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It's a dog's life

And it's not half bad. Even in a recession, Americans bow to the slobbering, shedding, fiercely loyal king of pets.

By Correspondent / August 3, 2009

Keats, a chocolate Labrador retrieves a toy from a Copley Square fountain in Boston.

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor



Not far from the White House is a building with a large fire hydrant built onto its facade and a new poop-bag dispenser in the entry. This is Wagtime – one of the city's most popular doggy day-care operations. Here, every rush hour, owner Lisa Schreiber greets a steady stream of business-suited customers, offering heartfelt words about how nicely Cookie or Chloe or Oliver played today.

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She knows each pooch. Not just their moods and proclivities, but also their diets (low fat or grain-free, allergic to chicken, preference for duck) and their medicines (for the heart, the joints, the jitters). This is impressive, given that on any day there are around 60 canines at Wagtime, either in the big-dog romp area, or in the upstairs small-dog playroom with attached roof deck. And judging by the reaction of the "mommies and daddies" – there are no "owners" here – it is also much appreciated. Ms. Schreiber is thinking of starting a waiting list for the full-time, $900-a-month slots.

For many in the dog world, Schreiber explains, pet day care is no more of a luxury than preschool. Buying high-end dog food feels no more frivolous than serving organic fruits and vegetables; Prozac for the pup no more outrageous than Ritalin for the teenager.

"When we were growing up, I had an American Eskimo [dog]," Schreiber says. "We didn't get him fixed, we fed him the grossest food. We didn't know better. Today we do ... and people want to do what's best for them ... their dogs are like their children. They're definitely members of the family."

And here, dear readers, some of you are rolling your eyes. Wagtime, it seems to you, is the latest example of American excess, the follies of self-absorbed urban yuppies. Add it to the list of jaw-dropping true dog stories – puppy facials, Chihuahua birthday parties, robes offered to weary canine travelers at the posh W Hotel chain – as proof that priorities are out of whack.

Others of you, however, are smiling at the thought of the Wagtime wards wiggling and wagging in that delighted, exuberant, puppy dog way. You probably live in one of the 60 percent of American households with pets. Almost half of you, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, consider your dog or cat a family member, and another 40 percent describe the animal as a companion.

Perhaps you're not the doggy day-care type yourself, and perhaps you live in the suburbs and believe that office-bound city dwellers should not own a dog. But you understand the inclination – after all, the American Animal Hospital Association found that 83 percent of you call yourself your pet's "mommy" or "daddy."

Most of you, though, will have some gut reaction to Wagtime. And this is because it represents something larger than itself – a widespread cultural trend, a phenomenon that could easily be called America's pet revolution.

This revolution is bolstered by the country's exploding pet population, which James Serpell, of the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine, estimates has increased threefold since the 1960s. It is spurred on by the apparently recessionproof pet industry, which has grown to $46 billion this year from $17 billion in 1994, according to the American Pet Products Association. (This isn't a coastal phenomenon, by the way. You Midwestern pet owners outspend Northeasterners by more than $1 billion.) And while many experts say there are deep roots to our pet obsession, there is something substantially different about the role we now give to the animals that share our homes.