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A WINDFALL OF BEASTLY DELIGHTS PEOPLE ARE BUYING ALL SORTS OF TREATS FOR THEIR PETS

MacGUFFIN CALLERI, a 5-year-old Australian/German Shepherd, will be sniffing eagerly through his stocking on Christmas morning.

He won't be alone. In the United States and other affluent countries, the holiday season is almost as joyful a time of year for four-footed creatures as it is for their biped friends.

Santa and his elves are no busier right now than the manufacturers of pet snacks. This is peak season, and the manufacturers are turning out all kinds of biscuits and rawhide strips to put into pets' stockings. And even to feed them at holiday meals.

Pet "treats" are one of the fastest-growing segments of the huge pet food industry. Recent figures show that in 1989, Americans spent more than $5.5 billion to feed their dogs and cats.

Because so many animals get treats for Christmas, a spokesman for the Ralston Purina Co. described this month as yielding a "definite blip in sales."

All types of treats are available. Milk Bones, a division of the Nabisco Food Co., which bakes and sells 275 million pounds of pet snacks a year from its Urban Street plant here, turns out regular-flavor and beef-flavor bone-shaped biscuits.

It also turns out MacGuffin's personal favorite -- mint.

But sometimes the very abundance of products presents a problem. Mike Calleri, MacGuffin's owner -- you've seen him cook on "A.M. Buffalo" -- has had trouble recently finding Mint Milk Bones in the Buffalo area. (They are available elsewhere in the state.)

There's only so much room on supermarket shelves, and a lot of space is being given to Milk Bones' newest product -- T.C. (tartar control) biscuits, which are said to help prevent periodontal disease in dogs.

Periodontal disease can cause "doggie breath" and tooth loss.

Much has happened in the pet food industry since the first commercial dog food was introduced in England in the late 19th century. Before then, people simply gave their pets table scraps.

Dry and canned pet foods were later developed, and canned horse meat was used in World War II.

One of the biggest changes in recent years has been the rapid growth in cat food sales. Cats have become the pet of choice in America; the cat population is about 63 million, compared to a dog population of 54 million. Sociologists say this reflects an increasingly urbanized country with smaller families in which both spouses work outside the home.

Another change has been the growth of "premium" or "special" dog foods, often sold through pet shops rather than grocery stores. Some figures show 5 to 10 percent of the pet food business has moved away from supermarkets in recent years.

A pet food manufacturer's spokesman describes these special foods as "more nutrient-dense, using higher-quality ingredients. It's like a human eating steak rather than ground beef."

But they are expensive. Many premium products cost twice as much as standard pet foods. It's interesting to think of owners buying them in an era of recession and soup kitchens.

It's also interesting to reflect on the sheer number of different dog and cat foods that are available in these economically perilous times. Maybe not all of them are necessary.

"Probably two brands of food for Fido and two brands of food for Fluffy are enough to take care of the average consumer," says Dr. Richard E. Thoma, of the Town and Country Animal Clinic, Cheektowaga.

But it's healthier for pets to eat commercial food rather than table scraps, he says.

"Big companies spend megabucks on their research facilities to determine the kind of food that dogs and cats need."

Food developed for specific times in a pet's life cycle fills a definite need, says Thoma. "It provides the right amounts of protein, calcium, vitamin D and calories to promote growth in a young animal, for instance. And when a pet gets older and a little too heavy, they provide nutrients with fewer calories."

We need commercial pet foods because, Thoma says, "The problem is, we can't balance a diet program ourselves.

"As dogs and cats get older and fussier, they want to eat more meat and less vegetables and fiber.

"In the wild, things were different. A wolf would eat a whole animal and get a balanced diet in that way."

Tartar-control foods, says Thoma, are partly a gimmick and partly helpful. "Eighty-five percent of pets over 4 years old that walk into a vet's office have some sort of oral disease," he says.

"Again, in the wild, animals would eat bones and keep their teeth clean.

"The best thing to do is brush the pet's teeth -- but not with toothpaste designed for humans. That would make too much foam, and it's not designed to be swallowed.

"The pet owner should use a special dentifrice and start brushing the teeth once a month as soon as the pet is a year old," says the vet.

"Just like the American Dental Association tells humans: Keep the teeth clean."

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