Old Category Learns New Tricks as Purina Markets Kibble to Reverse Cognitive Decline

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Purina Bright Mind dog food
Purina Bright Mind dog food Credit: Nestlé Purina

Can dog food help an old dog learn new tricks, or at least be more alert and playful? Nestlé Purina is betting it can, and that it can convince dog owners of it.

Healthy nutrition has become a growing trend in pet food over the years, but the focus has been largely physical, particularly joint health and weight management. Now Purina, the leading U.S. dog food brand, is focusing on canines' brain health with a Pro Plan Bright Mind product that it claims can reverse cognitive decline in older dogs.

Nestlé Purina researchers have been studying the nutrition-cognition link in dogs for more than a decade, finding that canine glucose metabolism changes around age 7, affecting memory, learning, decision-making and awareness, said Lisa Pacatte, senior brand manager for Purina Pro Plan.

"We can provide an additional energy source to the brain through the use of MCTs, medium-chain triglycerides," Ms. Pacatte said. "That can really transform your older dog to be more like he was when he was younger."

That bold claim is made in a June TV spot from Leo Burnett Chicago, featuring 10-year-old Lady and her owners, that says Bright Mind restored their lethargic older dog back to the playful, active version of years past.

"This is truly a transformational product," said Ms. Pacatte. "We have heard and I have seen firsthand so many success stories from owners who have senior dogs who have really noticed a difference."

Since the product was launched about 18 months ago, Ms. Pacatte said it exceeded sales expectations and created a "positive halo" that has helped the entire Pro Plan brand gain share. The company was encouraged enough to earlier this year launch a product for younger dogs geared to prevent, rather than reverse, cognitive aging signs.

It's a testament to the power of advertising and/or the Bright Mind proposition, given that prior Nestlé Purina research showed "cognition really wasn't on the radar screen" of consumers, she said. Pet owners often notice their pets playing less often, sleeping more, having more trouble getting upstairs, having accidents in the house more or becoming less active with age, but just assume that's a natural part of aging, or related to joint pain or other health issues.

"Consumers have been trained to think that food only feeds the physical part, because the category only talked about that until we launched Bright Mind," said David Rodriguez, brand manager-innovation for Purina. "What people don't realize is that many of those things are because their glucose metabolism has slowed down and their brains aren't getting the same amount of energy," Ms. Pacatte said.

The cognition research began in 2003, said Janet Jackson, VP-director of research at Nestlé Purina. A dog's brain accounts for about a quarter of the glucose needs of its body, so it tends to be particularly affected as their bodies process glucose less efficiently with age, she said. Such ingredients as palm kernel oil and coconut oil help provide additional energy to offset that.

But adding those ingredients goes against the grain of another major health trend in dog food, much like human food, toward cleaner ingredient labels. Grain-free products, in particular, have been gaining ground in the industry, Mr. Rodriguez acknowledged.

"A grain-free product by itself is not enough," he said. But to overcome resistance from people who feed their dogs grain-free products, Purina plans to launch a "no corn, wheat or soy" version of Bright Mind next year, he said.

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