Pet obesity rates have skyrocketed in recent years. In the last decade alone, veterinarians have documented a 169 percent increase in overweight cats and a 158 percent increase in overweight dogs. And that’s just one health issue facing domesticated animals in the U.S. Rates for autoimmune disease and diabetes also continue to soar. These health conditions once were considered rare among pets, but not anymore.
As with humans, diet plays a huge role in the health of our pets. What your pet eats has a direct bearing on their health, and not all cat and dog foods are created equally. Some contain a lot of cheap fillers and byproducts to cut down on the expense to consumers. Others can be quite pricey but still include food sources that can cause health issues in some pets. For these and other reasons, raw food for cats and dogs is making a comeback across the country.
No one knows this better than Toni Shelaske, owner of Healthy Pet Products.
Shelaske bought her North Hills store in 2008 from its previous owners. Since taking it over, she has expanded the raw foods and other natural product offerings in response to pet owners’ desire to shift to more wholesome foods and health solutions for their furry friends.
“My stores are destinations,” said Shelaske. “I have people coming from West Virginia. A lot of customers were coming here from the South Hills or southern parts of Pennsylvania, so I opened a South Hills location in 2011.”
She didn’t stop there. In 2019, she opened another retail location in Cranberry Township, and on April 2, 2022, she launched her first out-of-state location with the grand opening of Healthy Pet Products in Port Charlotte, FL. The new site is about halfway between Fort Myers and Sarasota, two of the most heavily populated areas in the state.
Port Charlotte wasn’t chosen on a whim. Shelaske said that she considered the area after her Cranberry Township store manager moved there. Instead of simply replacing her, Shelaske kept her former store manager on the team as a buyer.
“She kept saying to me, ‘There’s opportunity here. I have to drive 45 minutes one way to find any decent food,’” said Shelaske. So she made a trip to Port Charlotte and decided her buyer was right.
While she’s excited to open the new Florida store, Shelaske said that she doesn’t have any immediate plans to take her brand across all 50 states. “I never say never, but if anything, I’d probably grow Florida before venturing into another brand-new market,” she explained.
If you’ve never visited one of her stores, Healthy Pet Products is the premier destination for raw cat and dog food. “It’s not the only thing we carry by any means, but we have the largest selection of raw food for many miles, at least in the tri-state area,” said Shelaske, adding that customers would have to travel to Baltimore or Philadelphia to find a similar variety.
One of the things that sets Healthy Pet Products apart from the competition is the personal touch. Consumers don’t just rely on the store for their pet supplies, but also count on them for advice.
“We are very heavy in education. We are a resource for customers who look to us for alternatives instead of doing steroids or antibiotics or prescription foods,” said Shelaske. “Even if they’ve gone down that road with a vet, most of them don’t have solutions. Or, if it does help their dog or cat, it’s usually a temporary fix, and the problems come back. When the pet parent gets frustrated and starts looking into other answers, that’s where we come into play.”
Shelaske recommends starting with diet any time that a pet has a health condition to see if switching to raw can resolve the issue.
Frozen raw food is her most popular item, and she carries a lot of it. Healthy Pet Products also carries a small amount of gently cooked food. Freeze-dried food is next on the list of customer favorites. It’s raw and has gone through the freeze-drying process to make it shelf-stable.
Dry kibble and canned food must meet strict criteria to be sold in her store. “There has to be transparency about where this food is coming from,” she said. “No chemical preservatives, no by-products, no wheat, no corn, no soy, no food coloring, or sugars of any kind.”
She adds that these foods don’t necessarily have to be from the United States as there are a lot of great products coming out of Canada and New Zealand. None of the brands or ingredients sold in her stores are sourced from places like China.
Supply chain issues have affected the pet food industry, including hers. Most of her customers rotate their pet foods, so they can manage better than others. “A lot of people think you should never change your pet’s food. On their own, your dog or cat would never eat the same food every day for breakfast, lunch, or dinner,” she said. “A lot of people rotate proteins. Some just rotate brands.” The practice of rotating proteins and food brands is just good health practice, she added.
For pet owners who have never tried raw, it can be intimidating. It’s worth the effort and expense to give it a try, Shelaske said.
Introducing pets to a raw food diet can help improve their overall health, just like humans’ health is improved by controlling the amount of processed junk that they consume. ”Inflammation goes down. Allergies improve. Even hair gets a little softer,” said Shelaske.
That’s because there are zero fillers in raw foods beyond a small amount of vegetable matter. “You are looking at your dog or cat eating a completely balanced meal—meat, bone, and organ,” she said.
Pets that consume raw diets reduce their stool output by at least 50 percent, which means their bodies are using more of what they eat. Breath improves. Coats improve. Dogs lose the ‘Frito feet’ smell. Their vitality is better. “It’s a full-body effect,” Shelaske said.
If your pet struggles with weight gain, raw can help because it doesn’t rely on starches to bind it the way dry kibble does. Every brand of kibble, even the high-quality ones, use starch binders.
Some customers worry about feeding unprocessed foods to their pets because humans can become sick when they eat certain raw ingredients, but raw food does not pose health risks to pets the way it does to humans.
“Their digestive systems work more efficiently, and their digestive acids are stronger. They can push food through their systems more quickly than humans,” said Shelaske, who has been feeding raw food to her dogs for 20 years without issue.
Switching to raw food brings with it a 50 to 100 percent increase in your pet food budget, so if that’s too steep for some consumers, Shelaske recommends doing a mix of raw with other kinds of food.
“Do whatever you can afford to do. In the long term, you end up saving,” she said. “The cost comes down because you’re going to have a healthier pet. You’re not going to need as many vet visits. You’re not going to need medication. You’re not going to have to have a dental done.”
She adds that contrary to popular belief, kibble doesn’t prevent tartar buildup but actually causes it. Pets who eat only kibble can have dental decay and other issues.
In addition to her raw food and other natural pet products, Shelaske recently launched her own private label called Toni Unleashed. “I had always hoped to have my own private label. That finally happened this past year,” she said. “I created Pittsburgh-themed dog toys, and we’ve just recently added cat toys to the collection.”
Also under the Toni Unleashed brand is a new podcast aimed at educating pet owners about the importance of healthy pet food. Shelaske said that she doesn’t believe raw food is a fad, but rather a movement.
“My goal is to educate as many humans as I possibly can about how important it is to feed healthy pet food and not believe all the marketing out there because there’s so much misinformation,” she explained. “Our pets deserve better.”
Photos by Portrait Princess Photography