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How Much Is That Dog Dress in the Window?

This Christmas, America's pets will be tearing open $5 billion worth of presents, making them luxury consumers in their own right.
 
 
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On a recent evening outside the Trixie + Peanut pet boutique in Manhattan's exclusive Gramercy Park neighborhood, a woman dragged her reluctant companion diagonally across 20th Street. "Look! Puppy sweaters! Come on, we have to go in, just for a minute."

The man resisted, but in vain. "Honey," I heard him plead as the store's door closed behind him, "we don't even have a dog!"

As that accidental shopper probably came to realize, the American pet-products market is big -- much, much bigger than the cat and dogs it's built around. In extending its reach, the industry also splitting, with big-box stores led by Petsmart (860 stores), Petco (800+ stores), and, increasingly, Wal-Mart ($2 billion+ in annual pet-product sales) handling a larger share of day-to-day purchases, while smaller stores and online retailers like Trixie + Peanut go after the luxury trade.

This Christmas, America's pets will be tearing open $5 billion worth of presents. But whatever the season, according to the publication Drug Store News, retailers "can encourage multiple purchases, impulse buys, and 'just because' gifts for reasons like one's pet has been home alone all day."

In a recent profile of the "pampered pets consumer," Unity Marketing of Stevens, Pa., explained that "Pet luxuries represent the best opportunity for pet product marketers, retailers and service providers. People spend more -- lots more -- on purchases that are driven by desire and passion, than those bought out of pure need."

Honorary humans

Trixie + Peanut is cashing in big on that desire and passion. Sweaters like those modeled by doggie mannequins in the window average about $50, or $129 for an upgrade to cashmere. Christmas shoppers can find a leash ($69), a monogrammed collar ($54), a leather pet carrier ($170 to $850), booties ($35 for the two pair), "hound hiking boots" ($79), or a "Furrari" bed designed like a sports car (why chase one if you can sleep in one? -- $249).

For the hungry canine, there are frozen steaks, Hannuka carob-chip dog bones, "Pup-pies" (dutch apple, raspberry truffle, and banana creme), and Oreo-style carob cookies (five cookies for $10), all to be followed by Fresh Breath Care drops with peppermint and cinnamon. For other needs, Trixie + Peanut can provide "nail pawlish," hair detangler, and dog-poop pickup gloves made with "Oxo-Biodegradable, d2w technology."

And for that sad day when it's time to say your final farewell, there's the "In Loving Memory Keepsake Urn" ($155 for a small dog's ashes, $175 for a big one's) and a Pet Sympathy Coin ($25).

The password to success in pet marketing these days is "humanization": convincing that demographic group now known as "pet parents" that they should buy the same kinds of products for Buster or Taffy that they'd buy for themselves or their (human) kids.

As part of the humanization trend, says the American Pet Products Manufacturing Association (APPMA), pet-friendly hotels are offering dog massages and "plush doggie robes"; pet boutiques carry faux mink coats, feathered French day beds, botanical fragrances, "cleaning cloths for muddy paws that mimic traditional baby wipes," touch-activated toys, "hipster lumberjack vests," and Halloween costumes; and pet-safe cars are equipped with seat-belt systems and motion-sickness aids. High-tech health care facilities are extending the lives (and driving up the costs) of aging pets, and the pet health insurance market is growing at 25 percent per year.

Pet showers can now be incorporated into the design of upscale bathrooms, for $4,000 tacked onto the price. And, inevitably, there are dog jacuzzis.

In a March press release, APPMA president Bob Vetere said the industry that supplies the nation's 74 million dogs, 90 million cats, and tens of millions of other assorted pets continues to show a 7 percent per-year growth rate -- double the pace of growth in the economy as a whole. He predicted that growth will be sustained by the humanization of four-legged companions by childless baby boomers and young professionals: "With these families' higher-than average disposable incomes, their pets are enjoying elaborate high-end and high-tech products."

APPMA also sees a boom in pet services, partly because "it is becoming socially unacceptable in some areas to leave your dog home alone during the day or your cat alone for the weekend." PetsMart, for example, now offers "PetsHotels" and "Doggie Day Camps" to ease pet parents' minds on that score.

The 66,000-pound gorilla in the living room

Biologists have devised metabolic formulas that relate the body sizes of animals to their rates of energy consumption. Humans are unlike other animal species in that we have access to vast amounts of energy from sources other than food. Only one percent of the energy consumed by the average American comes from simply digesting what we eat. The other 99 percent is used in the many other activities, including agriculture, that burn fossil fuels and deplete natural resources.

It is as if our bodies were connected by invisible wires and hoses to a global resource-supply network. Based on those metabolic formulas, it has been calculated that over a 24-hour period, the average American consumes as much energy as would a 66,000-pound primate not living on that network ( pdf).

And each step taken to "humanize" pets -- each next-size-larger car or SUV that's bought to accomodate the family dog, each section of a jet's baggage compartment that's heated and pressurized for pet transport, each spa treatment or Atlantic-salmon-with-capers dinner to which the family's smallest member is treated -- is another burden on the planet's resources.

Weigh up all the members of one of those other big populations of domesticated, industrially supported animals -- the nation's 42 million cattle or 59 million hogs -- and it would come to a lot more body mass than does the pet population. But the physical weight of increasingly humanized cats and dogs and ferrets is becoming much less important than all those invisible wires and hoses to which we're hooking them up.

'If it's good for you, it's good for your dog'

An hour's ride from Trixie + Peanut by subway, train, and bus is Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. There the 2006 Long Island Pet Expo, held Nov. 10-12, targeted a very different slice of the economic scale than do Manhattan's pet boutiques. Merchandise on offer tended toward everyday food bowls, chew-bones, and hair-and-fur-capable vaccum cleaners. Of 94 registered exhibitors, 22 were nonprofit pet-welfare groups.

But there was the occasional aromatherapy product, as well as high-tech emergency-room care. And gourmet-food exhibitors stood ready to pounce on any disposable income that came their way. At the Canine Caviar Pet Foods booth, Matt Wurtzel was enthusiastic about his "holistic" products. By eliminating wheat, corn and soybean meal -- all of which, he said, cause allergy problems in dogs -- and by adding ingredients like alfalfa, chicory, rose hips, kelp and canola oil, Wurtzel said, "We can improve a dog's skin, coat, sight, hearing, breath, teeth, digestion, kidneys and liver, and prevent cancer and diabetes -- and prevent obesity. And our products contain yucca for hip and joint problems!"

Working on the humanization principle -- as Wurtzel put it to me, "If it's good for you, it's good for your dog" -- Canine Caviar serves up dog dinners that even we humans rarely experience: gourmet duck, venison and split pea, lamb and pearl millet, and even gourmet beaver. They've also branched out with a chicken with pink salmon formula for cats.

A few steps away was Canine Caviar's competition, Evanger's Dog and Cat Food Co. Evanger's offered its own exotic menu: whole mackerel with gravy, pheasant and brown rice, duck and sweet potato and even a vegetarian dinner, which includes avocados, blueberries and cranberries. They also have an organic line featuring turkey with potato and carrots.

The claims of gourmet pet food makers go far beyond the federal government's simple nutritional guidelines. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is charged with ensuring that "pet foods, like human foods, be pure and wholesome, safe to eat, produced under sanitary conditions, contain no harmful substances and be truthfully labeled." FDA designates meat, poultry, grains and their byproducts as safe under its guidelines, and allows food additives that are "generally regarded as safe" (GRAS) for humans to be fed to pets as well.

The pet market has long been a leading destination for that 50 percent of the typical cattle carcass and 25 percent of the hog carcass that are not consumed by humans. But because many pet parents are disgusted by the thought of eating cooked bone meal, hog lungs, fish guts, or chicken blood, humanization of the pet industry is leading to the elimination of animal byproducts from most high-end cat and dog foods. As a result, packing plants are having to treat unused byproducts as waste products instead.

There's a grain, but only a grain, of truth in claims by Canine Caviar and other luxury pet-food companies that wheat, corn and soybean have caused an allergy epidemic among pets. Research has shown that foods account for only about 10 percent of the allergies seen in pets and that when the animals do develop allergies, it's usually to foods that they have been eating the most of. Therefore, the most common offenders in dogs, in order, are beef, dairy products, chicken, wheat, eggs, corn, and soybeans. If dogs don't have allergies to the avocados and blueberries that Evanger's puts in its vegetarian dinners, it's because they haven't eaten enough of them (and, given canine tastes, there's little danger that they will).

Even nonluxury pet foods are tied into far-flung resource networks. Almost a quarter of the global fish catch goes to feed livestock and pets. The amount of fish canned for house pets amounted to one-third of all fish canned for the U.S. market. (And the 437 million pounds of fish canned in 2003 for pets doesn't include the more than 40,000 tons of tin, steel and aluminum that was required to can it.)

In light of a recent, much-discussed paper in the journal Science reporting that overfishing and other abuse of the oceans "impairs the ability of marine ecosystems to feed a growing human population but also sabotages their stability and recovery," pets may find a favorite source of food dwindling in the very near future.

Humanizing the food that goes into cats and dogs means hooking them up to our own industrial agriculture, a system that threatens ecosystems and human health. Organic pet food shows double-digit growth but is still a microscopic part of the market. And even if, in a best-case scenario, U.S. agriculture were to convert to all-organically raised crops and chemical-free, grass-fed, free-range meat production, vast amounts of grain and meat byproducts would still be available to help feed the country's vast pet population, as an alternative to spending more resources on raising additional food especially for them.

The end product

In an increasingly urban/suburban nation, people's keen interest in what goes into their pets' mouths is often matched by a preoccupation with what comes out the other end. Ten million tons of dog and cat excreta are disposed of each year in the United States; the city of San Francisco estimates that pet wastes make up 4 percent of its residential waste stream -- almost as much as disposable diapers.

Poop B Gone, which had a prominent booth at the Pet Expo, is part of a rapidly growing service industry to help busy homeowners deal with pet wastes. In the areas of Long Island that they service, yard cleanup for one to two dogs runs $15 a week; litter box service is $59 a month for one or two cats, $105 for six to eight. I asked Mike, one of Poop B Gone's proprietors, if there was extra money to be made from the nutrient-rich dog wastes he collects. Has he considered a joint venture with a compost or energy entrepreneur? "No, we just have to pay the landfill to take it," he said.

Pet poop and pee-pee are moneymakers in another, wholly different way, stimulating an annual U.S. kitty litter market of $1.7 billion, according to APPMA. If their figures are right, and at prevailing prices, that works out to a staggering 2 to 3 million tons of the stuff that has to be disposed of each year, along with the malodorous substances it's designed to carry. And the means of disposal can have consequences.

A bill now before the California legislature would require cat litter packaging to carry a label warning cat owners not to flush cat wastes down the toilet (yes, there is such a thing as flushable litter). The move was prompted by a study showing that 52 percent of dead sea otters washing up on California beaches were infected with the parasite Toxoplasma gondii, the source of which was cat feces. Not all of the feces carrying tough parasitic spores were coming from sewage; some were simply washing from yards and parks into storm drains.

The leftovers

Long Island Pet Expo exhibitor Allen Roth stood behind a long table full of small covered dishes containing baby snakes in just about every color of the rainbow. He and his wife Amy run the wholesale company Reptile Kingdom of Toms River, N.J. Roth met my cheery greeting of "How's business?" with a solemn shake of the head.

"What keeps things going is for people to spend their disposable income, and they just don't have as much these days," he said. What about the reported 7 percent industry growth rate? "That's from a lot of new Petco and Petsmart stores opening, more sales at Wal-Mart, and people getting into breeding. Mom-and-pop stores are decreasing. The new ones that are opening have to focus on expensive exotic pets and products for the few people who can afford them."

Surprisingly common on the floor of the Expo were associations devoted to saving escaped, abandoned or maltreated pets. To list those organizations is to review pet-marketing success stories of the past and present: Chinchilla Rescue and Refuge, AFC Ferret Rescue, Parrot Haven, Golden Retriever Rescue, Potbelly Pig Placement Network.

Clarence Hertzog's WarmFuzzy Ferret Rescue booth seemed to be drawing little attention from Expo-goers. He blamed pet marketers for the plight of his favorite mammal: "The stores have been selling ferrets as fast as they can without educating the owners on how to take care of them. Even a lot of the breeders and store owners themselves don't know how."

Just across the aisle from Hertzog's forlorn booth, the sugar glider exhibit was thronged with potential customers. Sugar gliders are 6- to 7-inch-long marsupials with huge, endearing, wallet-opening eyes. It's illegal to keep them as pets in their native Australia and in some U.S. states, but traffic in the species is flourishing nationally. It's still early in the species' marketing trajectory, but Pet Expos of the future are almost certain to include a Sugar Glider Rescue Society booth.

The American way of consumption

In her 2004 book Why People Buy Things They Don't Need , Unity Marketing president Pamela Danziger writes that pets "have become full-fledged members of the family" and luxury consumers in their own right. She lists pet accessories among 37 categories of unnecessary merchandise that people buy, but she says the products don't move without a little help from her profession: "For the typical American, especially the affluent whose physical needs are completely satisfied, and who have everything one could want or need, what's next? That is the ultimate challenge for marketers today."

Danziger is more forthright than most analysts in recognizing the U.S. economy's addiction to overconsumption. In her book's first chapter, she rejects the contention of prominent Boston College sociologist/economist Juliet Schor that "competitive spending" is devastating to the condition of society as a whole.

Writes Danziger, "In light of the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the worsening economic crisis, this point of view seems strangely un-American. The simple fact remains that our whole economic system, even our way of life, depends upon the continued, sustained practice of 'excessive,' as some see it, American consumerism."

But if the economy really can't sustain itself without excessive consumerism, and if that means that tens or hundreds of millions of pets will be joining 300 million humans in living the American Way, the consequences for ecosystems and resources are only too predictable.

Of all the services I encountered at the Pet Expo, the most benign and least resource-intensive had to have been Karen Kober Animal Communication. While Kober worked with a customer, her associate described the process for me: "We connect with the animal telepathically. We can work with any species of animal, living or dead. We simply ask you for the description, name, breed and sex, and then we listen to the pet."

He said the communication isn't necessarily verbal: "It may be visual. Or we might feel the pain the animal's feeling, in the same part of the body. But they let us know what's on their minds."

Needless to say, I didn't believe a word of it. But if a pet-human conversation were possible, this is the first question I'd ask: "Which would make you happiest this Christmas: a set of hiking boots, a cashmere sweater or a good belly-scratch?" But then I suppose we don't need telepathy to know the answer to that.

Stan Cox is a plant breeder and writer in Salina, Kan.

 
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