updated 3/29/2007 8:33:39 PM ET 2007-03-30T00:33:39

Debra Tarter's two-year-old boxer, Patchez, is just like a member of the family. That's why the national recall of the dog food Patchez had been eating for two years prompted Tarter to switch to brands that cost twice as much, but contain organic and natural ingredients.

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"My children are grown, and Patchez is our baby," said Tarter, 55, of Cincinnati. "We would pay anything to keep her safe."

And pay she does. Tarter, who has taken Patchez for tests to make sure her kidneys weren't damaged by the recalled food, had been paying 84 cents a can for the recalled wet food she mixed with a dry food costing about $20 per 16-pound bag. Now she pays $1.69 a can and $40 a bag for a brand with more-natural ingredients.

Concerned pet owners such as Tarter are helping to increase already booming sales of organic and natural pet food, according to industry officials and store owners. An executive at Wild Oats Markets Inc., the specialty food chain that caters to health-minded consumers, says that it's still a little early to measure the recall's impact on the natural and organic food segment for pets that's been growing at 15 to 25 percent a year.

"People are extending their food ethic to their whole family, including the pets," said Rickard Werner, director of dry grocery for Wild Oats, based in Boulder, Colo.

Daryl Meyerrenke, owner of Anderson Township Family Pet Center in suburban Cincinnati, will be stocking an extra brand of organic pet food this week, spurred by increased customer demand for organic and natural products since the recall.

"The demand for healthier pet food has been skyrocketing over the past few years, but since this recall, I've had a lot more people coming in asking for organic products," said Meyerrenke. "Sometimes it's not even organic they want — just a higher-quality food with more natural ingredients."

Before the recall, Meyerrenke had carried only one brand of organic dog food costing about $15 for a 5-pound bag. He has added a second organic brand.

Grocery stores charge as low as around $2 for a 5-pound bag of non-organic brands.

But Meyerrenke stocks more than 30 dog-food brands, many of which include ingredients such as carrots, rice, broccoli and even cottage cheese and often are geared specifically for dogs with sensitive stomachs or allergies.

As far as taste goes, Meyerrenke said, "dogs don't turn their noses up at much. They'll usually eat what's there. It's the owners that sometimes decide what they think looks tastier or more appealing."

Rat poison suspected
Menu Foods Inc., which makes pet food for most of North America's top retailers, last week recalled 95 brands of products believed to be responsible for the deaths of cats and dogs around the country. A veterinarians information service said Tuesday that it had reports of 104 animal deaths. The maker of the recalled pet food has confirmed the deaths of only 16 pets.

Scientists identified the rodent poison aminopterin as the likely cause. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has said the investigation was focused on the ingredient wheat gluten, that the maker said was purchased in China. Scientists have not offered any theories on how aminopterin got into the products.

Reinforcing choices
Shelley Gunton, co-owner of Clackamas, Ore.-based Castor & Pollux Pet Works, reported an uptick in orders from stores and a 10 percent increase in hits on the pet-product company's Web site. She also said there's been an upswing in calls from stores looking to reorder over the past week.

"This is going to reinforce to pet parents that there are choices," said Gunton, whose company makes organic and natural pet foods.

Proponents of natural and organic pet foods and treats say those products can help prevent disease in dogs and cats. Some products avoid chemical preservatives, fats, fillers, salt and sugar. Others are free of ingredients exposed to pesticides, herbicides or insecticides that also may harm pets.

Dog and cat food sales in the United States reached over $14.3 billion in 2005, according to the Pet Food Institute that represents manufacturers of commercial pet food. Surveys by the Organic Trade Association indicated sales of organic pet food increased from $14 million in 2003 to $30 million for 2005.

The fast growth of the organic pet food industry and disagreement about what qualifies as organic food led to the creation of an Organic Pet Food Task Force. The task force has proposed labeling standards that organic manufacturers would have to meet in addition to existing requirements that apply to all pet foods. A committee of the USDA's National Organic Standards Board is reviewing the standards that could go into effect by 2008.

"Hopefully, it will clear up a lot of confusion and let consumers know more what they are getting when they buy pet food," said task force member Rochelle Lavens, president of Heidi's Homemade Inc., an organic dog and cat bakery in Columbus.

Meyerrenke, who has been in the pet store business for 34 years, said pet owners have become much more selective.

"People have increasingly elevated pets to family-member status," Meyerrenke said. "And that means doing what you can to keep them healthy."

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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