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.
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Despite the global recession and widespread job losses, Dillon and others say, the pet industry has remained strong, with new businesses opening and old ones expanding. The animals-only Pet Airways, for instance, started flying in July, offering "first class pet travel" for the four-legged jet set. (Pets ride in the main cabin, not the cargo hold.) Megaretailers PetSmart and Petco are actually hiring and, in some areas, opening new stores. Meanwhile, a new wave of nonpet businesses are trying to jump on the doggy bandwagon – Martha Stewart, for instance, recently opened a pet franchise; Honda this year introduced a new, dog-friendly concept car, complete with dog seatbelts and entrance ramp.Skip to next paragraph
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Though there have been reports about an increase in animals given up because of the economic downturn, shelter workers and other animal experts say these handovers are generally part of an otherwise extreme situation – families facing true hunger and homelessness. In the majority of cases, Dillon and others say, when a pet owner is squeezing her budget, dog-related expenditures are among the last to go.
"Eating out oneself is going to be cut back on way before switching to a cheaper dog food," Dillon says.
In fact, the amount spent on pet food has nearly doubled since 2000, from $9.4 billion to a projected $18.2 billion this year – a sum that makes food the largest part of the already Great Dane-sized pet industry. If anything, the pet-food recall two years ago has helped sales; much of the new money comes from specialized, "healthy" food, such as the brand I dutifully purchase every few weeks.
"The pet-food industry has gotten very good at tapping into peoples' anxieties about the quality of their own diet, and then getting them to apply that anxiety to their pets' diets," she says. "First, of course, the industry had to convince people that the traditional way they fed pets – cooking them meat or feeding scraps – was unhealthy."
That's right – not that long ago, the dog just ate your leftovers. The baby boomers out there might remember this. According to marketing surveys, in the early 1950s, only 20 percent of pet owners used canned food, Ms. Grier says. But with the explosion of the convenience food industry – TV dinners, frozen vegetables, and the like – companies such as Purina saw a new market. Today, she says, it's no coincidence that pet foods advertise as good for weight control, rich in omega-3s, and low in carbohydrates.
The same underlying combination of emotion and anthropomorphism drives other pet sectors, as well. It could be the chew treat that's good for your dog's teeth, the booties he needs to keep his paws warm in winter, or the antianxiety drugs to ease his separation fears. Or even testicular implants, brought to you by a company called Neuticals, to help your neutered dog's "self-esteem." (Seriously.)
Always, the message is the same: You'd do it for yourself – why not for the animal you love?
"Things that were once considered optional are now really being considered necessities by pet owners," Dillon says. "These companies have made the attachment between the health and well-being of your pet and their product."
Bonnie Prober, Schreiber's sister, understands this firsthand. She adopted Morty, a beagle mix, two years ago: "I knew that my sister had clients that paid a lot of money for a lot of stuff that I thought was ridiculous," Ms. Prober says. "I didn't know how it sucks you in. Morty takes vitamins, he takes medicine, he has this special food, he goes to dog-socialization classes.... You feel like if you don't do it you're not a good dog mom."
She cautions me to approach her pup gently. He has anxiety issues. "He's on Prozac," she explains sheepishly.