MASARYKTOWN — A little more than a year ago, pet owners across the nation freaked out. Dogs and cats were dying because of tainted pet food imported from China. The Food and Drug Administration recalled a slew of pet foods, including some name brands.
Many pet owners began researching home-cooked and raw food diets for pets. They wanted to know where the meat came from, that the animal was treated humanely and not injected with chemicals or hormones.
And that's when a small farm in Masaryktown began getting big-time calls and e-mails.
"We use no chemicals. We do everything naturally," said Mike Blaha, who owns Rabbits, Etc. with his wife, Dee. "People can come here and walk around and see that for themselves. And that's what they like."
It began with a phone call from a man from France who was moving to Orlando. His cat had allergies and was on a special diet of rabbit. He wanted to make sure he could get organically grown meat for his cat.
The Blahas never planned on a side business of selling meat and bones for pets. But, after that phone call, more came. Now, they get requests for information daily. Many are from far away and want the meat shipped. The Blahas are experimenting with ways to safely ship their meat.
Mike Blaha was born on the same 20-something acres he now farms with Dee. They began with some rabbits, chickens and produce. Now they have the second-largest rabbit farm in Florida. They also have a range of animals: sheep, chickens, turkeys, pigs, cows. They also sell fresh eggs and produce. They use no chemicals and their feed is done on a special order from a mill in Hernando County, so there are no fillers. Together, the couple raises all their animals, oversee their slaughter and butchering, and they sell directly to the customer.
"We, as a country, are becoming so dependent on other nations," Mike Blaha said. "And that scares me."
Veterinarians, generally, don't endorse raw food diets for pets; regardless of the quality of meat.
"It's not something I'm comfortable recommending," said Dr. Diana Joyner-Mattox, of the San Antonio Animal Hospital.
She said that animals in the wild build up immunity to bacteria and other things in raw meat. But indoor dogs and cats aren't used to it, and can easily get very sick. Also, animals need more than meat alone. In putting pets on raw food diets, supplements have to be added to their diet. Many buy high-grade grinders to finely grind bones, to put into the meat, for the calcium. The Blahas also grind bones for customers who want it.
Joyner-Mattox said that if pet owners don't trust commercially made pet food, they can always cook meals at home for their pets. She suggested that anyone wanting to do this to talk it over with a veterinarian and ask the doctor for recipes.
Robert Harris, who lives in Brooksville, has been cautious with the food he feeds his German shepherd, Reef, even before the China food recall. Reef gets a high quality dry food with tinned mackerel. But then Harris found Rabbits, Etc., through a friend. He took a tour of the farm.
"I felt very good about the safety and quality of their meat," Harris said. Now Reef gets raw ground meat or cooked organ meat a few times a week, mixed in with his dry food.
"He pigs out on it," Harris said. "He's gained weight. His coat looks good. He's really healthy."
Erin Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4609.