| Follow Us: Facebook Twitter Youtube RSS Feed


The natural-pet-foods movement is growing, and Woody's is its Twin Cites headquarters

Three types of customers visit Woody's Pet Food Deli routinely to buy freshly made cooked and raw, "human-grade" food for dogs and cats, says Enrique Palma, who co-owns the Minneapolis-based business with his wife, Michelle. There are those who eat healthy, wholesome foods themselves and want the same for their pets.

Others may be okay scarfing down chips and pop on the couch, but they don't want their pets to eat that way. "For them their pets are their kids, and they'll do anything to keep them healthy and prevent avoidable diseases from occurring," Palma says.

Most customers, though, are people trying to help pets who already have health problems, chronic problems that Western veterinary medicine has been unable to treat or in some cases, even diagnose. "Most have exhausted all avenues medically, but are just now looking into their pet's nutrition," Palma says. It's the same road many humans with ongoing, unsolved medical problems travel.

After a time, costly tests and medications are abandoned for alternative treatments, and nutrition is often among the first things holistic practitioners hone in on. Still, Palma explains, repeating what he often says to hopeful customers, healthy food should be thought of more as prevention than a cure-all. ""If ever the pet was 'cured,' it was because the diet just brought some digestive balance to it," he says.

This belief in the benefits of a healthy diet, as well as the acknowledgment that digestive troubles may be at the root of many illnesses, has made headlines in recent years and been the subject of several high-profile books, such as Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food.

In a country bubbling over with nutrition advice, Pollan argues, we are a nation eating food that is so heavily processed and full of additives that it can no longer be thought of as food. And we are getting fatter and sicker for it. Toss all of that conflicting advice out the window, he urges, and only eat the kinds of foods "your great-grandmother would recognize as food." Does this same logic apply to pets?

The Better-Pet-Food Revolution

People have cut back on a lot of things during the last few years of economic recession, but one area that hasn't seen much scrimping is pet food. According to Packaged Facts, the market for higher-grade pet foods, pet foods considered to be healthy and "natural" more than doubled between 2005 and 2009 and is expected to reach $2.6 billion by 2014.

While some dismiss this trend as a whole lot of anthropomorphizing, others believe people are wising up and reading labels on foods for themselves and their pets. The stores of Minnesota-based Chuck & Don's Pet Food Outlet have always carried foods considered to be "premium" brands, meaning of higher quality than those you find on grocery store shelves.

But over the last five years, in response to consumer demand (some stemming from the highly publicized pet food recalls that began in 2007), Dana Andresen, director of operations, says 75 percent of the brands their stores carry are natural or holistic formulas. Many no longer contain grains like corn and wheat, which are fillers that many pets are allergic to. A few brands use only organic ingredients, including meats from animals that have been sustainably raised and given no hormones or antibiotics. These foods with few additives and real meat and vegetables cost more, but shoppers seem increasingly happy to pay the price.

"You'll notice that with cheap foods you have to feed more than you do better quality foods, so there is value in that," says Andresen. "We train our customers how to read ingredient labels so they can see the difference in what's in pet food for themselves." These days, the biggest trend she's seeing is "a huge boom" in raw food. Just three years ago it seemed like a risk to put one freezer with raw foods in a store. Now, Andresen says, their stores are transitioning to commercial-grade freezers with glass fronts so shoppers can see the many raw foods they can now choose from.

Feeding from the Dinner Table

Babette Gladstein, a veterinarian offering both Western and holistic services in New York City, agrees that there are several companies making canned and dry pet foods with healthy ingredients and no fillers and byproducts. She sometimes suggests off-the-shelf foods that are more holistic like Natural Balance, Merrick or Before Grain, to name a few. But she would rather see people feed pets from the dinner table if they're able.

Dry kibble may be convenient, but like people, dogs and cats aren't designed to eat dry food all the time, she, and many other holistic vets say. "I tell clients that feeding dry food all the time is not in a pet's best interest, and if you're going to do that, supplement with whole foods from the table, things that would be fine for your 90-year-old grandmother--so no sugar, salt, onions, or garlic."

Sweet potatoes, bananas and pumpkin, for example, can help firm up lose stools. Pectin in apples aids digestion. You can use packaged dog food if you have to, Gladstein tells her clients, but if you do, supplement it sometimes with quality meats. "In my practice, I use food to try to stabilize the underlying nutrition of the animal in order to stabilize health," she explains.

"Broccoli, sweet potato, lamb, pork, white fish, mango (as long as your dog isn't diabetic), just mix it up so they get different nutrients, protein and vitamins naturally." Even carbs are okay in small quantities. She prefers quinoa and millet over white rice. For those thinking of trying this, she suggests checking out the website of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), which lists foods that are harmful to pets..

The Truth About Cats and Dogs

Cats and dogs have different needs when it comes to food. They're both carnivores, but cats are obligate carnivores, which means they may eat plants sometimes, but they lack the digestive capabilities to make use of them, so they rely on meat for their nutrient needs. Cats only use plants, as their owners know, to make themselves barf.

This is why cats, Gladstein says, need to eat meat. Raw meat is particularly helpful because it contains the essential amino acids cats require for good health. For those who don't want to abandon dry kibble for cost or convenience, Gladstein suggests supplementing cats' diets with raw heart or kidney occasionally.

The Tale of Woody and Fred

Pet owners don't need to feed dogs or cats a diet consisting solely of raw or cooked meats, but adding either or both into their diets may improve their health and reduce vet bills over the years, Palma says, before telling the story that inspired him and Michelle to open Woody's. In 2006, they adopted Woody, a nine-year-old German shepherd, from an animal rescue; two months later they got Fred, an 11-year-old beagle, so Woody would have a pal.

At 46 pounds, Fred weighed nearly twice as much as he should have and had a long list of health problems. Woody was losing hair, was undernourished, and had inflammatory bowel disease. Trips to multiple vets, medications and prescription pet foods didn't solve either dog's problems, so the couple began researching nutrition. After many months of eating a healthy, whole-foods diet, Fred was 20 pounds lighter, and the majority of both of their health issues were gone. The couple continues to work regularly with a holistic vet who understands nutrition.

The experience inspired them to open Woody's. Last year Enrique and Michelle added a second location in St. Paul. "I read, read and read, and I studied the nutrient requirements of cats and dogs by the National Research Council," Palma says. "It is less about new ideas and more about plain common sense. Whole foods, yes, but eating whole foods from the perspective of carnivores, not omnivores like humans."

Meleah Maynard is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor.

Photos, top to bottom:

Enrique and Michelle Palma in their Minneapolis store

"Human-grade" meats for healthier pets

Dogs are welcome at Woody's.

Gourmet treats for the discerning doggie diner

All photos by Bill Kelley

Signup for Email Alerts
Signup for Email Alerts