Food & Drink: Animal crackers

Forget Pal and Pedigree Chum, dog food that's good enough for you to eat is booming and, as Rachael Philipps discovers, making millions for its creators. And overleaf, more treats for Rover
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The Independent Culture
THE AMERICAN obsession with health extends way beyond personal trainers, gyms and plastic surgeons; their pets must be healthy too. It's an obsession which, like many others, has developed in the States and then permeated pet culture here. In New York's Doggy Doo and Pussy Cats Too, pink and baby-blue diamante collars glitter and sway. This up-town, up-market pet shop has offered dog-sitting, -cleaning and -grooming since 1979. It is one of a clutch of Prada-esque pooch parlours in New York which don't just sell accessories for the elite hound, but high-quality, "healthy" and very expensive food, too. Doggy Doo's top seller comes from the Brooklyn bakery LuLu's - garlic biscuits delivered fresh every day and extremely popular both with dogs and their human sidekicks.

"No one cooks in New York," confides the coiffured lady behind the counter. "You want a cake here, you send out for one - even if it's for your pet."

But if the success of the Three Dog Bakery is anything to go by, millions of Americans are more than willing to cook for their pets. Last year the Three Dog Bakery got its own weekly spot on the US cable channel The Food Network, a show which demonstrates cooking ideas for your dogs.

One of a host of companies creating organic and additive-free food for pets, the Three Dog Bakery is run by ceaseless self-promoters Dan Dye and Mark Beckloff. They launched it in 1989: sick of their unfulfilling day jobs, they wanted to start working hard at something they loved. For Christmas of 1989, Mark's Mom gave him a cookie-cutter in the shape of a bone as a stocking filler. Mark explains: "As I pulled it out of the stocking, it just clicked - we should start making dog cookies."

Since then, they've been featured on the covers of Forbes and Entrepreneur magazines, and have become a hugely popular example of the American dream come true. "We started out of our own kitchen, we had no money, we had no baking or business experience, but we had a true love for dogs. We talked to vets to find out what to stay away from and what to add. Over several months we perfected our recipe for vegetable and beef biscuits." This turned out to be their first biscuit on the road to becoming millionaires.

Dan and Mark's success lies in focussing on the most important element behind the feeding of any pet - the owner. Mark explains the ethos behind the food: "We wanted to create an all-natural treat. We wanted to use ingredients that people would feel comfortable about eating themselves."

And do they? "Oh, absolutely. Mothers come in when their children are teething and buy biscuits for their kid to munch on for their gums."

If you don't have the energy to follow one of their recipes, the food on offer in their stores includes premium blend complete food, biscuits in various sizes for different-sized pets, and doggy cakes. They also cater for special occasions, and even created a cake recently for a canine wedding.

The ambition of these dog chefs is little short of world domination. Their third cookbook has just been published in the US, with plans to distribute it worldwide in 12 languages. The book includes "yappetizers", cakes and special meals for birthdays, Halloween and Thanksgiving. Dan and Mark have eight bakeries in the States with plans for 20 more by the end of this year and 100 by the end of 1999. They hope to open a Three Dogs franchise in the UK next year and are more than interested to hear from people who'd like to set one up. So if you'd like to pack in the day job and spend the rest of your life as a caterer to the well-heeled doggy fraternity, give them a call.

As frivolous as all this might seem, post-BSE Britain is far more aware of what is contained in our food and in that of our loved ones. The deaths of cats attributed to CJD have made owners think closely about what they set down for Felix. Marketing pet food is a highly lucrative business - it is consistently among the top five products sold in supermarkets. As Beverley Cuddy of Dogs Today magazine notes: "Manufacturers used to advertise dog food simply on its taste appeal, but have shifted their emphasis dramatically towards health."

The theories of how best to feed one's pets vary almost as wildly as theories about the human diet. One product on the market, Green-Arc, is designed to mimic the diet of a dog living in the wild: it contains vegetable ingredients which replicate a wild dog's usual supper - the contents of a rabbit's stomach, which would contain partially digested food. Other offerings cater to a wide range of food intolerances which reflect those found in humans.

Not all the foods on the market are geared solely to Fido's needs, however. For owners with a delicate disposition, there are products such as James Wellbeloved, which claims to reduce flatulence in your hairy pal, make his poop smell sweeter and provide you with a smaller "outcome" to clear up. A new sales point in the poop-and-scoop city dog world is the amount and the texture of your dog's stools. Beverley notes: "When judging a food, anything that produces something you can scoop up is good, but if it's like a cow pat, that's bad."

Debate about the best diet to for your dog will continue, and it's difficult to get a totally independent view on the subject here as British vets are trained in nutrition through research institutes affiliated to the major tinned pet food producers. A similar situation in Australia has provoked rebellion from a group of radical vets called the Raw Meaty Bone Lobby, which encourages people to feed dogs scraps and bones rather than tinned foods. However, it's still your vet that you should turn to for advice if you decide you would like to cook for your pet at home. But be warned - you may end up eating take-outs while the hound dines in style.

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