Americans spent $3.1 billion for dog food in 1986, according to the Pet Food Institute in Washington. That's roughly 10 times the amount spent the same year on the federal school breakfast program.
Braxton's, Mother's Natural Pet Foods in Narberth and Discount Pet Foods in Haverford are among a number of pet-food shops on the Main Line that sell foods that are more nutritious than brands widely sold in supermarkets.
Experts differ on whether the dog - or merely the dog's owner - feels better as a result of having the special diet.
"I've seen a lot of dogs do better," said Radnor veterinarian Kenneth Sanders.
Dog breeders and exhibitors long have fed their animals special diets to keep them fit. Household pets now are also partaking of so-called "high- performance diets," according to David Kronfeld, Clark Professor of
Nutrition at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. And even though those pets may not need the food to thrive, they will be far healthier in the long run.
"People who want special diets for a couch potato are showing greater responsibility" toward their pets, Kronfeld said.
The appeal of the specialty foods is that they offer more nutrition with fewer calories, and obesity is a common problem among house pets. The specialty feeds have meat and poultry bases; regular dog foods are vegetable- based and often contain preservatives, sugar and fillers.
"A dog can eat out of a garbage can and live," said Braxton. But, he added, "a lot of prolonged (health) problems are because of years of poor- quality feeding."
Pet owners contend their dogs can tell the difference in food.
"My dogs are very fussy," said Jean Cheever of Chesterbrook. She was in Braxton's to purchase food for her two small dogs.
"They don't eat a lot from the food stores," she said. "I might as well make them happy."
Vernard Trent makes the short trip from Wynnefield to Mother's Natural Pet Food in Narberth to pick up 40-pound bags of dry dog food for his three Rottweilers.
"I want to maintain the dogs' weights and let them eat less," Trent said. ''You and I can throw anything into our system. I never thought of this as gourmet pet food, but it works. Their coats are nice and shiny."
He said he uses about 80 pounds of Mother's Dog Food per month for the three dogs. The largest of his Rottweilers weighs 150 pounds.
Mother's Dog Food is made on the premises of her Narberth shop and marketed to pet shops from Maine to West Virginia. Jeanette Axelrod, who is Mother, and two of her sons began making Mother's Natural Pet Food in 1976 and have seen the business expand much more than they ever expected.
All of her packages are marked with her store's telephone number, inviting purchasers to call her if they have any questions.
The era when the family dog survived on table scraps no longer exists, according to Axelrod. However, that may be more the result of the lifestyles of today's humans rather than their dogs.
"The generation where the family sat around the dinner table is gone," Axelrod said. "There aren't scraps like there were."
"The health of one's dog is based on its food," Braxton said. "We can correct 80 percent of the problems that walk in here, short of medical problems" by correcting a dog's diet.
Braxton's started as a kennel 50 years ago, and for approximately the last 20 years has concerned itself with the nutrition of animals. "We feed a dog versus selling dog food," he said.
While once there were just a few brands of specialty foods, the product line has grown, with each offering a slightly different formulation.
Nationwide, specialty pet-food stores accounted for 5 percent of the pet- food sales in 1982, according to Braxton. That number increased to 15 percent in 1987.
He has no doubt that percentage will grow.
"When health-food stores opened, people thought freaks went to them years ago. Now there are more of them than gas stations," he said.