- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 11, 2004

The Atkins diet may be a fading fad, but the low-carb lifestyle is making its way into pet-food stores nationwide. While health-conscious consumers are stocking their pantries with leafy greens and protein bars, pet-food companies are developing products to help kitties cut calories and help doggies dump those extra pounds.

Although about 60 percent of American adults are overweight or obese, studies show that humans aren’t the only ones affected by an obesity epidemic — an estimated 25 percent of our nation’s pets are overweight.

The Halo company — whose motto is “Purely for Pets” — has created a product that uses “only wholesome, natural, healthy foods,” and lacks the byproducts and grain-based fillers contained in most commercial dry and canned pet foods.

Food is the foundation of health and life for pets, as well as humans, Halo President Andi Brown said.

“Most commercial pet foods are filled with chemicals, preservatives and byproducts, such as horse hooves, eyeballs and even roadkill,” she said. “Our pets today are living on diets that are similar to potato chips and beer. [They] can get by on it, but it’s all grain-based fillers. It’s just not substantial.”

Halo is the only pet-food manufacturer whose products also are approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for human consumption, Ms. Brown said.

“If I couldn’t use it on myself or eat it myself, then my animals would never get it. … They deserve nothing less,” she said.

Ms. Brown considers herself a pioneer of the low-carb, low-calorie pet-food business.

Other companies and products such as Purina Feline DM and Nature’s Pet have joined the trend in an effort to reverse the lifestyles of our pampered, couch-potato pets. Purina Dog Chow now comes in a Fit & Trim formula, which is “formulated to promote an ideal body condition.” Hill’s Pet Nutrition says its Prescription Diet cat food is “a low-carbohydrate, high-protein pet food formula clinically proven to alter a cat’s metabolism for effective weight loss.”

Halo’s first product was Spot’s Stew for dogs and cats. The stew — made with USDA-approved chicken and vegetables — was developed in 1986 when Ms. Brown’s cat Spot became sick with a digestive problem, which the veterinarian said was incurable.

Ms. Brown, who had adopted Spot from an animal shelter, refused to give up hope on her beloved animal. A friend of hers, who happened to be a chef, encouraged her to begin cooking for her pet using wholesome, natural foods such as meat and vegetables. He stepped into Ms. Brown’s kitchen, developed a concoction of chicken, zucchini, carrots and other fresh vegetables, and the three of them sat down to eat the meal together.

“It took about four days of Spot eating the stew, but his digestive problem disappeared. He turned into the most gorgeous, healthy cat we’d ever seen,” Ms. Brown said. “Spot lived 14 more years after the vet had told me to put him to sleep. … The saying is true that ‘you are what you eat,’ and if you eat healthy, you’ll live longer.”

That was in 1986 — when Ms. Brown was in charge of a small printing company. In 1991, with only $3,000 and three products from the living room of her Palm Harbor condominium, she launched Halo.

“All we want to do is give people a healthier option for their pets,” Ms. Brown said. “We’ve taken so many animals off of death row simply by changing their diet.”

Pet obesity — defined as an animal who weighs more than 20 percent of its ideal body weight — is the second leading pet disease. According to data from Veterinary Pet Insurance — America’s oldest and largest pet-insurance company — as a pet’s weight increases, so does the risk of arthritis, diabetes, heart disease and breathing problems.

Pets become overweight or obese for the same reason that people do: Their caloric intake exceeds their caloric expenditure.

“As we have moved to a more sedentary and pampered culture, so have our pets,” said Dr. Peter Weinstein, medical director of Veterinary Pet Insurance. “Today, pets enjoy the same comfort-food choices, plush surroundings and relaxed lifestyles that many Americans typically enjoy.”

According to the Animal Protection Institute, a national animal-advocacy organization, the amount of grain products used in pet food has risen in the past decade.

“These grain-based fillers have no place in abundance for pets’ diets,” Ms. Brown said. “The products are cheap because of the amount of starches, but it’s a health risk for the animals. … They’re simply not getting the nutrients they need to sustain a healthy lifestyle.”

Brokers and pet-food distributors weren’t receptive of Halo’s natural pet products 13 years ago. Several stores initially called these products “ridiculous” and said that no one would buy them, Ms. Brown said.

Now, she says, many pet-food stores are providing consumers with these natural products and human-grade products for animals. Halo’s vitamin supplements, grooming aids and all-natural pet treats and meal products are on the shelves of thousands of pet- and health-food stores nationwide, and the company is expecting a revenue of $5.2 million by the end of the year.

“The best part of this business is hearing testimonies from pet owners who call in and tell us how these products have transformed their pets’ lives,” Ms. Brown said.

Among the testimonials: Mrs. Priya Tikku of Boxborough, Mass., says she fed Halo’s Spot’s Stew to her obese cat, and within months, the animal lost 5 pounds.

“We want to serve as a vehicle to help educate people about other options for feeding their pets,” Ms. Brown said. “I’m not saying that we can cure everything, but it’s obvious that when you stop eating a junk-food diet and start eating healthy, your body won’t have to fight against itself to stay alive. … You’ll look and feel more healthy — the same is true for animals.”

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