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The Lap Of Luxury for Pets

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july1homespunweb.jpgBy Jacob Schneider

RISMEDIA, July 1, 2008-(MCT)-No matter how high gas prices go or how tough the housing market is, Angie Todd’s dogs will never go without the best.

“I’ll do without a steak dinner so my dogs can get groomed, and I think most people are like that,” the Winter Haven resident said. “They used to be just an object, but now they’re part of the family.”

Humans may be suffering from a slumping economy, but life is good for Bay area pets. Standard & Poor’s estimates that the pet industry will grow by at least 5% annually in the next five years, including projected growth of 5.3% in 2008. Spending has skyrocketed from $17 billion in 1994 to an estimated $43.4 billion this year.

The analysts are impressed.

“If pets are considered part of the family-and are treated as such-we think this sub-industry should be able to weather the negative economic issues that are currently hurting most retailers,” Standard & Poor’s analyst Michael Souers wrote in BusinessWeek.

This ever-increasing spending on pets is fueling a growth in high-end pet services, from pet spas and day cares to gourmet pet food bakeries. And although horror stories persist about pets abandoned by people mired in foreclosure or hard times, there are also owners willing to spend lavishly on their pets.

At one local pet store, doggie raincoats and organic, vitamin-infused pet food top the list of hottest selling items. New luxury pet resorts offer $40 stays in air-conditioned kennels. And at some local grooming salons, manicures and pedicures complement the traditional trim. Groomers report round-the-clock bookings, and grooming schools say many are clamoring to join their lucrative ranks, all because pet owners seem to find new ways every year to show their pets-and themselves-the value of their animal companionship.

Maybe we should have seen it coming, says Lynnette Hart, a professor of behavior and human-animal interaction at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California at Davis.

“People are living in smaller families; more people are living alone,” she said. “We’re not living in a household with eight or 10 people, so we have more space available to build relationships with the animals that we have. The whole feeling about the human-animal bond-the awareness-really took off in the 1980s, and it’s just been steadily increasing, the understanding of the importance of the relationships.”

People are now finding a variety of ways to express that importance with their pocketbooks.

“We sell a lot of polo shirts. I’ve even seen dogs with shoes and lifejackets,” said Tiffany Williams, a Petco employee who is training to become a groomer. “It’s amazing. People will spend 100 or more dollars on their dogs at once.”

Groomers Report High-Volume Business

The students at the Bay Area Pet Grooming Academy, which has drawn students from as far away as South America and Europe for its nine-week program, are banking on that trend continuing.

“They say this industry is recession-resistant,” said Veronica Ancliffe, who runs the academy in Tampa and said she is seeing more and more people leave jobs at corporate firms such as JPMorgan Chase to join her field, in which groomers can make as much as $100,000 a year. “People will go hungry before they let their pets go.”

Amy Grove, who owns a Tampa pet grooming salon, said she thinks a proliferation of dog-friendly restaurants and parks has made the way owners treat their animals much more visible.

“I’ve talked to customers who told me that they sacrificed their own hair in order to get their dogs’ hair cut,” she said.

Though much money spent on pets is for food and veterinary care, boarding and grooming services comprise a growing niche. The American Pet Products Manufacturers Association estimates that pet owners will spend $3.2 billion on pet services this year, about as much as we spend on educational toys for toddlers.

Marcia Lewis, a grooming student from St. Petersburg, said the booming business isn’t the only reason to enter the field-the former hairstylist prefers the clientele.

“I like the dogs much better,” she said. “Dogs are much easier to work with. We can control them.”

Kennels Making Themselves At Home

Grooming is hardly the only high-end pet service finding a niche in the Bay area. Just last month, a new installation of Camp Bow Wow, which markets itself as a “Doggy Day Camp and Overnight Camp,” opened near Tampa International Airport. Owner Barbara Cardin said she hopes such amenities as climate-controlled facilities, classical music at night and around-the-clock webcams of play areas will draw owners sick of smelly, traditional kennels.

“This old lady told me that she dropped off her dog to get some chores done, but she didn’t get anything done because she was mesmerized by the camera,” she said.

“I truly think that for some people their dogs are their children. There are some double-income, no-child families. … They don’t mind spending the money to make sure their dogs are safe and well-cared for,” Cardin said.

John Shope of Just Dogs Gourmet, which began selling hand-decorated dog biscuits in Tampa last year, said he has seen products and services that 10 years ago might have been regarded as excessive — for example, dog sunglasses — cross over into the mainstream.

“These people are coming in with a perception that the sunglasses, there’s a purpose to them; they’re buying them for their eyes,” Shope said. “They’re not looking at it as a novelty thing or because it’s trendy.”

Veterinary care has boomed as animals are now treated for ailments that in the past might have been ignored. The amount of money spent on veterinary care has grown from $7.1 billion in 2001 to an estimated $10.9 billion this year, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturer’s Association. In addition, a growing number of pets-half a million, according to one firm’s estimates-are now covered by health insurance.

And perhaps the most telling sign that many dogs really do have all of the things their owners have: the growth of pet law.

“I get a client a day. You don’t get that in regular law practice,” said Tampa lawyer Jennifer Dietz, who a year ago converted her practice to handle exclusively pet cases in response to high demand. Dietz handles many cases in which pet owners allege injury to their pets, and she also helps owners set up pet trusts.

Although many may recall with dismay the $12 million inheritance that New York socialite Leona Helmsley left to her dog Trouble last year, Dietz said most owners leave a much more reasonable $10,000 to $15,000 to ensure that their pets are not euthanized after their deaths. She said the law is catching up to the changing attitudes of owners, who now see pets as valuable family members rather than pieces of property.

“Eighty-six percent of America considers pets to be members of the families. How does a judge disregard that?” she said. “The best thing is that almost everyone on the jury has a pet, so they’re in favor of giving damages to owners who have been harmed.”

Copyright © 2008, Tampa Tribune, Fla.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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