Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Pet Salad With That Mouse? - Interview with New York Times about Felines and Cat Grass

A Pet Salad With That Mouse?

WHEN you first see it among the vegetables at a grocery store, you might leap to the assumption that Pet Salad is some sort of gag gift. Has our national obsession with all things organic progressed to where someone is now selling a gourmet version of the Chia Pet?

Not exactly. Pet Salad is, in fact, a salad. It’s made to be munched on, but not by you. Produced by a Rhode Island-based organic-greens company called Farming Turtles, and distributed throughout the Northeast, Pet Salad is a trademarked and cutely packaged version of something that’s been available at farmers’ markets for years: wheatgrass for pets, including iguanas, tortoises and especially cats.
And yet you wouldn’t be entirely wrong about the “gag” part, since it is not uncommon for a cat to chew on wheatgrass and spit it up, perhaps with a dislodged hairball in tow.

None of which stops Lauri Roberts, the founder of Farming Turtles, from speaking of Pet Salad in a way that might win an approving nod from Thomas Keller. The grass, she said, is a type of hard red spring wheat known as Bronze Chief. She plants it in organic soil. She gets the seeds from Montana.
“I don’t want to tell you the name of the company,” Ms. Roberts said on the phone the other day, “because I don’t want people to use my seed.”

Before starting Farming Turtles in 2006, Ms. Roberts was running a Chicago company that sold greens intended for humans. “People who were buying the wheatgrass from me for themselves were complaining that their cats were eating the grass,” she said. “This is how it all started.”

Farming Turtles now sells thousands of Pet Salads every week at around $4 a pot, she said.

Catherine Hoffmann, an owner of Bell Rock Growers in Southern California, said that her company was cultivating wheatgrass for juice bars, and “we noticed that people were buying the little containers for their pets.” Now Bell Rock sells more than 25,000 pots of organic Pet Grass each week, at around $4 to $5 each, Ms. Hoffmann said, and the company has branched out to package a wide range of wheatgrass-infused delights, from chicken pot pie-flavored treats to pet shampoo and conditioner.

Companies that grow wheatgrass for pets can be evangelical in promoting the nutritional and cosmetic benefits cats derive from grazing on the radiantly green tufts. “It gets rid of hairballs, it makes their hair shinier — this is within three weeks of starting to eat it. And they never have bad breath anymore,” said Ms. Roberts, 51.

Many pet owners buy wheatgrass because of a belief that domesticated creatures are compelled to nibble on greens to get fiber and nutrients — notably chlorophyll — that they can’t extract from their regular diet. (Wheatgrass proponents point out that cats are inexorably drawn to the stuff, although no one seems to know why. Cats themselves tend to shun interviews.)

Veterinarians aren’t so sure about the benefits. “Do cats need chlorophyll? No,” said Dr. Arnold Plotnick, the owner of Manhattan Cat Specialists on the Upper West Side. “Cats are true carnivores, so they are not really designed to eat plants and vegetation. As far as I know, there’s no science to back up the claim that cats need nutrients that they can only get from eating grass.”

Dr. Ann E. Hohenhaus, from the Animal Medical Center in Manhattan, agreed. “Cats just don’t have a requirement for that,” she said.

That said, neither veterinarian sees anything wrong with a cat’s snacking on wheatgrass, provided the cat happens to get a kick out of it. “Part of me wonders if it’s not an opportunity to play with their food,” Dr. Hohenhaus said. “If you watch your cat eating grass, it will often bat at it.”

And a clump of pet salad might serve as a deterrent, luring cats away from household plants that could be unexpectedly toxic.

Wheatgrass, on the other hand, is safe. “The only harm that might come,” Dr. Plotnick said, “is if your cat barfs on the carpet.”
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