January 30, 2019

BY: Robert Likins

We in the pet care community—retailers, suppliers, manufacturers, distributors and hobbyists—prioritize the well-being of companion animals. Using the best available science and data, we work to provide quality care and to educate prospective pet owners so that they can continue that care at home. But recent activist efforts targeting betta fish are aimed at turning the public against retailers and manufacturers, and this could have a significant impact on your business whether or not you sell bettas.

Over the past few months:

  • National Geographic ran an article on their website that contained many misrepresentations and questionable conclusions about the proper care of betta fish
  • A class action lawsuit over selling smaller-sized aquariums was filed in Oregon, with several retailers and tank manufacturers named as defendants
  • Storefront sidewalk demonstrations protesting the sale of bettas have been organized

Activists have succeeded over the years in passing regulations on the sale and ownership of furry pets, in large part by using emotional appeals to sway public opinion and render facts all but irrelevant. This approach has been far less successful when it comes to fish, but this new effort seeks to change that. By targeting bettas, they are aiming to create a stigma and raise the cost of entry into the hobby, which will make it less appealing for aspiring aquarists. Given bettas’ frequent role as a “gateway fish,” this is likely to ultimately reduce demand for many fish and the overall size of the hobby.

So what can you, as a retailer, do to fend off this attack and better position yourself and your business in the days and weeks to come?

The best thing you can do is to have a well-educated and communicative staff. To make sure you do, you should:

  1. Provide your staff with resources and training on the needs of the animals you sell or sell accessories for. Sharing our experience and expertise as pet care professionals is the single best way to demonstrate that we put pets before profits. Make sure your team members take exemplary care of the animals in your store AND share thorough and accurate care information with your customers so they can keep their pets healthy once they’ve brought them home.
  1. Start providing animal care sheets if you don’t already, or review your existing care sheets to make sure they provide the most up-to-date information on the animals you carry. Review this information with your employees regularly and encourage them to share it with prospective pet owners. Have printed copies on display in your store and be sure to provide these sheets to customers whenever they take an animal home. The Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC) has published animal care guidelines for the retail pet industry and ready-to-print care sheets for over a dozen pet types that are accessible at pijac.org/caresheets.
  1. Hold staff training sessions with role-playing, where someone acts the part of a customer who is a first-time pet owner, or who has been misinformed about the care required for the animal they are looking to buy.
  1. Let your customers know that you are an expert resource that they can continue to rely on once they’ve left your store. Encourage them to contact you with any questions they have about keeping their pet, and to let you know how the pet is settling in. They will appreciate the great customer service, and it will reflect well on your business and on the pet care community as a whole.
  1. Spread the word that you and your staff are responsible pet care professionals and community members. Send out a press release if you receive a community service or other award. Hold in-store events where you provide care overviews and give your customers a place to create new friendships with like-minded pet owners. Reach out to your elected officials and invite them to visit your store to see things for themselves.

Unfortunately, activists will continue to spread misinformation and work to limit your ability to bring pets into people’s lives through splashy public appeals and more subtle efforts such as the recent attacks on betta fish.

We, the responsible pet care community, need to be vigilant and proactive to neutralize these threats by working together to demonstrate our commitment to the health and well-being of companion animals and by educating ourselves, as well as prospective and current pet owners, on proper pet care and handling.

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