, the grooming industry has not suffered because pets are a priority and people are making that part of their expenses."
Walker began working in a traditional pet salon setting in the late 90s and launched her mobile service in July 2011. She traded building lease payments for a vehicle payment—a fully outfitted new mobile unit can cost $75,000 or more. But she wouldn’t trade the atmosphere it’s allowed her to achieve.
“It’s calmer,” she said. “It’s more serene because it’s just you and the dog, and that dog has your undivided attention. I like the one-on-one attention with the dogs. The distractions are so minimal.”
Walker says the mobile service is ideal for puppies going through training or older dogs, for whom a trip to a salon is too stressful, but she takes anything in between—and they all become like part of the family.
Dixie's eyes peer over the edgenof the table, licking her lips innanticipation as white icing is piped over the peanut butter coating of thenlast tray of cookies. In the center of the table, an array of finished cookies in brightly-colored holiday and sports themes sits safely out of reach.
It's "paws off" until the wagging tail is rewarded with a taste. You might call Dixie, along with her pal Shadow, the "quality control officers" for Pet-Delights, a gourmet pet treat and accessory business run by sisters Vicki Williams and Patti Wilson.
"We always thought would be fun to do," Vicki said.
The business officially began in April 2007. Vicki and Patti both worked for AT&T. Vicki, facing retirement, decided she needed something to do, so the sisters got busy in the kitchen, throwing together whole grains, dehydrated carrots or pumpkin, peanut butter or molasses, seeing what ratio of water or eggs was needed, then testing the results. They don't claim to be all-natural, but they do strive to be as natural as possible.
FINDING THE NICHE
"We didn't really have a business plan," Vicki said "It was more like, 'Let's see what happens.' We started doing farmers market and thought we'd test the market. Then we started doing craft shows."
Within a couple of months, they started to find their niche, tapping into a target market of pet spoilers.
"The people that are going to buy the upper-end products are the ones that consider them a part of the family," Patti said.
The feedback from those first weekends at farmers markets and craft shows provided some lessons. They needed to expand their product line and be more visible with their displays.
"You had to have a storefront look," Patti said. "We had a banner decorated with paw prints and people didn't realize what we did."
EXPANDING PRODUCT LINE
Since Vicki liked to sew, they developed their own patterns for collars and leashes. A customer's request led to development of a cotton-fabric comfort harness. They've added toys, too. The treat line also has expanded to include cake and muffin mixes—perfect for doggie birthdays or for older animals that have a hard time chewing. Cat owners felt left out, so they came up with recipes for smaller "nibblers" in chicken, liver and peanut butter flavors.
They boil and grind their own meat to avoid any additional sodium. They also grind their own grains and dehydrate their own vegetables for the cake and muffin mixes. It's been a recipe for steady growth, still rooted in their yards, kitchens, craft rooms and garages.
Helping Hands Humane Society Shelter
Perhaps no place serves as a testament to how people in the Topeka area feel about pets quite like the new Helping Hands Humane Society Shelter at SW 21st and Belle.
The inscription above the reception desk reads, "The second-best home your pet will ever have." Area donors stepped up with $7.2 million to make it that way.
The organization relocated from its long-time home in North Topeka in January with no debt or mortgage on the new location.
Expanding from 13,000 square feet to 52,000 square feet has allowed the organization to expand kennel space and get-acquainted rooms. Plus, it now has rooms for seminars and meetings, individual offices for staff, and a large, open area known as the "engagement center," suitable for training sessions or other interaction opportunities with pets. Additional fundraising is running ahead of schedule to make an on-site veterinary clinic, in collaboration with Kansas State University, a reality.
"We are not the city's dog pound anymore," Acree said. "We have become the animal resource center for northeast Kansas.”
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
Already, the increased traffic at the new facility appears to be making a difference. Between January 8 and April 17 of 2012, HHHS adopted out 549 animals. During that same timeframe this year, 863 animals were adopted.
While Acree is excited to see more pets finding forever homes, he's even more excited about the potential to address the homeless pet problem at its core.
"We still have a lot of strays coming into us—way more than a community of this size should have," Acree said.
"But I believe, through education efforts and what we can do in this facility, we can change that. We can make a difference beyond just talking about it. We can get that conversation going for the next generation of pet owners."
Heavenly Pet Memorials
"He asked so little yet gave so much."
"Jump the clouds and run thru the stars."
These tributes are all memorials for four-legged family members offered at Heavenly Pet Memorials.
"I know exactly the compassion that's felt for your four-legged children," says owner Jeannene Freeman.
"They look up at your eyes and how can you not love them? Losing one is a very devastating time."
IDENTIFYING THE NEED
Freeman says the need to help families through that loss is born from a 37-year career as a nurse. She says she loves the profession, but the 12-hour shifts were starting to take a toll. Her husband, Bobby, already owned a pet crematory that provided services for area veterinarians. They spotted an ad in a pet magazine for a business in Indiana dealing in pet memorials and paid a visit.
"I thought Topeka needed something like that," Freeman said.
She opened her business in March 2007. On the practical side, it offers pet cremation services, including picking up the animal from the home. Beyond that, they sell a selection of urns in which to hold the remains. Customers also can find personalized memorial stones, clay paw impressions, ink stamping of paws (or hooves) made into jewelry—they even arrange memorial services.
“You want to memorialize the closeness you have with your pet,” Freeman said.
HELPING IN TIMES OF LOSS
Business has been strong enough for Freeman to scale back her nursing hours to part time. She says the clientele she's developed crosses all demographics, and families with children find it especially helpful. Many will hold memorial services—the business has its own area for such gatherings or they'll arrange a service at a local cemetery, all of which have pet areas.
"The transition is just a lot easier," Freeman said. "We have information we can share with the families so they can share what happens. When kids get older, they have a lot of questions."
Much like similar businesses for humans, Freeman is available 24 hours, seven days a week, including holidays. She also encourages preplanning, selecting memorials and making arrangements ahead of time, when you're better able to focus on the decisions.
Whether it's paw prints, hoof prints or webbed-footed prints, our animal friends leave an impression on our hearts. Providing an outlet to memorialize that, Freeman says, is the least she can do.