Story: Alex Glaze
Multimedia: Avis Hixon

Over the past couple of years, Baltimore has started to become a pet-friendly city.

There are a number of hotels and restaurants that allow man’s best friend in Charm City along with a number of parks that are specifically for dogs.

In addition to the parks and spas that can be found around the city, there are a few places that appease to a growing population of pet-owners who are buying healthy pet foods for their animals.

Michelle Northam, a Baltimore resident, said she is careful about what she feeds her and her dog, Sprout, because she has allergies.

Northam takes Sprout to Howl, a local pet store that provides pet owners with alternative options to name brand pet food.

Sprout has allergies, so Northam feels even more inclined to feed her a healthy diet.

“I just want to do what’s best for her,” Northam said. “I eat organic and vegetarian, so I try to eat the best food for myself so I’m going to do the same for my dog.”

Howl gives Baltimore dog and cat owners an alternative to pet food that contains potentially harmful chemicals.

According to Howl’s website, Baltimore Magazine’s reigning four-time best pet store has helped thousands of dogs and cats live healthier lives by providing pet owners the best products since Robin McDonald opened the store’s doors in 2003.

“This market started to takeoff around the time I opened,” McDonald said. “As people have gotten more informed about it, about their own food choices, where their own food comes from, it just translates to the pets. I can’t believe some people will go to such lengths to get pure, sustainable, organic for themselves and then give their dogs garbage from the grocery store. Not to mention, good food with less filler makes for less poop. I think that’s reason enough.”

Last month chicken jerky pet treats made in China caused over 2,200 animals to become ill and at least 360 dogs and one cat to reportedly die in the United States, federal veterinary health officials said.

“I’m not sure what percentage of the population is aware of what goes into very commercial foods. It’s actually quite horrible and it’s not regulated by the government,” Laura Henderson, Howl store manager, said. ““Some of the worst foods have dye and color in them. We compare them to McDonalds or Twinkies, stuff that can sit on a shelf and it won’t change for 20 years. There’s a lot of preservatives, things like BHA (butylated hydroxytolulene), a chemical that used to be put into animal feed as a preservative but it’s actually quite toxic, things like animal byproducts, which can mean almost anything … There’s also diseased and dying animals, like cows that were unfit for human consumption, that they would put into animal food, which is completely legal, there is no regulation.”

In addition to the additives in commercial pet foods, irradiation has also become a recent issue.

Irradiated food products are exposed to high levels of radiation to sterilize and increase the shelf life. The process kills some bacteria but also damages vitamins and enzymes and combines with chemicals to form potentially toxic compounds.

The Food and Drug Administration has recently been testing treats for high irradiation levels and salmonella.

Howl does not purchase food products from China.

“None of the food is irradiated,” McDonald said. “As far as we can tell, we try to keep out of any genetically modified grains and stuff, but there’s a lot of research that goes into that … Being a local retailor, you start to get how important is to support your local guys. If I wouldn’t feed it to my animals, then I don’t sell it. If I don’t think it’s safe enough or nutritious enough to give to me own animals, then I wouldn’t be selling it in the store.”

Key Wagner is the owner of the Baltimore Dog Bakery, located in Baltimore County.

Wagner’s products are vegetarian with no additives or preservatives, making them easy on dogs’ digestive systems.

Wagner says that since Howl opened its doors in 2003, she has been selling her products to McDonald.

“She is, on the pet store side, my biggest customer,” Wagner said. “She sells a ton.”

Wagner and McDonald have seen the natural pet food market grow through the years.

“It’s grown because it’s a good product,” Wagner said. “It’s all-natural, it’s healthy, no preservatives. People are changing. Dogs are like children to people now. It’s something that we all want to take care of the best we can so we want to feed them healthy.”

Over the years, Howl has developed a loyal following of customers who understand the importance of healthy pet food products.

“PetCo and places like that don’t sell good dog food,” Kenlaw said. “They sell a lot of food with byproducts, so we come here … We won’t stop coming here unless we move far away.”

The Hampden store has self-service dog wash stations, nail-clipping sessions every Saturday from 11 a.m. – 1 p.m. and offers full grooming by appointment.

“For the first six years, it was pretty tough,” McDonald said. “But three years ago, I actually started making money … I didn’t have to borrow anymore and got a lot things paid off. It turns out what they say, do what you love and money will follow, it actually is true.”

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