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Healthy Dinner … for Fido
Verus Pet Foods

April 2015
 Russell Armstrong, founder of Verus Pet Foods, a healthier alternative for dog and cat food. Inset: Armstrong’s dog Scupper, which he credits for the inspiration for his business idea.

Russell Armstrong, founder of Verus Pet Foods, a healthier alternative for dog and cat food. Inset: Armstrong’s dog Scupper, which he credits for the inspiration for his business idea.

Russell Armstrong waxes poetic when he talks about the natural ingredients in his Verus Pet Foods – but remember, he’s making the food for his own dog, Scupper. “It really is a passion,” he admits.

And so is the pup he rescued from the Caribbean island of Anguilla five years ago. Armstrong first saw the dog when he was only about five weeks old, sick and starving. After a week of stopping to feed him, Armstrong took the dog to the local rescue shelter. The staff was honest. He’d never be adopted and they’d have to put him down. “He was next to death,” Armstrong recalls.

But Scupper already had Armstrong’s heart. “I bought him a plane ticket and brought him back,” he says.

Five years later, Scupper remains a loyal friend. “He’s a good dog,” Armstrong says.

The founder of Verus Pet Foods, an Abingdon-based producer of natural pet foods, had started out in the nuclear
energy field.

His affinity for pets, his fascination for food manufacturing and his interest in nutrition led him to work for a small producer of natural pet foods in 1987. He learned all he could about the business, touring plants, talking with nutritionists and learning about ingredients. “People thought I owned that food company,” he quips. “Each turn I took was eye-opening,” Armstrong says. And each step led him closer to becoming a pet food producer himself in 1993. When an ingredient change in his former employer’s food caused digestive problems in his customers’ pets, Armstrong decided it was time for a change.

“I decided I was never going to be stuck in the same situation again,” he says.

There might be 1,500 companies producing 15,000 pet food products – but Armstrong was determined to create a brand with carefully sourced meats, vegetables and other nutrients that would lead to
healthier pets.

Today, 22 years later, Verus Pet Foods produces 13 million pounds of foods for cats and dogs at a plant in southern New York and sends them out from its 72,000-square-foot distribution center in Abingdon.

For Armstrong, it’s all about the ingredients. Meats and vegetables approved for human consumption. A pro-biotic proven to survive life on a shelf. Even bags that protect the foods’ nutrients.

Most pets eat foods produced by national companies – which contain questionable ingredients, according to Armstrong. “The biggest mistake you could make is to trust the big pet food companies,” he says.

Armstrong says he saw an increase in sales for his products following a 2007 pet food recall. A rice protein imported from China was contaminated with melamine and sickened many dogs and cats.

“Now they’re testing for melamine. But what aren’t they testing for?” Armstrong asks.

Verus’s ingredients are all natural and sourced only from American and New Zealand suppliers. There are no preservatives, genetically modified ingredients, fillers or animal byproducts.

Foods are produced in an E.U.-certified facility, meeting strict European standards for pet and human food production. “That’s one of the healthiest certifications you could have,” Armstrong says.

Verus distributes only to independent stores. You won’t find Verus at Wal-Mart or Petco.

“Independent pet stores offer tremendous benefits to the health of our pets,” he says. Most Verus’s customers live in the Mid-Atlantic region. But the customer base extends across the United States and to Asia, Canada, Finland and Lithuania.

Abingdon offers Verus easy access to Baltimore and Philadelphia ports as well as I-95, according to Armstrong.

Expansion is in the works. Armstrong plans to take over part of the remaining space in the distribution center, taking the company to 100,000 square feet.

Verus’s dedication to pets extends to charitable endeavors, as well. In addition to food supplied to area rescues, Verus supports a program that pairs homeless dogs with homeless veterans.

Camp Royal Oak, a nonprofit program for homeless and disabled veterans in Nanticoke operated by Veteran Support Centers of America, pairs homeless dogs with veterans who train the dogs for themselves or other veterans or first-responders, according to Jerry Black, managing director of VSCOA.

Black says Verus supplies dog food for the program and offers it to participants for the life of their dogs. “If they hadn’t stepped into the picture, I don’t know where we’d be.”

Eight dogs and veterans have graduated with another six undergoing training. About half of the dogs have stayed with the veterans who trained them and half have gone to new owners, according to Black.

“You’re sending them back to the community as a needed commodity,” he says.

Armstrong says he has seen the transformation that can come about when a veteran takes on the task of training a dog. “It’s saving lives,” he says. I95