Sim Adam shops at an Urban Pet store in Los Angeles with her dog, Montey, who… (Mariah Tauger, Los Angeles…)
When Gabriel, a 10-year-old rescue cat from Chinatown, tucks into his morning meal, you won't see any Friskies or Meow Mix in his bowl. Ahi tuna and duck are more the ticket.
"I think there's more than enough pesticides and chemicals and that kind of stuff in human food," says Gabriel's owner, Jason Lanum, on a recent expedition to the Urban Pet, a Los Angeles specialty pet store. "I eat natural food, and I don't see any reason why I shouldn't give it to my cat."
These days, our pets may be eating better than we are. Big-box pet stores and precious pet boutique shelves are increasingly stocked with gourmet edibles that are corn-free, wheat-free, locally sourced, byproduct-free, free-range, minimally processed and raw. Many come with homey, inviting labels, and some look palatable even for humans. At Petco, a number of locations now have a wood-floored store-within-a-store for natural foods.
And if you think your pet's diet is still lacking, you can bolster it with supplements — containing brewers yeast, alfalfa, blueberries and more — that promise shiny coats, bright eyes and limber joints.
As more of us turn toward more healthful foods, we're doing the same for our pets, and the market has caught on. "If there's a trend in human food and supplements, you'll see it on the pet food aisle," said Bob Vetere, president of American Pet Products Assn., based in Greenwich, Conn. "Gluten-free, vitamin supplemented, breed-specific, senior formulas — all of these have taken over the pet marketplace, and we're seeing the competition increasing."
It's a matter of debate whether these foods are appreciably better for pets than the standard mega-brands — but just as with debates on human foods, passions can run high. Some pet owners are sure that the mega-brand foods are wreaking havoc on our pets' constitutions, and some veterinarians aren't too hot on them either, while other vets think they're just fine.
"From the scientific point of view, is there objective evidence that any commercial diet leads to a better outcome than any other?" says Dr. Tony Buffington, a professor of veterinary clinical sciences at Ohio State University. "If there is, I'm not aware of it."
Fully 72.9 million homes — 62% of U.S. households — own a pet, up from 56% in 1988, the American Pet Products Assn. has reported. And we spend big bucks on our furry, winged and scaly friends: Retail pet food sales were $18.4 billion in 2010, up 2.8% from 2009, according to the Packaged Facts, a market research company, and natural pet food sales were $1.5 billion in 2009, up from $689 million in 2005. The company predicts that sales of natural foods will probably outdo overall pet food sales in the next five years.
The cost of natural foods can be significantly higher: A 6.6-pound package of Evo grain-free dry cat food, for example, sells for about $19, compared with roughly $10 for a 6.3-pound bag of Friskies.
Simply put, our attitude toward pets has evolved, says Dr. Nancy Scanlan, a practicing veterinarian and executive director of the Maryland-based American Holistic Veterinary Medical Assn. "More owners are treating their pets like one of the family."
They seek food they believe is more wholesome and natural compared with large commercial brands. They want food free of byproducts (animal parts such as feet, ears and snout), food they hope will alleviate allergies or gut problems, and think that grain-free food or raw food (sold frozen or dehydrated) are healthier options for animals who wouldn't eat corn in the wild. Many owners moved to specialty foods after the 2007 recall of brands found to be contaminated with melamine.
"Consumers are starting to demand more from pet food companies," says Lucy Postins of San Diego, who started a line of dehydrated raw pet foods in 2002 after trying to feed her then-puppy a homemade raw food diet to eliminate preservatives. (She soon tired of cleaning up a kitchen "covered in blood and broccoli and all sorts of awful things.") Her business, the Honest Kitchen, sells to 2,100 U.S. stores. It uses free-range chickens and cage-free turkeys and no genetically modified organisms.
Customers are more educated these days, adds John Sturm, vice president of marketing for Petco. "We see more people walking into the store with printouts."
Pet foods are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, which requires the food to be safe, produced under sanitary conditions and bear truthful labels. The agency also makes sure manufacturers back up any claims on the packaging, such as "controls tartar" or "eliminates hairballs."
The food is also overseen by the Assn. of American Feed Control Officials, a voluntary organization made up of local, state and federal agencies. It sets the definitions for ingredients — if meat is listed, for example, the kind of meat has to be specified — and sets minimum and maximum amounts for certain ingredients and nutrients. Some states have additional requirements.