Once derided, Western cat food has Russia purring

March 31, 1994|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- As food prices rise toward world levels, Russians are embracing a concept that only a few years ago produced derisive laughter as the worst manifestation of capitalist decadence:

They're buying cat food.

The changing economics -- and a deep affection for animals -- have been adroitly exploited by Western pet food companies, which have begun advertising on television and on billboards.

Traditionally, dogs and cats, regarded as members of the family, have eaten kasha (buckwheat porridge) and bread, vegetables and meat -- just like the family.

With low food prices, it didn't pay to produce equivalent food for animals. In contrast, in the United States, a can of tuna cat food is cheaper than tuna produced for humans.

Now that the prices are going up, and jobs are demanding more time, pet owners are more receptive to alternatives.

Master Foods Russia, a subsidiary of Mars Inc., is making its own alternative highly desirable by heavily advertising its Pedigree Pal dog food and Whiskas cat food.

A cat owner named Natasha Bagina said she was greatly affected by a Whiskas television commercial, in which a cat looks imploringly at its owner, as if it badly wants to ask for something. "I know what you want," the owner says. Cat food, of course.

"I started to buy the food because I liked this ad," Mrs. Bagina said. "The cat looks so small and unprotected. She can't buy the food herself. I see my cat would buy it if she could, so I buy it for her myself."

The TV ads are reinforced by bright posters, enclosed in sparkling glass cases, that look as alluring as diamonds on Moscow's drab streets.

The posters, bright purple with a cat-shaped logo in a deep pink-red, remind everyone: "Your cat would buy Whiskas." In Russian, the phrase comes out in a highly euphonious rhyme, which sounds something like "Vasha keeska kupila bwee Viskas." The task was complicated by the Russian alphabet, which doesn't have a "W."

Mrs. Bagina said her awareness of the ads came at a time when she began working every day.

"I had no time to cook, even for the family," she said. "This canned food is so convenient. I mix it with kasha, and my cat likes it very much."

Eternal truths change slowly, however, and Mrs. Bagina intersperses the prepared foods with old-fashioned home cooking. "I have to give her something fresh," she said.

On a cold, snowy day last week, Galina Markova stood on a

downtown sidewalk with two tiny gray Persians wrapped in shawls.

"We were hesitant about packaged food at first," she said. "But it's so convenient. All you have to do is open it and pour it out."

She and her daughter, Svetlana Koldisheva, have three cats and twice a year sell the litters, as they were trying to do last week.

Mrs. Koldisheva said she and her mother deeply love their cats and want to give them the best. They have hit on a diet of dry cat food alternated with fresh meat.

"And, of course, they still want their potatoes," Mrs. Koldisheva said.

Other pet owners said cat food was more attractive than dog food because cats need less food. It still costs less to feed bread to a dog than to buy dog food, and the big sacks of dog food are hard to cart home in a nation where the average person doesn't have a car.

Yelena Shevchenko, secretary of Moscow's Cat Lovers Society, said the club recently began recommending cat food to its members.

'Cheaper to buy it'

"It appears to be cheaper to buy it than to cook, especially for cats," Mrs. Shevchenko said. "You can only imagine how much a kilo of fish costs now, and there's hardly anything left of it when you've cooked it. You can use every bit of the cat food, and it is full of vitamins."

But, she cautions, cats can't live on prepared food alone.

Not everyone can afford cat food yet, which typically sells for just under $1 for a 14-ounce can or $2 for a box just under a pound.

Galina Spyeshniva, who found her cat on the street three months ago, has had to harden her heart against his imploring looks.

"When my cat looks at me asking for food, I say to him, 'Soon I will retire and I won't have enough money even to give you simple food. There's no question of buying cat food.' He eats raw fish, mice and pigeons."

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