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Valentine's is a day to do something special for the ones we love. For some of us, that list includes not just children, parents and significant others. It also includes our dogs.
Count Sarah Lavery among the canine lovers.
A year-and-a-half ago, the 32-year-old veterinarian started The Pet Bakery of Oakmont, a pet bakery specializing in healthful, organic dog treats. She's selling enough of her bite-sized canine products locally and across the U.S. via the Web that she's expanding operations from her home kitchen into a garage next door.
Given how crazy many Americans seem to be about pampering their pets -- it's a $60 billion industry, with a third of that going toward food -- it's easy to see why the West Deer native is striking a chord with dog owners. If the way to a man (or woman's) heart is through the stomach, how better to show your pooch how much you love her, too, than by giving her a tasty treat?
Two-legged companions aren't the only ones who get feted on Valentine's Day: Nearly 20 percent of pet owners buy gifts on Feb. 14 for their furry friends, to the tune of $719 million. Yet for Dr. Lavery, it's not just about spoiling them on special occasions.
Just as Americans have become more attuned to the importance of healthful eating, so have pet owners grown more aware about the importance of feeding their dogs a nutritious diet. The discovery of melamine in some 180 brands of pet food in 2007, which led to the biggest pet-food recall in history, was an especially scary wake-up call for cat and dog owners, says Dr. Lavery, who at the time of the outbreak had just graduated from Michigan State University's College of Veterinary Medicine. Tens of thousands of pets were poisoned -- some fatally -- by the tainted food, which came from even the industry's most famous (and trusted) makers.
For many, the answer was to take matters into their own hands.
A quick search on Amazon turns up a plethora of organic, all-natural and gourmet pet treats and dog food. But there's also dozens of specialty cookbooks for dogs, which -- despite their love of table scraps -- have nutritional needs quite different from humans.
Most everyone, for instance, knows that dogs can't eat chocolate. But did you also know that grapes, raisins and coffee can prove fatal to pets? And that you should also avoid feeding them onions, garlic, avocado, macadamia nuts and xylitol (a sugar substitute found in toothpaste, candy and sugar-free gum)?
"The list goes on and on," notes Dr. Lavery, who works as a relief veterinarian around town. Dog food also requires a different ratio of protein, fiber and carbohydrates than human food. "People are always coming to me with questions."
For for those who'd rather spend time with their dogs instead of dogging it in the kitchen, she is happy to do the cooking for you, at least when it comes to treats.
Pet-food products don't require pre-market approval from the Food and Drug Administration, but the agency does require dog treats, like human food, be safe to eat, produced under sanitary conditions, contain no harmful substances and be truthfully labeled. Allegheny County Health Department also doesn't much care what goes into one of her biscuits or cupcakes, so long as they're clearly marked for animal-only consumption and she doesn't sell directly out of her house.
Still, Dr. Lavery is a stickler.
"I'm pretty anal and strict about the ingredients that go into my treats," for ethical reasons as much as for the health of her four-legged friends.
Free of preservatives and artificial flavors and colors, everything is handmade using organic whole-wheat or gluten-free flours and fruits and vegetables grown without the use of pesticides. She also steers clear of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, and all of the packaging is made with recycled materials (sample bags can be composted). She shops locally at East End Food Co-op, Whole Foods, Market District and when possible, from local farms.
"I castrated two bulls in Evans City in exchange for eggs from pasture-happy hens laying on their own agenda," she notes with a laugh.
A perfect example of the care that goes into her canine cuisine is the grain-free, gluten-free Baked Sweet Potato Treats she was rolling out and cutting into heart shapes in her kitchen on a recent Wednesday. Approved for most pets with food allergies, the dough is made with Bob's Red Mill arrowroot flour, organic unsweetened applesauce and organic sweet potatoes and bananas.
Like all of her treats, the biscuits go into a dehydrator for 12 hours to assure they stay crunchy on the shelf -- up to 10 weeks at room temperature, four months in the fridge and eight months in a freezer.
And what if your pet likes moist instead of dry? Dr. Lavery makes several varieties of doggie baked goods, including Bundt Cakes, Sweet Potato Pie, Ruff Crispy Treats and Bow-wow Brownies ($10 and up). She also will bake to order two- or three-tier Canine Cakes; pawprint-, heart- and bone-shaped cakes; and Puppi-cup Cakes. They come in two flavors -- carob and banana carrot -- with frosting made from brown rice syrup and colored with tapioca powder (white), peanut butter (tan) or a smidge of cranberry concentrate (pink). Prices start at $20.
While she's always loved to bake, Dr. Lavery didn't set out to do it professionally. Rather, an eye doctor suggested it as a form of therapy after a debilitating car accident. The 2012 crash left her with a concussion so severe that not only was she not allowed to exercise (despite having completed the Pittsburgh Marathon the year before), but also she wasn't sure she'd ever be able to practice medicine again.
Able to work only about eight hours a week, "I was going stir-crazy," she recalls. Baking, because it helps develop small-muscle control and eye-hand coordination, her ophthalmologist suggested, could help rehab her eyes.
Luckily, Darcy, her 14-year-old labrador, proved a willing guinea pig for the treats. With her sister Amanda and mother, Linda, who's a veterinary technician, pitching in to help on weekends, Dr. Lavery soon became skilled enough at treat-making that she was able to launch Pet Bakery of Oakmont at the 2012 Pittsburgh Pet Expo at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. And "we did very well," she says.
Thanks to positive word of mouth, the bakery quickly found a friend in Pink's Tiny Paws Daycare & Boutique in Verona. Eight more local businesses also now carry her products, including four Agways and The Big Easy Veterinary Hospital in Lawrenceville; you also can buy the treats online at thepetbakeryofoakmont.com and on esty.com.
"It's a love for me, a hobby," says Dr. Lavery, who next month will pitch her goodies to Whole Foods and continues to try new products out on three new dogs. She also makes rabbit and guinea pig treats. The business is "my teenaged child."
That said, she wouldn't mind having a storefront in addition to her veterinary practice, or maybe one day combining doggie daycare with a coffee shop and bakery. Homemade dog food geared to specific diets and delivered right to the door aka the Nutri-System program also is a possibility. With America's love for their pets knowing no bounds, "There's all kinds of potential," she says.
Gretchen McKay: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.