Warm Heart, Cold Nose, Big Bucks!
BOSTON — Fido's always been a person's best friend.
But lately he's moved to head of the household.
Two recent surveys show Americans lavish more attention - and money - than ever on their pets.
"In our generation, pets have made a migration of biblical proportions from the backyard to the bedroom," says Marty Becker, author of "Chicken Soup for the Pet Lover's Soul."
Take Michael Pennacchia.
On March 2 he brought a sheepdog-mix home from a Long Island, New York, animal shelter.
Five months later, he's spent $2,055 caring for Mickey.
That includes day care and professional dog walkers while "Penn" is at work. Plus food, collars, leashes, a cage, toys, and other supplies.
It doesn't include extra money Mr. Pennacchia spends on transportation.
Mickey can't take New York City trains, so Pennacchia has to take cabs, and sometimes pay extra to bring the dog. And on weekends, he rents cars to give Mickey a day at the beach.
Pets almost always cost more than their owners expect, and they've always been expensive.
But the numbers keep rising as Americans increasingly integrate pets into the family.
In general, medium to large dogs, such as Mickey, cost $500 to $700 a year to maintain, says John Donato, director of the Massachusetts SPCA animal shelter in Boston.
And while cats might weigh in at a fraction of the size of Mickey, their upkeep has big teeth: $300 to $500.
More exotic pets, even birds, can cost much more. Kids like iguanas, for instance, because they look like dinosaurs. But parents should remember that upkeep is downright carnivorous.
They need a vertical environment, heated to between 80 and 90 degrees F., says veterinarian Linda Randall.
That's expensive, "and not easy to do in our living rooms," Mr. Donato adds.
Visited a vet lately?
They're getting more expensive.
Advancing veterinary medicine is getting as technical as human medicine and almost as expensive. Pet medical insurance is now available in most states to help defray the cost, and 70 percent of pet owners say they would spend $500 to $5,000 on vet care before having their pet put to sleep.
"When I first got [Mickey] I didn't expect" the high cost, says Penn. "But I'm kind of used to it now. He's brought a lot of good things into my life, and made me more social. I'm a big-time doggie daddy."
Ed Wohlers, a California accountant who has four cats, brings a different perspective: "When you come home from work, you know you're loved at least as much as a chair leg," he says.
That comment goes a long way to explain why pet owners spend hundreds, even thousands, of dollars a year.
Because it's a dog's life
The fast-changing, technology-driven pace of life in the '90s isolates people socially, says author Becker. They compensate by spending more time and money on their furry household companions.
When he returns to his home in Idaho every night, Dr. Becker knows that Scooter, his fox terrier, and Sirloin, the black lab, plus two cats and two horses "will be overjoyed to see me."
"People say pets are always happy to see them when they come home, when spouses and kids aren't always," agrees Gina Spadafori, who has written a newspaper column on pets for 20 years. "So we want to be there for them."
"Be there" may be an understatement.
The pet care industry brings in $4 billion a year, and it's pretty well recession proof, Ms. Spadafori says.
Pet owners buy clothing, such as Harley-Davidson bandannas and T-shirts, along with rain slickers, hamster and gerbil palaces, orthopedic dog beds, and cat tree houses.
Hello, room service? Woof!
Services can cost more.
Tam and Nigel Ravenhill tailored a vacation last March around the needs of Miss Stitches, a 138-pound great Dane.
They found California parks and historic sites that allowed dogs. They paid Universal Studios an extra fee for an on-site kennel. Hearst Castle had pet sitters.
On an earlier vacation, Miss Stitches enjoyed the Waldorf Astoria in New York.
"We have a two-month-old baby, and it's funny to compare how much it costs to raise a baby and a great Dane," says Mr. Ravenhill. "So far the dog's way ahead."
In all, Miss Stitches's upkeep runs $4,162 a year - not including room service at the Waldorf (just kidding) or other special treats.
When the Ravenhills leave town, Miss Stitches usually checks into Country Club Kennels, whose accommodations make the Waldorf seem low rent: two bedrooms, an outside dog run, and a giant play area for romping with a friend.
A week away from Miss Stitches can run the Ravenhills up to $170.
Other popular services include doggie summer camps, six-week in-patient obedience training, $10,000 for a retirement home for pets who outlive their owners, and a proliferation of pet cemeteries.
Right pet, Wright house
And for hounds with an unusually acute sense of space, Petco, the giant pet-supply chain, plans to auction doghouses designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
But owners say their pets are worth it; they're part of the family, after all.
A recent study by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association shows that 80 percent of pet owners celebrate their pet's birthday with a special snack, treat, presents, even a party.
Seventy percent have framed pictures of their pets on their desks at work, alongside spouse or children.
Pet stores often give away small animals such as gerbils in anticipation of what customers will spend on supplies.
More Americans are also bringing home exotic pets such as ferrets, iguanas, and hedgehogs.
That's right, hedgehogs
Joan Bensinger of Lodi, Ohio, once kept 10 hedgehogs as pets. Her herd has dwindled to seven: Sam, Sweetie I, Sweetie II, Little Bit, Mr. Grabby, Samantha, and Porkey II.
"As long as I live, I'll have hedgehogs instead of cats," says Mrs. Bensinger. "When you're through with them, you can put them in the aquarium, and they stay there. They don't mess up the house."
But exotic pets are often much more expensive to keep than cats and dogs.
Vet bills, especially, can run substantially higher.
Mrs. Bensinger's hedgehogs, for instance, have to be put under for even minor vet exams. Otherwise, they curl up into prickly little balls.
Beyond that, secondary pet costs, such as replacing soiled carpets or torn furniture can also add up fast.