A Pet Cause Celebre

At Pet Essentials, Tori Tyree sells
At Pet Essentials, Tori Tyree sells "natural" shampoos and a chew bone containing alfalfa, cloves and parsley. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
By Jura Koncius
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 15, 2007

Pet Essentials opened eight years ago in a small space on 14th Street NW, with the pledge to sell only natural and holistic products for the dogs, cats, ferrets and tropical fish of the U Street corridor: fewer chemicals, no dyes, no animal testing. At first business was tough, because it was hard to find a lot of environmentally friendly or certified organic products, and prices were significantly higher.

Little did the owner know that the green tide of ecological awareness and sustainable living would come sloshing into the world of pets, creating a national hunger for corncob-based cat litter and paw-friendly biodegradable ice melters.

These days, regular customers include officers from the D.C. Police Canine Patrol unit who stop by and spend their own money to get their dogs additive-free food. D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) picks up veggie chews for his dogs Roger, Dodger and Guapo. "They have never eaten meat in their whole lives," Graham said. "They are about as green as you can be for white Westies."

Next month, a new sign is going up, changing the name of the store from Pet Essentials to GreenPets. Owner Linda Welch plans to open six new GreenPets in the Washington area in the next 18 months. "There has been a huge upsurge in the market," said Welch, who also has an online business, GreenPets.com. "My customers understand that if they feed their pets healthier, they will live longer."

Green is one of the hottest buzzwords in business today. Industry estimates of the total spent on environmentally conscious goods and services in the United States are upward of $209 billion. Manufacturers are racing to slap green labels on every conceivable product, whether floor cleaners, cars, foods or fleece jackets. (Figuring out all the greenspeak and eco-certifications can be confusing, so beware of dubious claims.) With high-profile spokesmen such as Al Gore and no end to high energy prices, a saving-the-earth designation is as much a part of a purchasing decision as color and price.

Politically correct pets all over America are embracing the green lifestyle, thanks to concerns about global warming, health, wellness and safety, and thanks to the largess of owners.

"It's a relatively new trend, and something that pet parents will see increasingly more of in the next 12 to 18 months," said Michelle Friedman, a spokeswoman for PetSmart, a chain of 900 stores that is adding regularly to its stock of natural products.

No, there is not yet a cat litter claiming to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But consumers who have already gone green in houses, garages and gardens are buying Planet Dog collars made of hemp (a renewable resource) and Newman's Own Organics dog food, produced without herbicides or pesticides. Catnip toys for Fluffy can be all-organic, and Labradors can be groomed with a shampoo that uses green tea extracts. Chinchillas can be treated to "dust-free" chinchilla bath sand. And rabbit bedding is available in a recycled-newspaper version, thanks to a product called Yesterday's News.

"Products that promise to create healthier pets and, sometimes, a healthier planet are hot," said Quincy Yu, president of SeaYu Enterprises in California, maker of Petrotech Odor Eliminator, a biodegradable nontoxic product made primarily of plant extracts. It's available in 24 versions to remove stains and such odors as skunk, vomit and urine. "When we started out in 2001, nobody cared about all-natural. Now the all-natural aspect of it is finally coming to fruition," Yu said.

"Some of the products are silly, but then, anytime you talk about Americans dealing with their pets, they will go overboard in some area," said Jim Motavalli, editor of E/The Environmental Magazine. (He admits to buying calming, all-natural, pheromone-dispensing diffusers for his Siamese cats.)

Motavalli said the words "all natural" mean as much on a pet food can as they do on a can of human food: "It has no legal meaning; only the term organic does." He said chemicals used in flea and tick collars, shampoos and cleaning products are often sources of concern for pet owners, who look for natural alternatives.

At Dogs By Day & Nite, a cageless day-care center for pets next door to Pet Essentials, which has the same owners, 85 dogs hang out on a daily basis. The center buys gallons of Ecologic Solutions from Washington's Eco-Green Living store, a product billed as nontoxic and nonhazardous to pets or humans. Scipio Garling, administrative manager at Dogs By Day & Nite, said, "Dogs' noses are very sensitive, and you can't use overriding chemicals."

"Whatever is popular with humans is going to be popular for their pets," says Bob Vetere, president of the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association. According to the association, Americans spent $38.4 billion on pets in 2006. "It finally dawned on everyone that the same purchaser who is buying all the green products for humans will also buy them for their dogs."

Still, not every pet owner is willing to scrutinize labels or pay more for eco-conscious features.

Daniel Giglio of Mount Pleasant was wading through racks of "all natural" bird treats for his sun conure parrot at the Cleveland Park Petco last week. "All this is way too much for my bird," said Giglio, who is from Argentina, where he says pets are treated as pets and not "put on a pedestal."

"I love my pet and take care of it, but I'm not going to pay extra for something organic. I don't think it's going to make a huge difference for my bird," Giglio said. "Although for myself, I do like to buy organic milk."

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