OAKLAND -- Pampered pets in Oakland can spend a weekend at an animal hotel, have their fur beautified at salons like Glamour Paws in Montclair and walk out with a leopard-print dress with pink hearts and rhinestones or a tiny $25 silver and black Raider doggy dress printed with "Oakland." They can play with toys that are environmentally friendly, recycled and "Made in the U.S.A." Shampoos should be natural, veterinarians holistic and flea treatments homeopathic.
But in Oakland, animal extravagance tends to be about the food -- as opposed to diamond kitty collars or $3,000 puppy perfume. Here pet owners are shopping for food that is raw, organic, pasture-raised and locally sourced. And while not everyone can afford an $80 bag of "biologically appropriate dog food," consumers spent $20 billion nationwide on pet food in 2012, a figure that is expected to rise.
An increasing portion is grain-free, gluten-free, gourmet, premium and even kosher, according to the American Pet Products Association. For example, sales of dog edibles with no synthetic ingredients doubled since 2003 to reach 18 percent. High-quality food was one of the top 10 trends to come out of the 2013 Global Pet Expo.
"People want the best quality," said Dane Eifling, co-owner of Canine Comforts dog store in Oakland.
A lot of the food sold by Canine Comforts is human grade, co-owner Abigail Knight said. "You could eat it," she added.
Knight and Eifling opened the small shop in the Jack London warehouse district in February 2011. Their customers tend to be young professionals, like them, who commute to work and are willing to pay high-quality goods for their pets, which they treat like children. (Owners now talk about co-parenting their pets.)
Landlords have responded by allowing pets. The nearby Allegra condominium leasing office even has a silver canister filled with dog treats and outside stands a dispenser of baggies to clean up after animals during walks. Canine Comfort sells similar biodegradable baggies scented with lavender. "It helps cover the smell," Knight said.
The caveat, Eifling said, is that the bags are made in China, a controversial source, at least when it comes to food. "Their standards for pet food are a lot different," said a woman shopping for her Jack Russell terrier, which mistakenly launched an assault on the shop's small dog statue. She and her partner said they avoid corporate pet stores in order to steer clear of Chinese-sourced feed. Canine Comforts simply stopped carrying anything from the country. "People want products to be vetted," Eifling said.
The attitude dates back to the biggest recalls of animal feed in U.S. history linked to additives from China contaminated with a chemical compound, melamine, six years ago. In the years since then, the Food and Drug Administration has received thousands of complaints about illnesses involving jerky treats, mostly from China, the agency reported. Severe cases have involved kidney failure and gastrointestinal bleeding. Nearly 600 animals have died, the FDA reported. Agency officials recently proposed rules in an attempt to more closely regulate pet food. The public can comment on the regulations until Feb. 26.
The 2007 recall was an eye-opener for animal lovers, said Ruth Villasenor, the owner of Paws and Claws in Oakland. But Villasenor said that in 2004, when she and co-owner Diane Pfile opened the organic pet food and grooming business in the Dimond district, sales representatives laughed at them for wanting to specialize in natural products.
"So it's definitely changed," she said. Now big corporations are trying to claim a piece of the alternative business, Villasenor said.
Companies like Del Monte and Procter & Gamble are buying up independent producers, while big-box stores like Pet Food Express are replacing local shops such as Paws on Piedmont. An advertisement in the pet-lover publication Bay Woof for one of megachain Petco's new scaled-down stores, Unleashed, which is soon opening on Lakeshore Avenue, features a crate of carrots, radishes and lettuce.
Dog owners Alex Bodell and Amelia Hritz said they buy food their French bulldog, Boston terrier and puggle can digest easily, which happens to be high-quality. Petco doesn't sell their brand, Bodell said. "So we end up shopping at boutique stores."