Consumers pamper pets with healthier products

AMY LORENTZEN For The Associated Press Published:

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) -- Like many pet owners, customers at April Lawrence's pet bakery and boutique in central Iowa want the best for their four-legged family members.

That means high-quality, safe and eco-friendly products, from organic food and treats to BPA-free toys and water dishes. And they don't mind paying extra.

"The customers are looking at their pets as part of their extended family," says Lawrence, adding that the organic, baked-from-scratch, healthy treats she sells at Bone-a-patreat Pet Bakery and Boutique are especially popular. "They're better than what I eat!"

Many pet owners began looking for safer products after huge pet food recalls in early 2007 that followed the renal failure and death of hundreds of animals, says Leslie May, who operates Pawsible Marketing, a firm that helps pet-related businesses, in Blue Ridge, Ga.

"It really prompted people to wake up and look at what's in their pet's food and what's around their pet's life, in their environment," she says, adding that there's also a growing awareness of lead in dog toys made in China, and of the dangers posed by some plastics used in many pet products.

Social media sites have provided a forum for people to learn more about pet health, she says, and that also leads to a demand for safe, well-made items.

"You are getting higher quality, which last longer, so you actually come out even or ahead in the end," says May.

For example, a food bowl free of the chemical bisphenol-A, or BPA, may cost twice as much as an ordinary bowl, but it can last a dog's lifetime.

Brad Weston, chief merchandising officer for Petco, a leading pet-products retailer with more than 1,100 stores, says there's definitely a trend toward healthy, eco-friendly products as pet owners project their own lifestyle choices onto their pets.

"(Pets) are increasingly thought of as family members, so not only are we willing to dig deeper into our pockets for our pets, the choices we make for them are a direct reflection of our personal preferences, values and ideals," he says.

Petco stores include a Natural Shop, featuring natural and organic foods and treats. And the company has introduced a line called Planet Petco, with earth-conscious products that are non-toxic, chemical-free and made from sustainable materials.

No matter if the economy is slumping, Weston expects the trend in premium pet products to keep growing.

"For the most part, as parents, we don't skimp on our kids until or unless we really have to. And same goes for our pets today," he says.

Adrian Hitt, a 27-year-old photographer from Nashville, Tenn., who creates dog portraits, says she buys pet products only from companies that are trying to be green. Consumers are becoming wiser in general, Hitt believes, and that extends to pet products.

"Overall we're starting to become more educated about what's in our food, our shampoo, our makeup, in our food containers," says Hitt, owners of a 5½-year-old mixed-breed dog named Benny.

May, the consultant, says her research shows that many Baby Boomers who have become empty-nesters have turned to nurturing pets. Also, more couples and individuals are remaining childless and looking for a bond with a pet, and they have the resources to spend on their beloved animals.

"A lot of people, just like me, got a dog to do something with," says May, whose 7-year-old sheltie, Johann, was the impetus for her to get into pet marketing, and start a website and blog, Raise a Green Dog! "He sure filled that bill . the bond -- it's so much more powerful than I could ever have imagined."

Erin Riley, whose company, OffthePaw.com, sells high-quality dog and cat supplies, says business is booming, and she's adding new products every day. Her Saugus, Mass.-based company offers a range of BPA-free toys and pet dishware, as well as many products made of recycled material, including eco-friendly pet beds. Organic treats are also popular. Her customers, Riley says, are often well-versed on what products are healthiest.

"They are aware of what the product is made of, where it comes from and how it's made. They're just not willing to take the risk," she says.

Riley, who has a 4½-year-old Shih-Poo named Zoe, feels the same. While there may not be much research on the effect of things like BPA on pets, she believes that "if there's an effect in humans, I think it goes to say there's an effect in pets."

Pet owners who want to create a healthier environment, May says, should focus on finding the best pet food they can afford, using safe products on their lawn and for indoor cleaning, and investing in safer products that pets frequently use, such as food bowls and bedding.

Lawrence, who has been in business nearly eight years in Des Moines, says there's an eco-friendly version of just about any product.

"We don't even sell a line of poop bags that isn't biodegradable," she says. "You don't think people care as much as they do about their carbon footprint, but they do, and they care about their animals' too."