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Care, pampering going to the dogs -- and cats

Owners are treating their animal companions more like humans. But the extent gives some experts pause.

September 14, 2007|Leslie Earnest | Times Staff Writer

When the late billionaire Leona Helmsley left $12 million to her Maltese, Trouble, a lot of people were shocked. But maybe a lot of people weren't.

Americans are pampering their pets more than ever. They treat dogs and cats as if they were human, buying them bathing suits, strollers, antidepressants and, for the neutering-conflicted, testicular implants.

This is more than puppy love. Elena Rodriguez witnessed it when a customer at the PetSmart PetsHotel she manages in Glendora asked that someone perform the sign of the cross over Sweet Pea, a Shar-Pei/chow mix, every night. One evening, Rodriguez neglected to administer the ritual.

"I was on my way driving home and I'm like, 'Oh, my gosh, I forgot to bless the dog,' " Rodriguez said. She called a co-worker to attend to Sweet Pea. For people who check their darlings into PetsHotel, she said, "It's not just about watching them overnight."

The link between pet and person has become deep and complex. Humans are relying more on pets for comfort as traditional support systems falter, experts in relations between the species say, with families becoming fragmented, baby boomers facing empty nests, job security a fading notion, employers less generous and, for many, religion under scrutiny.

"There's an extraordinary, revolutionary shift in the relationships between people and companion animals," said Jon Katz, an author of six books about dogs. "People in extraordinary numbers are turning to companion animals, especially cats and dogs, to fill the holes in their lives."

At the same time, people have more money than ever to spend, and businesses are giving them more ways than ever to spend it. Pet industry sales are expected to swell to almost $41 billion in the United States this year, making it the second-fastest growing retail category, after electronics.

Even Bob Vetere, president of the American Pet Products Manufacturers Assn., has been taken aback by the offerings.

"I just got a brochure from a company that makes wigs for dogs," he said. "I don't know when my dog ever walked past a mirror and said, 'Gee, my hair is ugly, I need a wig.' "

Pets have their own bakeries, day-care centers and GPS devices, the latter so their owners can find them faster if they get lost. The Best Little Cathouse in Pasadena is "cage free" and playrooms are outfitted with webcams so that absent owners can observe their kitties.

PetsHotels show themed movies in its dog "suites," such as "101 Dalmatians" and "Lady and the Tramp." (Not "Old Yeller," though. Too tragic.) The chef at Club-Beverly Hills, advertised as "paparazzi-free," whips up kosher food and pasta.

"You have a parallel life now with your dog," said Marjorie Lewis, who owns the club, which is actually in West Hollywood. "If you eat all-natural food, you want your dog to eat all-natural food."

Petco Animal Supplies Inc. just introduced organic food sections in its stores and is shipping fall fashions, including sweaters and scarves. Also available: a $225 bed that warms or cools to adjust to an animal's temperature.

"We really cater to the pet parent," said Rachel McLennan, a spokeswoman for the San Diego-based company.

Muttropolis, which describes its boutiques as "Crate & Barrel meets Whole Foods for dogs and cats," expects to have 100 locations within five years. Offerings at existing stores, including three in Southern California, include all-terrain boots for dogs and soap-free wheat grass shampoo for cats.

Healthcare options have multiplied. Fluffy doesn't have to go to an ordinary vet, she can see specialists -- cardiologists, radiologists, neurologists, oncologists, behaviorists. Cats can have kidney transplants at VCA West Los Angeles Animal Hospital.

And dogs that have been spayed can be fitted with prostheses made by Neuticles, a company in Missouri. Owner Greg Miller has found plenty of takers, selling almost a quarter of a million worldwide, with California his best market.

"If your dog's leg or tail or nose got cut off, wouldn't he know they're missing?" Miller said. "If you're neuter-hesitant and you want your dog to look like nothing's ever changed, that's where Neuticles come in."

Most of the billions of dollars spent on pets goes for normal stuff, which, these days, includes life-extending surgeries and tooth-and-gum cleansing wipes but also leashes and kitty litter. People may spend liberally on their animals, but most aren't interested in buying them diamond-studded collars.

"I don't want to de-dog my dog," said Marla Shives, an engineering plumbing specialist from Glendora who named her fluffy white Coton de Tulear Piper, after, well, pipes.

"I feel personally that when people try to humanize their pets to the point where they put clothes on them, that's about your own needs," she said. "That's not what your dog wants."

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