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Which Pet Is Top Dog With People?


What's the most popular household pet in the United States? Easy. Dogs and cats have topped the list since the days when Spot and Puff were introduced to first-graders as part of the nuclear family lineup in their "Fun With Dick and Jane" readers. The nuclear family has undergone a shake-up but--partly as a result--Spot and Puff are more important than ever. But then what? There's a lot of shuffling for the second-rank honors, depending on which interest group is speaking. For instance:

* A recent Boston Globe feature on a pet-sitting service in Massachusetts maintains that rabbits are the most popular pet in the nation, "right after cats and dogs."

* Bird Talk magazine notes that the cockatiel is the most popular pet bird in America, without giving it a hierarchical rating in the entire animal world, but a magazine called Ferrets USA takes care of that, in proclaiming the ferret to be the nation's fourth-most-popular pet, "surpassed only by cats, dogs and birds."

* The American Pet Products Manufacturers Assn. has anointed the fish the most popular pet in America because it estimates that there are more than 160 million of them swimming in household aquariums.

This is a body-count issue. There are more fish but not more fish-owning households. The entire fish population is owned by a mere 6.3% of American households. However, that's a big leap since 1987 when it was only 2.8%.

When it comes to compiling statistics, animal lovers are almost as obsessed as baseball fans. And nobody has more of a vested interest than the American Veterinary Assn., which publishes a U.S. Pet Ownership and Demographic Sourcebook.

"We have pet ownership broken down in every possible way," said Michael Walters, association spokesman.

Their latest survey, published in 1997, has this to report about the American pet-household profile:

* In the top ranks, there are 59.1 million cats and 52.9 million dogs in the U.S. Cats lead, but dogs can be found in 4.2 million more households.

Continuing the pet count, in numbers:

* Fish: 160 million.

* Birds: 12.6 million.

* Rabbits and ferrets: 5.7 million.

* Other rodents: (guinea pigs, hamsters, etc.): 4.8 million.

* Pleasure horses: 4 million.

* Reptiles: (turtles, snakes, lizards): 3.5 million.

The veterinarians also are interested in the profiles of pet owners themselves, with much attention given to the demographics (including income) of pet-owning households. For instance, while 69% of all Americans own their own home, the number of pet owners who own their own homes is 74%.

"This indicates that pet owners are rooted in the community and plan to be there a long time," Walters said.

The surveys also show that pet ownership is becoming more concentrated, he added.

"Although fewer American households own pets than five years ago, there are more pets per household," Walters said.

And these pets are well cared for, their health needs increasingly mirroring the patterns of their owners. More than ever, today, pets are a part of the family, says small-animal vet Dr. Joan Samuels.

"I don't have the demographics memorized, but I do know that multiple-animal households are increasing, and these people are definitely paying more attention to their pets," said Samuels, who, with two other women vets operates the Buellton Veterinary Clinic, north of Santa Barbara.

They offer a full range of specialties, right down to acupuncture and homeopathy, she said, because pet owners demand it.

"We have so many "DINK" [double-income-no-kids] couples now, and they treat their pet as a child." Samuels, who has practiced for 20 years, says her practice also offers hospice treatment and grief counseling. "If you talk about the human-animal bond and the importance of these pets to their owners, it goes deeper than a matter of how you spend your discretionary income. This is a family unit--my parents have a cat they would do anything for."

In today's stressful world, almost anyone can benefit from a pet, she thinks, citing data that pet ownership has been known to lower blood pressure.

"Animals are forgiving, totally devoted, and they don't talk back. They are perfect," Samuels said.

That's what dental hygienist Pam Cady discovered when she needed a diversion. Facing a long, painful recovery from foot surgery, she researched the Internet and discovered that domestic rats are both intelligent and social as pets. Her hooded rat, Fancy, proved to be the perfect prescription, she said.

"I would sit and pet her and not even think about my foot," Cady said. "Now I can't imagine life without Fancy. She sits on my shoulder and nibbles popcorn and has seen all the Laker games."


The Most Popular Varieties

Cat and dog lovers, what's your pick? Lots of owners love mutts and strays, while others go for the pedigree. And this is what pedigree aficionados go for:

The top 10 cat breeds, according to the Cat Fanciers' Assn., are Persian, Maine coon, Siamese, Abyssinian, exotic, Oriental, Scottish fold, American shorthair, Birman and ocicat.

The top 10 dog breeds, says the American Kennel Club, are Labrador retriever, Rottweiler, German shepherd, golden retriever, beagle, poodle, Dachshund, Cocker spaniel, Yorkshire terrier, Pomeranian.

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