During Mary Zhang’s two decades of practicing acupuncture and Chinese medicine in the Kansas City area, her patients often discussed their pets’ health with her.
Around 2016, she had a realization: the products she used to treat humans could also be used for animals.
In September 2020, her new company, Gou Gou Pets, began selling products that would use “ancient Chinese philosophies and holistic formulas to care for pets from their tongues to their tails,” according to the company website.
In Chinese medicine, “There are so many records about different herbs that can be very beneficial in many different methodologies, whether it’s human, animal or anything, so taking more of a natural approach — which a lot of people are looking for — is something different that is going to naturally improve their pets’ health,” said Mary Hays, operations director for Gou Gou, which means “doggy doggy” in Chinese and is based in Leawood, Kan., part of the Kansas City metropolitan area.
Zhang, who is from an area near Beijing, immigrated to the United States about 25 years ago. In the late 1990s, she was practicing medicine in San Francisco when a holistic health clinic in Kansas City recruited her to move. In 2006, she started her own practice.
Hays and Zhang say that a common critique of Western medicine — that doctors just prescribe medication to treat symptoms rather than address the underlying reasons for the problem— also applies to most veterinarians’ care for animals.
“Many people just know about [Chinese medicine] for humans, and we are just integrating it into our pets,” Hays said.
That concept is not entirely new in the United States. Chi University in Reddick, Fla., was founded in 1998 and offers training in Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine. Acupuncturists and veterinarians around the world also offer acupuncture for dogs. (Zhang does not because she is not a veterinarian.)
Gou Gou also entered the market while an increasing number of people adopted pets during the stay-at-home orders due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, pet ownership increased from 67% of U.S. households to an all-time high of 70% according to an American Pet Products Association survey.
And 30% of pet owners said they spent more on their pets in 2020 than in 2019.
“With the pandemic, more people did end up getting more animals for more companionship, and that does help in our field,” said Hays. “A lot more people are being more open-minded and are more conscious of natural products and that really does help our company.”
In July, Gou Gou was offering six products on its website and Amazon, including Crouching Tiger Hidden Tangles grooming spray and General Oww’s joint and pain management spray. The company hopes to have 30 products available for purchase by the end of the year.
“Everything is going well… but one problem we run into is we don’t have a fuller product line so therefore it’s very hard for us to sell massive amounts of product because, for instance, if you have a shampoo, you need to have a conditioner. If you have a conditioner, you need to have a deodorizer, but all these things take time to finish,” Zhang said.
The Kansas City area provides a good setting for a startup business such as Gou Gou because real estate is cheaper than other big cities around the country, Zhang said.
Hays said that when “you think about open-mindedness to a more natural approach, the Midwest is typically last to be more progressive.”
Still, Hays envisions significant demand for their products along the coasts in the United States and globally.
Zhang is also optimistic about the company’s future.
“One of the reasons is the holistic approach that will heal acute problems and promote long-term wellness and maintenance,” Zhang said. “American medicine doesn’t offer this type of treatment, and a lot of people who are looking for a natural, organic life, they want their pets to have a natural, organic life too.”
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