Industry Profile Burgess Pet Care Better To Have 10 Rabbits That Are Kept Properly Than A Millio

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Industry Profile: Burgess Pet Care – ‘Better to have 10 rabbits that are kept properly than a million kept badly’
19th November 2018

By Sandra Pearce


Burgess Pet Care launched a new food specifically for indoor rabbits at PATS Telford, and says this is all part of its commitment to animal welfare



In what could potentially be a world first, Burgess Pet Care has launched an indoor rabbit food, Burgess Excel Indoor Rabbit Nuggets.

The move is a direct response to the increasing numbers of rabbit owners who are now keeping their pets indoors, said Alex Thorne, Burgess senior brand manager. The latest PDSA PAW Report revealed that 39% of rabbit owners now keep rabbits indoors, while a Burgess survey showed that approximately 50% of owners said they kept their rabbits indoors, usually in the kitchen or the lounge. The PDSA Report also showed that indoor rabbits are kept much like dogs and cats, are litter trained and roam indoors freely.
She said: “There are junior and light diets for rabbits, but nothing for indoor rabbits, and why not? We need to understand better the needs of indoor rabbits.”

The relationship between indoor rabbit and owner is much closer, and they are generally given treats more often, she said, which means there is higher risk for weight issues. A 2014 study also showed that indoor rabbits are at risk of lower levels of vitamin D.
She said: “People are bringing their rabbits indoors because they think it is a better life for them. But most important of all, they love their rabbits. At Burgess, we want people to keep rabbits better and we want to provide the products to help them.”

The new indoor food therefore includes prebiotics, L-carnitine to help maintain a healthy weight, vitamin D to support skin and bone health and nettle and dandelion to help support urinary tract health.


Innovation is a priority and new products are released regularly to market

The food follows an earlier launch of Burgess Excel Parsley Pieces and Blueberry Bakes hand-baked, natural, small animal treats. “It’s our first move into baked because many baked treats are high in sugar and are therefore not nutritionally beneficial,” she explained. “These have no artificial colours or flavourings, and it’s really paid off as sales have just taken off.”

These high-fibre, grass-based treats with added parsley and blueberry are ideal for hand-feeding, she said. “They also performed better than any other baked treat in taste trials,” she said.

The PDSA Report also showed that 77% of owners now feed hay to their rabbits, and that 53% are giving the right amount of hay. While this is all good news, it does mean that more work needs to be done to convert the 23% who still do not give hay to their rabbits, which is the most important component of a rabbit’s nutritional requirements.

Rabbit Awareness Week turns the spotlight on rabbits
This is where the work of Rabbit Awareness Week plays a crucial part, said head of marketing Peter Lancaster. “We would rather have 10 rabbits that are kept properly than a million that are kept badly. Which is why we have RAW. I know people have criticised Burgess and Rabbit Awareness Week, saying we are making it too difficult to keep rabbits and putting off potential owners, but we want to promote correct rabbit ownership. Similarly, we stand by what we have said regarding selective feeding.”




Burgess is committed to education

Rabbit Awareness Week was first launched in 2006 to highlight the welfare needs of rabbits, which are said to be the most misunderstood in the UK. The initiative co-ordinates activities across vets, retailers and schools, and this year saw 3,000 vet events including rabbit health checks, while 600 independent pet retailers received support packs for use instore. In total, 4,000 packs were sent out to vets and retailers, and a further 2,000 rabbit owners downloaded digital packs from the website.
Peter said: “The challenge is reaching out to owners who do not go to a vet with their rabbits or did not get their rabbits from a store or rescue centre, so a lot of focus is on PR. This year, 25,000 people visited the RAW website in the three months up to and including the week.”

Sticking to one’s guns
Burgess brought out its single-component Excel range for rabbits in 1998 as a result of its concerns about muesli foods. “We believe rabbit nutrition is far more complex than that of a dog or cat,” said Alex, “but it does not have the same amount of attention. However, we also believe that the bigger the range of products on offer instore, the more attention owners will pay to that food.”

The Excel Feeding Plan sums up in five stages the complete feeding regime for rabbits – hay, nuggets, snacks, fresh greens and water. She explained: “We’ve included greens and water because we do not want owners to forget about these.”

The now widely-cited 2014 study of selective feeding through muesli food by the Royal School of Veterinary Studies in Edinburgh concluded that feeding muesli was creating health issues among rabbits, including dental issues, gut health and the risk of obesity.

“About 70% of the market was then feeding muesli, but we took the decision to cease muesli production. At the time people said it was not a smart business decision, but it was the right thing to do,” she said.
Latest reports suggest only 20% of rabbits are fed muesli today.

The research, which is supported by UK vet bodies and animal welfare, has been contested by recent research but as yet unpublished by Hadlow and Moulton Colleges, in conjunction with the Pet Industry Federation.

A recent rabbit symposium facilitated by the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association and PIF also discussed the ongoing muesli-nugget debate. Despite their disagreement over which is the better food to offer rabbits, both muesli and nugget camps agree that hay is the most important aspect and should form the majority (85-90%) of a rabbit’s diet.
“And that’s why all our Excel bags say ‘Don’t forget the hay’ on their covers,” said Alex. “And to retailers who place hay in their bedding section, we say to make sure good-quality hay is also available in their food section.”


The award-winning manufacturer picks up another award at the annual PetQuip awards

Support for the independent
Burgess is a family business – it saw light of day in 1649 as flour millers in North Yorkshire and in 1961, brought out its first dog food. As such, any investment is made with a long-term view. “The family wants the business to be here in another 250 years,” said Peter.

Investment is ongoing – millions have been poured into the business in recent years, including new offices, five silos, a grinder and a pre-formed bag line. With one extrusion production line, the factory can run three shifts 24/7. “We are one of the few companies that is still investing in the specialist pet trade and we have a team of seven people on the road. Nothing beats the face-to-face conversations,” he said.

“We are the leading manufacturer of small animal foods, and we have a lot of products devoted to them,” said Alex. Apart from Excel and its lifestage products (including the new Indoor product), there is also the Natures Blend super premium offering, a veterinary recovery DualCare product, a range of feeding hays and a host of treats. Plus its offerings for guinea pigs, chinchillas, ferrets and rat. “We think our range of small animals is now the best,” she said.


The Indoor Adult Rabbit Nuggets is the latest launch and caters to the specific needs of indoor rabbits

What lies ahead
Brexit is clearly an unknown for British businesses, but everyone is in the same boat until details are finally ironed out. Burgess Pet Care now exports to 32 countries, and this is an area the company wants to focus more on with opportunities in the EU, Asia, Australia and New Zealand – but much depends on what Brexit brings.

In the meantime, the UK pet food industry has its own unique challenges and concerns. For one, there’s this war on meat content, said Peter. Is putting more and more meat into dog food the right thing to do, he asked. Do dogs really need such high meat content, which also increases the competition with the human food chain?

There is also huge demand for clean labelling as owners expect – and demand – to know exactly what is in their pet food. “There’s also a mistrust of big business, where big business is seen as bad and artisan is seen as good. People want to think what they are buying is small and artisan,” he said.

The pet population as a whole is stable, though some species such as rabbits and guinea pigs have shown a significant decline, says Peter, drawing on figures supplied by the Pet Food Manufacturers’
Association. “Market growth will certainly not come from an increase in the number of pets,” he said.
There are a number of reasons for this, but these include smaller homes, people working longer hours, increasing numbers of private landlords who do not allow pets on premises, and the rise in popularity in gaming among children – it’s a case of the Xbox winning over a new pet.




Then and now. Today, Burgess Pet Care occupies two premises in Yorkshire

So where can growth come from?
“We’re not interested in a price war as we want to provide the best possible diet, so the only way to grow market share is by incremental new product development that is nutrition and innovation led,” said Alex.
Which is why Burgess is determined to continue its research into small animal nutrition and its educational programmes through Rabbit Awareness Week and its work with universities. It also has plans to grow its hay and treats range and giving owners more choice.
“Market growth is clearly in premiumisation,” said Peter.

Along these lines, independent pet retailers who develop their specialist status are the ones who will thrive and grow. “People are shopping differently today,” said Peter, “but retailers who take a proactive approach to retailing and offer a good range of high-quality products will survive.”


Burgess takes its products to trade and consumer shows

Breaking the hold of grocery
Pet owners are generally not loyal to a particular channel when it comes to shopping behaviour, said Peter, and the vast majority of dog and cat food is still sold via supermarkets. In fact, owners tend to shop across the different channels including the specialist retailer, online sites, discounters, garden centres and pound stores.
He said: “With products such as 15kg of dog food, well, online prices are cheaper and you cannot deny they offer the convenience – but this can be countered as many retailers offer free delivery in their local area. And treats, these remain an impulse buy.

“We believe there are not online shoppers or grocery shoppers, but people who shop in the various channels. So retailers have to offer what customers need. If people go into discounters or pound stores, they will not find everything that they need in that location.
“However, 80-90% of shoppers visit grocery, but grocery is not conducive to big bags of hay. So what we’ve found is that people may buy some nuggets in the supermarket but then buy hay, treats and bigger bags of nuggets from the pet retailer.
“That’s why we moved into grocery as this puts the Excel brand in front of a lot of new shoppers, pretty much every rabbit owner.
“We have not let the independent down – we have put our branding with a limited range in front of rabbit owners, and then these owners will go to pet shops for other products such as hay.
“For us, our biggest sales are via the independent,” he added.
“Each channel has a role to play, but the specialist pet trade is at the core of our business. And this is why we have seven people going into the shops.”


Another trip down memory lane...

Partnering Paul O’Grady
In June, Burgess revealed a joint venture with Paul O’Grady to launch the Paul O’Grady’s range of dog food.
“Most dog owners make their purchase decision based on recommendation,” said Peter. “If it works, they stick with the brand for life. With this, we have the best recommendation on pack with Paul, who is trusted and well-liked, and his love of dogs is known. We are getting really good feedback from our guys on the road.”

From the first appearance of Buster on The Paul O’Grady Show to his six years presenting For the Love of Dogs, Paul’s unquestionable love of dogs has shone through.

At the time of launch, Paul said: “Burgess came to me with the idea over 18 months ago and I think I expanded on their ideas – I could see that there had to be a link between good food and affordable price and I felt that people would trust me to deliver that.”



The range comprises three offerings: Paul O’Grady’s No Nasties, Paul O’Grady’s Hypoallergenic and Paul O Grady’s Grain Free.

No Nasties is available in two flavours: Rich in Chicken and Rich in Lamb. It has no added artificial colours, flavours or preservatives and is made using the ‘finest, natural ingredients, locally-sourced where possible, with added vitamins and minerals’.

The Hypoallergenic dog food comes in Turkey & Rice and Salmon & Rice and is made without many of the known ingredients that can cause intolerant reactions in some dogs. These foods contain linseed and fish oils to help support a healthy skin and coat.

Finally, the Grain Free dog food comes in a grain-free chicken flavour and includes tapioca, lentils and chickpeas.

There is extensive marketing support online, print, on TV and in the consumer and trade press. “Everyone in the business is excited about it,” said Peter.