TAMPA — Traci Rinoldo lines up six bowls on the counter and opens a pack of raw chicken necks and backs. Her Great Dane, Monte, watches outside the door, licking his lips and doing a back and forth dance.
Another Great Dane, three cats and a hairless Chinese crested named Kyra also eagerly await their "natural" feast.
Nothing processed, no chemicals or by-products.
When Rinoldo started feeding raw meat to her pets some 14 years ago, people called her nuts. Today? They ask her for tips.
Though not a new phenomenon, raw food diets for pets are increasingly popular locally. Some people buy food straight from their grocers' meat department. Others buy packaged raw meats prepared into patties or sausage-shaped tubes from area businesses capitalizing on the trend.
Some feel squeamish about handling raw meat, but the days of scraps from dinner plates or cheap dry food from the grocery have passed for many a Fido.
Pets are members of the family and, as people eat healthier, "they're mimicking that with their pets," said Jennifer Fadal, who owns the pet store Wag and is hosting one of two natural pet fairs today.
Proponents contend that pets are healthier and live longer on natural diets similar to what animals eat in the wild.
They use a variety of methods. Some grind meat or add a mix of grains, vegetables and supplements.
Rinoldo, 43, follows the Biologically Appropriate Raw Food (BARF) diet designed by Australian veterinary surgeon Ian Billinghurst. She sometimes prepares meals with vegetables, eggs, cottage cheese, molasses and pumpkin, and gives the dogs raw marrow-filled shank bones.
But experts warn of dangers. Emergency veterinarians regularly see dogs with bones lodged along their digestive tracts. And a recent warning from the Food and Drug Administration says that feeding bones to dogs, including those in raw meat, may lead to emergency surgery or death.
"Bones are unsafe no matter what their size," said Carmela Stamper, an FDA veterinarian.
Rinoldo says raw bones aren't as hard as cooked bones and they don't splinter.
"Chicken necks have tiny, tiny bones that are like eating popcorn for you and I," she said.
Nadine Znajda, a Tampa veterinarian dermatologist who helps owners design diets for pets with food allergies, said raw diets can lead to nutrition deficiencies and safety hazards, if not handled properly. For instance, pets can contract salmonella or E. coli through raw food and easily transmit it to people. She suggests that owners consult a specialist to tailor a balanced raw diet.
In Hyde Park, Cynthia McClellan makes what she calls the equivalent of "prey animals" by combining raw muscle, organ meat and organic vegetables. Her four dogs, two cats and a blue and gold macaw have never tasted packaged food. Before going raw nine years ago, she cooked for her pets and tried a vegetarian diet.
"I was like, pioneer woman," McClellan said.
Much of her feeding plan, which she has passed along to many others, comes from Kymythy Schultze, a clinical nutritionist and author of three books on natural pet diets. McClellan says her pets have smaller bowel movements, less shedding and clean teeth.
Back at Rinoldo's house, dinner is ready. Her dogs and cats are hungry — as part of their diet, she had them fast the day before. They enter a tiled feeding room specially built for easy cleaning.
"All right, mama," Rinoldo says and signs to her 5-year-old Great Dane, Emma, who is deaf.
"Their digestive tract isn't as weak as veterinarians make you think," she says, watching them devour the meal.
In three minutes, the crunching is over.