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ANIMAL CRACKERS : Trips to Vegas, Louis Vuitton Carrying Cases, Even Lingerie Are De Rigueuer for the Indulged Darlings of Pet Parents. How's a Simple Pet Owner to Compete?

March 07, 1993|MARGO KAUFMAN | Margo Kaufman, a contributing editor to the magazine, is the author of "1-800-Am-I-Nuts?," a collection of essays published last month by Random House. credits;

LET'S TRY TO MAINTAIN A LITTLE PERSPECTIVE HERE. . . .

A few months ago, Clara, my pug puppy, scratched her eye. I took her to a nearby animal hospital. The receptionist handed me a lengthy questionnaire designed to examine our relationship. One question read: "Do you think of your (fill in the species) as A) Just an animal B) A Pet or C) A member of the family?" Frankly, I regard Clara (and her older sister Sophie, too) as D) Boss, but that wasn't an option, so I chose B.

The receptionist glared at me like I was Jack the Ripper. "My Yorkie is like my daughter," she said icily.

I felt guilty for being a bad Pet Parent--and not for the first time either. The once simple role of pet (or, for the politically correct, companion animal) owner has become more complex. It's no longer enough for me to feed the pugs, walk them, scoop poop, play fetch for hours and invest half my disposable income in Fleabusters, vet bills and chew sticks. I'm now encouraged to brush their teeth, administer personality tests, send them to training camp, bake biscuits from scratch and, should I fail them in any way, spring for psychotherapy.

Lest you think I'm exaggerating, consider this: According to the latest Gallup poll "pet census," 58% of American households have pets, about 169.8 million animals of various species. To my astonishment, 88% considered their pets a member of the family, 65% gave Millie or Socks or Slimy or Cujo a Christmas present, and 24% celebrated birthdays, 17% with presents or a cake.

And to think that I, a pug fanatic for almost 20 years, have never purchased a Christmas stocking.

There are several theories to explain the rising Pet Parent population. Perhaps the most obvious is that a lot more people live alone and appreciate a furry or scaly friend's companionship. And "more and more people are deciding not to have children," says psychologist Barbara Cadow, a clinical associate at USC. "That wasn't an option years ago. But nowadays, people make that decision freely. Then they find that there's a hole in their life. And the lucky pets fill it."

Take the spectacularly fortunate, Schuylor and Berni, an Old English sheepdog and a Lhasa apso who belong to my friends James and Codette. "The only difference between them and children is we don't have to put away for college," Codette says. "We don't have to buy them a car or clothing. Though I do. They have raincoats and sweaters."

Schuylor and Berni get top billing on the phone machine message and go everywhere, most recently to Las Vegas, where their companion humans found a hotel that welcomed the 70-pound Schuylor (talk about a casino doing anything to get you in).

"I even took them to the Blessing of the Animals," says Codette. "Shortly after Schuylor was blessed he ran away, and someone called us and said they found him. I don't know if there's a correlation."

I do. To have a relationship with an animal companion is to be in touch with a higher form of love. You have to accept the pet for what it is; you can't try to make a gerbil into a parakeet. And in exchange: "You come home from work in a bad mood, you don't want to hear your wife talk about her problems," says Paul, whose heart belongs to Tommy, a West Highland white terrier. "But a dog doesn't argue. He's just glad to see you." Paul shows his appreciation by holding a cool compress to Tommy's forehead when the weather gets really hot.

As for me, every third day finds me writing another check to Nature's Grooming in Santa Monica (aka Chews R Us) for some holistic pet necessity that I never needed before--special lamb and rice kibble, vitamin supplements with zinc, and miraculous enzymes that neutralize odors. "Sixteen years ago, the attitude of people manufacturing stuff for animals was, 'Oh, that's good enough for a dog,' " says shop owner Leigh Layne (who is soon going to own the mortgage on my house). "But now people want good enough for a human."

Chalk the trend up to baby boomers, who use their pets to further express their individuality. "Whether or not you put a bikini or a mountain leash (made of rappelling cord) on your dog says something about you," Layne says. (A bikini seems like a definite cry for help.)

Still, there's a fine line between being an indulgent Pet Owner and a Pet Parent, though nobody agrees exactly where the line should be drawn. Blanche Roberts, who runs a luxe grooming operation, The Grooming Shop, in Woodland Hills, maintains that the difference is, "an Owner brings the dog in, says she wants a regular kennel clip on her poodle, asks what time the dog will be ready, leaves, comes back at the appointed hour, pays, goes home, and in six weeks, I see her again.

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