DES MOINES, Iowa — 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 2007 that followed the renal failure and death of hundreds of animals, says Leslie May, who operates Pawsible Marketing, a Georgia firm that helps pet-related businesses.
"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.
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.
May 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.