Last February, when the city shut down, Tazz Latifi chose to close her natural pet supply store in the Financial District. With Petropolis’ doors shut, Latifi, like many New York City small business owners, contemplated the future of her retail space. “I didn’t know if I could do retail, and my lease was coming up. At that moment, I thought, Okay, perfect time, I could just shut it all down,” she told me over the phone. “Then I started getting email, after email, after email from clients.”
To put pet owners at ease and to make sure city pets were getting the care they needed, Latifi decided to return to her brick-and-mortar store. For two days each week, she walked downtown from her Midtown home to fill preorders from clients. And then something interesting happened:
New Yorkers who saw quarantine as the ideal opportunity to raise the pooch of their dreams began flocking to find animal shelters and available breeders. Between March and December, about 12.6 million homes took in pets, according to the American Pet Products Association (APPA).
While the “puppy binge,” as Dogtopia CEO Neil Gill has called it, has meant a boost in business at Petropolis, it’s uncertain how long the gravy train will last. The ever-shifting vagaries of the pandemic has caught up to some of these pet owners, forcing them to surrender their animals.
“There’s so many people who did adopt and are doing great,” said Petropolis owner and founder Latifi. “With that said, there’s just as many people who shouldn’t have gotten pets, and we’ve seen it with the shelters filling back up.”
Raising a new pet can be difficult during the best of circumstances. But imagine trying to do it all during a pandemic. For many, household animals were seen as a solution to feelings of isolation and loneliness. “A lot of the shelters were cleared out because people wanted companionship,” said the Petropolis owner. “But they didn’t consider what it takes to care for an animal.”
With all the responsibilities that come with caring for an animal, pet nutrition is perhaps the most important, yet often overlooked, area of ownership. Founded 16 years ago, Petropolis specializes in animal wellness and is one of just two independent pet stores in Manhattan, along with Whiskers Holistic Pet Care in the East Village, that offers a holistic approach to animal health.
Randy Klein, the owner of Whiskers, says the animal world is concerned with the repercussions of pet adoption during the pandemic. Many New Yorkers are still working from home and can take care of their pets. But as restrictions ease, people are already beginning to return to the workplace. As owners grapple with these new lifestyle changes, their animal’s well-being may be the most impacted.
“The animals who are used to having [owners] in their home, number one, might have some separation anxiety,” said Klein. “And number two, the owners might feel that it’s too much of a burden now. So that’s something to watch for in the future.”
The recent pet boom has also led the way for a boom in pet industry sales. Last month, the APPA announced that the national pet industry has generated over $100 billion in annual sales—the first time in industry history. This increase in business has trickled down to local pet stores as well.
“The proliferation of people adopting and buying more dogs and cats over the last year certainly has caused an increase in the pet retail business,” said Klein. “I think overall, in the pet industry, sales were improved.”
The APPA’s report also found that the pet care industry has sought to mirror current consumer trends such as “the desire for a healthier lifestyle” and “supplements for improved well-being.” Shops like Petropolis and Whiskers offer pet owners and their pets just that.
These days, Latifi’s store is open seven days a week to furry friends and their humans. Inside Petropolis, pet parents can find aisles of pet supplies, treats, toys, and specialized pet food in frozen, dry, raw, dehydrated raw, gourmet, and organic varieties.. As a child, Latifi was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Her condition, she says, has given her a lifetime interest in proper holistic nutrition. “For me, if food is not managed, if I’m not eating the right foods, and if I don’t have the right diet, it affects everything,” Latifi said.
In March 2020, a bleak month amidst the pandemic in NYC, Latifi found a new way to offer pet parents some much-needed health support for their cat or dog. “It costs a lot to take care of an animal,” she said. “That’s part of why I did the podcast. To help people if they want to take initiative and learn about what’s going on, or how to hone in on their animals.”
Latifi says the pet food industry can be muddled and convoluted, with many pet food manufacturers fixed on marketing to animal owners rather than focusing on animal health. Over the course of 40 episodes, The Petropolist podcast has covered topics like feline kidney disease, “intolerance or allergies?” and the pet food recalls related to dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM).
“It comes down to education, and what’s the best way to help others,” said former podcast guest Nicole Cammack, founder of NorthPoint Pets & Company.
For Brooklynite Claudia Gonzalez, pet nutrition became essential after her labradoodle mix, Bobby, was diagnosed with cancer in 2019. After a vet revealed that Bobby had only weeks left to live, Gonzalez visited Petropolis searching for a last hope.
The alterations Latifi made to the dog’s diet extended Bobby’s life by a year and a half, Gonzalez believes. “I really thought that I was giving my dog the best food,” she said. “I’m very grateful for her, because I think her knowledge let the family have Bobby a little longer.”
Latifi’s goal now is to use The Petropolist podcast to support her consulting work, and one day soon, transition to full-time pet nutrition consulting. “What I love is talking to the consumers and helping to guide them,” she said.