What’s the Deal With Dog Ice Cream?

Technically, you, a human, can eat the ice cream from Salty Paws, an ice cream shop that offers flavors like peanut butter and bacon, plus a topping bar. But founder Suzanne Tretowicz wouldn’t exactly recommend it. You see, these uniquely flavored ice creams are made for dogs, not people, and there aren’t the same health codes there would be at a restaurant, so the canine consumers are arriving in packs. Tretowicz emphasizes, “We have so many dogs.” There are the doggie ice cream socials, and the breed meetups, and the post-vet visits, and the doggie dates. Sometimes, even potbelly pigs stop by.

When she opened the first Salty Paws location in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware in 2018, “it was the first doggie ice cream shop in the country,” Tretowicz says. More than just dog-friendly, Salty Paws is fully for the dogs. Now, the company is coming up on 16 franchised locations nationwide, mostly clustered in the mid-Atlantic but reaching as far as St. Louis and Fort Collins, Colorado; there’s lots of interest from California, too. Other dog ice cream options exist nationwide, including the doggie dessert cups Ben & Jerry’s launched in stores last year, because everywhere there are pets, there are people ready to spoil them.

If you work at an ice cream shop (for humans), you’ve probably served some samples, if not entire cups, to pooches; when I did, I had a regular named Sadie, a stubby-legged brown dog who came by almost every morning for her spoonful of vanilla. Although dogs can eat human ice cream, it’s generally recommended only in moderation. Since many dogs are lactose intolerant, dairy can cause less than ideal symptoms like diarrhea, according to the American Kennel Club, which adds that too much milk can cause problems even in dogs who are otherwise lactose tolerant. For that reason, the ice cream at Salty Paws is lactose-free, and they also offer goat’s milk options due to the milk’s potential health benefits.

Dog ice cream has existed, in more limited options, for decades. In 1979, the late Ohio State University professor and animal nutritionist William Tyznik formulated cups of vanilla ice cream for dogs and called them Frosty Paws. With a focus on health, Frosty Paws used soy flour and dry delactosed whey, skipping the added sugars of human ice cream, according to a 1989 UPI report released following the licensing of Tyznik’s creation. Frosty Paws was later acquired by Nestlé, which sells it through the Purina brand today. In 2005, Frosty Paws pulled in about $10 million in sales a year, within a pet industry that accounted for $35 billion a year.

That industry hit an all-time high with $103.6 billion in sales in 2020, per a report from the American Pet Products Association, and with that growth has come big changes in how people feed their pets. “The humanification of pet food is nearly complete,” the Atlantic claimed back in 2018, referring to the narrowing gap between human food and pet food. That future has come to pass: Today, pampered pups eat waffles made with spirulina and bento boxes stuffed with smelt and chicken feet on TikTok, and have the option of food delivery services like The Farmer’s Dog, which looks like — and, in theory, is — something I myself could toss in a bowl and eat for lunch. Just as bone broth for dogs followed the bone broth for humans boom, some shifts in pet diets can echo the mores or dietary restrictions of their owners, according to the New York Times.

Humanization is a big trend in the pet industry every year, says Meg Meyer, who has run the frozen yogurt dog treat company The Bear & The Rat with her husband, Matt, since 2010. “Pet owners want [to] perceive their pet food the same way as their own [food], and they’re trying to give them the same experience,” Meyer says. Pointing to the melamine pet food recall of 2007, she says more owners are questioning what their dogs eat and incorporating higher quality and even more functional ingredients. What partially motivated their approach at The Bear & The Rat was not liking the ingredients in Frosty Paws, Meyer explains. Their frozen dog yogurt includes prebiotics and digestive enzymes for gut health. Organic and natural pet food is itself a $22.8 billion industry.

Taking care of her dogs calls forward a different and more eager mindset, says Ice Cream Pups’ Lori Gabay, who sells her gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan dog ice cream in stores in West Hollywood and via a cart at dog parks. “When I pay for myself, it’s money; when I pay for my dogs, it’s not money,” says Gabay, who adds that while living in New York, she once bought a $30 sale winter coat for herself and an $80 coat for her dog. “It doesn’t matter how expensive anything is for my dog — I just buy it — and that’s kind of what happens with people when they come [to my cart].” Since they’re buying a treat for their pets, the people she encounters through work are just happy.

Consider how people have come to handle pet Instagram pages, and these dietary trends fit into a pattern “where people treat their dogs more like humans,” Meyer says. This approach has led to the growth of dog-friendly spaces like New York City’s Boris & Horton, where dogs take almost equal priority to people on laptops, and San Antonio’s Hops & Hounds, a restaurant-meets-dog park. In 2019, the NYC location of the Wilson tacked on a dog menu that included a $42 rib-eye steak, though that option appears to have been downgraded to a $24 one. Starbucks even sells off-menu Puppuccinos, for the person who can’t have a treat without their dog having one too.

As Tretowicz of Salty Paws explains, treating your dog to an ice cream is akin to taking a kid to an ice cream parlor. Before the Philadelphia location officially opened last month, it hosted a private birthday party for Drake the Pup Star, a famous golden retriever with a million followers on TikTok, and all his doggy friends. In the end, the dog ice cream shop is a place to go and socialize with your dog that isn’t the dog park, and that feels more fun than giving your pup a cookie before plopping down on the couch.

Speaking with SFGATE in 2005 about the then-new Frosty Paws peanut butter flavor, the dog ice cream inventor Tyznik concluded, accurately, “It’s for the human, not the dog.” That seems to still ring true as dog ice cream purveyors crank out even more offerings and experiences. Gabay is starting to make dog ice cream cakes, and Salty Paws is always adding new seasonal options.

“I wouldn’t say it’s because the dogs get sick of the flavors,” Tretowicz says. “It’s more because it keeps it fresh and exciting for the people who come all the time.”