Howard County's health-conscious pet owners turn to an array of specialty food

Sgt. Jessica Villanueva took time off from her job at the Marine recruiting station in Columbia on a recent weekday morning to shop for her pet. Her store of choice: Whole Pet Central, a small chain that specializes in healthy, natural pet food and opened a shop in Oakland Mills last year.

Villanueva and her boyfriend have a 3-month-old dachshund named Gunner, and they want to feed it right.

“I’m a pretty healthy person, so I definitely want that for my pet, too,” she says. “I don’t want to feed him like a bunch of preservatives. I want him to live a long time — I want him to be happy and healthy.”

Welcome to the brave new world of pet food, where more and more people, increasingly interested in eating healthier foods themselves and increasingly considering their pets part of their families, are buying healthier, more nutritious — and more expensive — food for their pets.

A survey of pet owners last year by the American Pet Products Association found that the proportion of grain-free and gluten-free food purchased for dogs nationally nearly tripled from 2012 to 2016, from 7 percent to 19 percent. During the same period, the proportion of grain- and gluten-free cat food sold nearly quadrupled, from 4 to 15 percent.

“In this day and age, 95 percent of pet owners consider pets part of the family,” says Mary Emma Young of the Washington, D.C.-based Pet Food Institute. “And as pets have become part of family — become people in may ways — food trends that humans are following are making their way into pet food as well.”

Similarly, a study last year by the Nielsen Company, a market research company based in Washington, found more and more pet owners rejecting foods with genetically modified ingredients (GMOs) and artificial preservatives.

“There isn’t much people won’t do for their pets, and this sentiment has only strengthened over the past few years,” the study concludes.

The report on the study was titled “The Humanization of Pet Food.”

Nobody has surveyed Baltimore-area pet owners specifically, but based on the proliferation of stores that specialize in healthier pet food, which are sprouting up like mushrooms after a storm, the trend is in full swing here.

The first Dogma: Life, With Your Pet store, for example, which specializes in high-end pet food and other products, opened in Canton in 2006. Since then co-founder Scott Stanton has opened two more, one in Mount Washington and one in Locust Point, and he says business is booming at all three.

Besides Whole Pet Central, which opened a year ago but only celebrated its grand opening in April after extensive remodeling, the county’s growing collection of high-end, health-oriented pet stores includes Clipper’s Canine Café in Ellicott City, Pet Barn in Maple Lawn, the Wagging Lounge Dog Resort in Columbia and Bark! in Clarksville.

The owners, managers and customers at these stores say demand for their product is growing. That growth is fueled, they say, by a love of pets, healthy-eating trends for humans and a growing conviction that, while pets and humans have different nutritional needs, both thrive when they eat healthier food designed for their particular needs.

“As with people, growing numbers of animals are suffering from ailments — diabetes, allergies, cancer,” says Liora Robinson, co-founder and co-owner of Whole Pet Central. “People are realizing that the quality of the food their pets eat plays a big role in the health of their pets. If they believe in clean food, locally sourced ingredients, not over-processed food for themselves, they are naturally looking for that for their pets.”

Jeana Evans, manager of the Pet Barn, echoed that sentiment.

“People are learning more and more about the pet food industry and how poor a lot of the foods out there are and how many problems they cause,” she says. “Pets are getting sicker than they used to, and younger. … But if you change to better quality ingredients and eat healthier, they’re healthier.”

While Bark! has been in business in Clarksville for 13 years, marketing and outreach coordinator Laurie Newton said in the past five years, especially, customers have been demanding better pet foods.

“People were feeding their animals poor-quality food nine times out of 10 but didn’t realize it,” she says. “Now, they’re more educated. They read the ingredients and discover that a lot of food out there has lots of fillers, and doesn’t have the quality ingredients that pets need.”

Kate Bowman, who owns and operates Clipper’s Canine Café with her mother, Ann, said choosing better food for your pet is simple. “Turn the bag over and look at the ingredients,” she suggests.

The key, she says, is to look for food that has natural ingredients, a dedicated protein source (not just “poultry,” for example, but “turkey” or “chicken”), no byproducts or fillers, no sugar or artificial preservatives, and as little corn as possible.

But not everyone has hopped onto the fancy pet food bandwagon.

Veterinarian Nary Beth Soverns, co-founder of Countryside Veterinary Clinic in Ellicott City, carries and recommends four popular, non-boutique pet food brands to her customers — all of which, she says, are plenty healthy for most pets.

Unless the pet has special needs, she says, gluten- or grain-free food is not a necessity and such items as animal byproducts and preservatives can be beneficial.

“I research this stuff all the time and still don’t feel there’s any need for a pet to be on a grain-free diet, for example,” she says. “People should not be ashamed if they’re feeding their pets food from a grocery store.”

Still, Soverns applauds the heightened awareness and interest of pet owners in what their animals eat.

“I think it’s great that everybody’s excited about nutrition and everybody’s trying to do the best thing for their pets,” she says. “I just think it’s really hard to get accurate information.”

Her recommendation for confused pet owners: Ask your vet.

Those who choose to shop at high-end pet supply stores can expect a dazzling array of fresh, frozen, dry, canned and refrigerated foods, plus more exotic offerings, like those of Whole Pet Central: freeze-dried cod skins, grain-free pumpkin treats, raw frozen duck, rabbit and turkey entrees for cats, frozen yogurt dog treats with pumpkin, beef and bison veggie bone broth and more.

The pet food in these stores does not come cheap. Comparisons can be tricky, as they vary from store to store, but on amazon.com, a 12-pound bag of Nature’s Recipe dry dog food, which is grain-free and has no corn or artificial flavors, goes for $23. For the same price, Amazon.com sells a 17-pound bag of dry food from Pedigree, a popular brand found in most grocery stores.

Similarly, you can pick up a dozen cans of Alpo dog food for $8 on amazon.com, while a dozen cans of Newman’s Own organic dog food, with no wheat, corn or preservatives, will cost you $21.

But many pet owners are convinced the health benefits of pricier food far outweigh the extra cost — and moreover, could save them money on veterinarian bills.

Merilee Clay, of Ellicott City, shops regularly at Whole Food Central, loading up on large bags of grain-free and low-grain kibble for her two Cavalier spaniels, 10-year-old Copper and puppy Pippen.

“In a lot of ways it would be lovely, and less expensive, to pick up a big bag of food at a big-box store and be done with it,” Clay says. “But I know there’s been a lot of recalls with dog food like that, and with this my dogs’ coats are shinier, they have less digestive issues — they’re just healthier.”

Susan Miller, of Woodbine, does her pet shopping at the equally well-stocked Bark! It started 11 years ago when she and her husband, Steve, brought home Bosco, a then-2-year-old rescue dog. “He was in poor shape,” she recalls. “A very high-stress dog who’d been fed very bad food.”

On the advice of Bark! employees, they began feeding Bosco a diet that includes high-quality kibble, raw beef, pureed organic pumpkin, Omega-3 fish oils and probiotics. Bosco improved and since then, the couple has added Hoolie, a now 3-year-old female, as well as Bosco and Hoolie’s two offspring, Tangie and Yeller, both almost 2. The dogs are a mix of golden retriever, Labrador retriever and border collie.

They all eat the same diet, Miller says, and they all are thriving.

“If you saw Bosco, you would think he’s maybe nine,” Miller says. “It made an incredible difference in his coat, in his overall health. He’s on no medications.”

As for the puppies, she adds, “I really believe they’re as strong and as healthy and have the beautiful physiques they do because of the food they get — and the exercise.”

Both Miller and her husband are vegan — she owns Red, an environmentally and socially friendly wine and beer store located, like Bark!, in the eco-conscious Conscious Corner shopping center — which she concedes has played a part in choosing a healthful diet for their pets.

“Because of our own standards for food and products, we knew we wanted to do the same thing for our dogs,” she says. “We’re very particular about what’s in our food.”

After all, she says with a laugh, “Our pets are our children.”

Where to find specialty pet food

Health-conscious pet owners in Howard County can now find specialty foods — from grain-free pumpkin treats to raw beef and probiotics — at several locally owned stores, including:

Bark! (5805 Clarksville Square Drive, Clarksville; 443-535-0200; barknatural.com) opened in 2004 in Clarksville and has since added seven more locations, all in Maryland. Fittingly, the Clarksville store is located in Conscious Corner off Route 108, a collection of eco-conscious stores that includes Roots Market, a natural food store, and Nest, an eco-friendly clothing and gift shop.

Clipper’s Canine Cafe (8307 Main St., Unit D, Ellicott City; 301-490-9068; clipperscaninecafe.com) is a family-owned pet boutique and natural pet food store, which moved from Savage Mill to Main Street in Ellicott City late last year.

Pet Barn (8191 Maple Lawn Blvd., Suite F, Fulton; 301-725-0958; petbarn.net) calls itself a “premier pet boutique” that specializes in holistic food and high-end pet accessories.

The Wagging Lounge Dog Resort (9315 Snowden River Parkway, Columbia; 443-546-3391; wagginglounge.com) opened in Columbia in April and features a treat bar with homemade biscuits and other treats made with all natural ingredients.

Whole Pet Central (6925 Oakland Mills Road, Columbia; 410-997-5888; wholepetcentral.com) is a small chain that specializes in healthy, natural pet food and opened a shop in Oakland Mills last year.

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