ATLANTA -- When walking the aisles of your neighborhood pet store this spring, don't be surprised to find kosher animal food, cat breath mints or bacon-flavored popcorn for dogs.
Such products are among the 400 new items which debuted last week at the 45th annual Pet Products Trade Show in Atlanta.
Pet store chains from around the world flock to the private convention each year to paw through the latest and greatest inventions, hoping to discover the next "must-have" pet supply.
From designer wooden leash handles to aromatherapy for dogs, the show proves that nothing is too good for Fido or Fluffy.
"People love their animals," said Joe Markham, CEO of the Kong Company, a producer of highly resistant rubber chew toys. "It's a family member. People love spoiling them, taking care of them. They're always glad to see you, no matter what."
Americans spend nearly $31 billion each year on pet supplies and toys, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, which hosts the convention.
Most of the items on display should be in stores within three to six months, said trade show spokesperson Sue Helon-dovitch. Among this year's 600 exhibitors were an assortment of vendors who created their products at home in the basement or garage.
Brandon Hochman, formerly a professional snowboarder, transitioned to the pet industry after his roommates kept forgetting to walk his dog while he was at competitions.
"My career didn't allow me to get home and walk my dog too frequently," said Hochman, who lives in Santa Barbara, Calif. "There were urine stains all over the floor and up and down my hallway."
So Hochman invented the PET-aPOTTY, a plastic box with grass sod on top and an inner tray that can be removed to dispose of liquid waste.
A dog's version of the litter box, PETaPOTTY allows four-legged critters that are confined to apartments to have a patch of grass to call their own when nature calls.
The product comes in three sizes, including a travel version. The suggested retail price is $189 for the full-size version.
Like many up-and-coming innovators trying to convince large pet store chains to carry their products, Hochman does much of his current business through online sales.
Marc Michels is another entrepreneur whose pet product has been gaining a loyal clientele through the Web.
Michels is president of Kosher Pets, a Florida-based company selling dog and cat food prepared according to Jewish tradition.
Michels, a German native, started his venture in 1999 when his Dalmatian, Lola, overcame digestive troubles by eating homemade kosher food.
"Our goal was to get our dog healthy," said Michel, who lives in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "Then we got the idea that we could do this for others."
Kosher Pets makes its food following standard Jewish practices, such as using unleavened grains. Rabbis visit the company's production center, blessing the food and assuring the production line adheres to religious standards.
Michel warned the food shouldn't be considered kosher enough for humans, noting that certain cuts of meat are used in the product that wouldn't be consumed by a devout Jew.
Timberline Fisheries came to the show to unveil a "fast food for reptiles" product called the Reptile Lunch Box. The small cardboard container holds 25 to 30 crickets, the favorite food of many lizards, birds and frogs.
Company sales manager Mike Kernan said the pre-packaged box allows customers who are in a hurry to grab the product and get out of the pet store, instead of waiting for a store employee to collect the insects with a net and put them in a bag or container.
"It's all about convenience," he said. "You just walk in, get it and go."
The Reptile Lunch Box, retailing for $2.99, has a food/water mixture inside that allows the crickets to survive as long as two to three weeks.
Timberline, headquartered in Illinois, offers crickets in seven different sizes, ranging from babies to full-grown.
Kernan pointed out that only the largest of the crickets are developed enough to make noise.
"Oh yeah, you'll hear them," he said. "You might want to store them in the basement."
A sample of products:
PETaPOTTY: A dog's version of the litter box, this product is a plastic frame box that sports grass sod on top and a waste tray on the inside to collect liquids. It is intended for dogs that spend their days indoors in apartments or high-rise buildings. www.peta-potty.com
KONG: A line of highly resistant rubber chew toys, Kong recently unveiled new puppy chew toys that are softer for dogs that are teething. www.kongcompany.com
KOSHER PETS: Based in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., this pet food company uses unleavened grains in its production. Rabbis oversee the company's production line. www.kosherpets.com
PITR PAT: A breath mint for cats, this product is made by the same manufacturer of Yip Yap, the dog breath mint that debuted in 2002. www.chompinc.com
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