Shani Kovacevic, of Upper Township, straightens pet outfits on the shelves of her store, Animal House, on Friday. The boutique pet-food store caters to discerning tastes in Ocean City's downtown.

Ben Fogletto

OCEAN CITY — Choosing the right location for a business is important, according to Shani Kovacevic, owner of the pet boutique Animal House.

Kovacevic, 34, chose to open her pet food and gift shop on Asbury Avenue in Ocean City’s downtown, which sees a steady stream of tourist foot traffic in the summer.

But Kovacevic, of Upper Township, said location alone is not enough to sustain a small business. So she turned her store into a destination by offering a healthful but hard-to-find alternative to supermarket kibble for dogs of all breeds and ages.

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Kovacevic, whose hobby is homeopathy or alternative medicine, sells brands of “raw” dog food formulated to meet the nutrition needs of dogs without the grain fillers and preservatives that can sometimes cause allergies and digestive problems. Among the many brands she offers is K9 Natural, a New Zealand product that includes freeze-dried selections of bite-sized beef and poultry.

Pet food — particularly for dogs and cats — is an $18.6 billion industry in the United States, up 41 percent since 2003. People spent $469 million last year on cat treats alone, according to the Pet Food Institute, the industry’s trade group.

Alternatives to traditional discount brands became especially popular after a series of pet-food recalls in the 2000s prompted by the discovery of contamination ranging from botulism to salmonella to toxic heavy metals in canned dog and cat foods, she said.

About three-dozen pet owners in South Jersey filed a class-action lawsuit against the former Menu Foods Inc., after it recalled 90 different types of cat and dog food in 2007. Later lab examinations found contaminants such as rat poison in some of the 60 million cans that were recalled, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

“Boy, did people start listening after that,” she said. “People were blown away by how bad the ingredients were in their dog’s food.”

Kovacevic is accustomed to living in a resort town. She grew up in Eilat in southern Israel along the Red Sea — a world destination for recreational divers, she said.

“Eilat is more like Miami than Ocean City,” she said. “The water is warm year-round.”

The boutique doubles as a pet-themed art gallery with prints and original works adorning the walls along with gifts with horse, cat and dog themes.

She also sells mostly American-made collars, leashes and dog jackets. They cost a little more than imported ones but look nicer and last longer, she said.

Kovacevic runs the store while raising her two children, Jonathan, 6, and Maya, 4, with her husband, Tony Kovacevic, 41. A boxer named Max, the store mascot Gizmo and a shih tzu puppy, Bruno, round out the family.

“We forgot what it means to have a puppy in the house. He terrorizes everyone and everything,” she said. “He’s the original ankle-biter. The kids love him.”

The store boasts a “Ceiling of Fame,” plastered with hundreds — maybe thousands — of photos of her customers’ pets, each with its name scribbled in black marker. Customers on their return visits often look for their pet’s picture, the newest of which are kept in bound albums at the front counter.

“When people ask our suggestions for good dog names, we refer them to the ceiling,” she said.

Kovacevic started her business in as a seasonal store in a Scranton, Pa., mall around the Christmas holidays before taking the plunge with her Ocean City store.

“We started in 2003 on a shoestring budget,” she said. “If we weren’t doing good business in the day, we had to think about how we’d buy food in the evening.”

Her store, like most others on Asbury Avenue, had nearly 3 feet of floodwater from Hurricane Sandy on Oct. 29. The store lost a tremendous amount of inventory and needed extensive renovations — including a new floor — before it could reopen.

Kovacevic credits her friends for their help and support during that stressful time. The storm was the last thing her business needed in a down economy, she said.

She takes pains to make her store inviting to customers and their pets. They have a dog gate to prevent squirmy pets from escaping their owners. A big water dish sits next to the stoop.

Kovacevic’s next goal is to build a website that is as attractive and inviting to customers as her downtown Ocean City store, she said.

“You’re just one in a million out there, so you have to make an impression,” she said.

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