When Mikail Kruger opened her new day-care center last month, it featured the usual amenities: snacks, play time, television and "cubbies" where her guests can keep their "blankies," or whatever makes them feel cozy.
But this Newport Beach outfit is for the dogs.
Dog Day Afternoons is one of several doggy day-care centers springing up across the nation, carving a new niche in the $20-billion pet-care industry. Driving the trend are doting dog owners and animal-loving entrepreneurs.
"They're just popping up all over the place," said Funda Alp, a spokeswoman for the American Pet Products Manufacturers' Assn. "It's a great business opportunity and it's great for the pets."
Animal lovers cite a slew of reasons for dog owners to avoid leaving Fido home alone. A lonely dog may chew on furniture, bark incessantly or just pine silently for company.
At day care, the animals can romp the day away in a "cage-free" environment, operators say.
"As baby boomers grow older and their children leave, they get pets," said Buddy Grecco, an employee at the Yuppie Puppy Pet Care Inc. in New York. "And places like these are a natural extension of that phenomenon."
Often these centers also offer training, grooming and veterinarian services. Some pamper their clients.
Hollywood Hounds in Los Angeles features pet massages, "pawdicures" and complete make-overs for dogs. Opened in December 1996, the center also boasts a backyard gazebo for "muttrimonies" or "barkmitzvahs." On those special occasions, a Rolls-Royce carts the four-legged clients to the dog park.
To create her pet paradise, Hollywood Hounds owner Susan Marfleet spent $80,000 to renovate the former home of actor Fess Parker, even covering the concrete floors with nonskid tile so her guests won't hurt their tender paws.
"It doesn't look like a place for dogs," said Marfleet, whose basic fee is $25 a day or $300 per month. "It looks nicer than most preschools for children."
Doggy day-care owners say their businesses ring up sales--as much as $250,000 a year by one account--and offer potential for expansion.
"I just wish I would have opened three years ago instead of a year ago, because now I could have had 10 locations," said Marfleet, who met recently with a company to discuss franchising possibilities.
Animal lovers say pet-care services are in greater demand these days, especially in cities where apartments are plentiful and yards scarce. The San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals opened a day-care center in 1994 to encourage pet adoptions, spokeswoman Lynn Spivak said. Today the center has a yearlong waiting list, she said.
"It's pretty tough for some people to go off to work all day and leave, let's say, a wire-haired pointer in the apartment all day," she said. Day care "is really beneficial for the dogs. It's not a frou-frou concept one bit."
Indeed, a cottage industry of pet sitters also has sprouted, offering house calls to take Rover for a stroll or care for other critters, from cats and birds to fish and iguanas.
Sitters also have a professional organization, Pet Sitters International. The group, founded four years ago, claims about 2,200 members.
With pet sitters, dog walkers, boarding kennel operators and doggy day-care owners all lunging for the leash, the canine care business is becoming more competitive, an unsettling prospect for operators of the traditional source for pet care, boarding kennels.
"Any small-business operator gets a little paranoid about any type of competition," said Jim Krack, executive director of the American Boarding Kennels Assn. "So I would imagine there are kennel operators who are very uneasy about this trend."
Kennel industry spokesmen pooh-pooh the upstart day-care business, pointing out that kennels have offered day rates for years. Most kennels have indoor and outdoor runs that give guests plenty of opportunities to exercise, Krack said.
Pet caretakers may opt for a day-care center simply because it's easier and cheaper to set up, Krack speculates. It costs at least $250,000 to open a kennel, he said, and kennel operators must comply with stricter zoning requirements.
Day-care owners, however, sniff at the notion that their businesses are just boarding kennels with shorter hours. Unbound by cages, animals in these settings get more exercise and personal attention, they say.
"They're completely different services," said Rhonda Marciano, owner of the Dog House in Los Angeles. "In a kennel, your dog is in a cage all day. . . . Here we paw paint with the dogs, we play games with them."
For more adventuresome canines, Gail Goldman's Muttwalkers Doggie Daycamp features daily romps at a horse ranch in San Juan Capistrano.
Every day, Goldman picks up 18 to 20 dogs in her white minivan and shuttles them to the ranch. Owners pay $15 to $20 a day, depending on the number of dogs in a family.
"They ride together in the car, They're loud, they're obnoxious, but they learn to be very, very social," she said.