Who’s Your BFF?

2012-11-21 14:45:41

The dog and cat in our house are part of the one percent. They don’t know it and probably don’t care, but those two young fellows are the domesticated mammalian equivalent of what all that protesting was about. They are pampered princes: loved and doted over, well-fed, well-educated, and completely insulated from all the troubles of the world. And, as a third-generation animal lover, I’m kind of proud of that.

But I know we’re not alone in treating our pets as if they were our children. Statistics back me up and there is an industry growing around the idea that the animals we “own” aren’t mere property or livestock anymore. There has been a generational shift in attitudes about the animals in our lives that has moved them indoors, sharing our homes and lives like never before. And if they outlive us, we ensure their security in our wills.

Derby was the little black cat we rescued nine years ago. We’ve known him almost as long as my girlfriend and I have known each other. His presence gave our little apartment its first sense of home. And though I grew up in a house with lots of animals – dogs, cats, chickens, pigeons, ducks, turtles, fish, parrots, and even a rat – it was with Derby that I began to refine my idea of pet parenthood. What he ate, what he played with, and how he interacted with us mattered to me more than ever before.

Two years ago, Guinness came along. He’s a 90-pound freight train of clumsy, slobbering love. We’re told he’s German shepherd of a championship line, though I’m convinced he’s also part horse, part gorilla and part tyrannosaurus rex. When the big fella arrived, that pet parenthood refinement idea went into overdrive. I’ve covered Olympic athletes in my journalism career, and I know for a fact Guinness eats better than they do. And the fanatical pursuit of the perfect, yet just barely affordable pet diet has made our attempts at human nutrition look blatantly pathetic.

The state of the boys’ diets, mental stimuli and general joie de vivre are the subjects of routine daily discussion. While that might seem obsessive to some, others – including a few people reading this right now – have similar discussions and are at this moment wondering what they’ll get their pets for Christmas, or better yet, Hanukkah (that’s eight toys!).

What we do for them every day and what they do for us every day represents a unique relationship that goes back at least 30,000 years to the first people who decided a wolf would make a good member of their tribe. That relationship is still evolving, and it’s only when you look at where it is now that you can see where it might be going.

What We Buy For Them
According to the most recent pet owner’s survey by the American Pet Products Association, 62% – or about 73 million homes – have some kind of pet in them. Most are dogs and cats, but pet ownership overall has grown since the 1980s and, perhaps most surprisingly, pet spending appears to be recession-proof.

Our spending on pets grows about two billion dollars every year and in 2012 is estimated to reach a total of almost $53 billion. Almost half that expenditure is on food at about $20 billion, followed by veterinary care at $13 billion. For the average pet owner, that breaks down to about $400 a year on food, another $250 on vet visits and just under $50 on toys. But that’s an average. I know from experience that it can often be a lot more.

From state-of-the-art aquariums and programmable feeding systems, virtually indestructible chew toys to feline spas and self-cleaning litter boxes, owners want not only to buy user-friendly products, but they’ll often splurge on their pets in ways they might not on themselves.

Toys have gone increasingly high road, responding to customer demand for safe, healthy and environmentally friendly products.

“You assume it’s safe for your dog but that’s not always the case. People just don’t always know to ask,” says Katie Berger, owner of Pet Country in Lake Forest, a shop that specializes in cutting-edge pet products. Over time Berger’s shop has replaced the standard dog and cat toys with those that engage pets’ minds and instincts without being deadly to use. “Rawhide bones are just designed to choke your dog. There are so many stories of injury I don’t understand why they’re still on the market,” says Berger.

She prefers to sell food and toys that are made in the U.S. and Western countries and not in China, where a recent string of poisonous pet food made its way to the U.S. “Pet owners do have questions,” Berger says, “but they aren’t as concerned [about] where things are made as long as it’s safe.”

Berger is also encouraged by the new sense of corporate altruism. “You’re even finding toy companies that are donating back to rescue organizations, which is nice. They’re out there; they’re just not as readily available as the others.”

Monogrammed clothing, food and water bowls are almost commonplace, while sophisticated travel equipment now makes it possible to take your dog or cat just about anywhere. Doggie backpacks and life vests can be found at the big chains. Pet-friendly hotels continue to get friendlier, as do restaurants and cafes, even while some businesses are beginning to limit access for children. The bigger implication is that we are becoming better pet owners than parents. And with or without kids, trick-or-treating is easier with pets now that Halloween costumes are sold in their shapes and sizes.

Paul Mitchell can bathe your pets, Old Navy can dress them. And a GPS device known as Tagg will keep them from getting lost. And because we spend a lot more money on them these days and want them in our lives longer, pet insurance companies like Healthy Paws and Trupanion will cover their medical needs with adjustable coverage plans.  

What We Do For Them
Cats and dogs are naturally predators. Sharp teeth. Forward-facing eyes. Meat eaters. Or at least omnivores. So the only thing not decidedly nouveau in our boys’ meal plan is that it’s not vegetarian. Nevertheless, many new brands toss out virtually all notions of what is considered acceptable pet food. Our desire to spoil our pets also made them as overweight as much of the country. These new brands – like Newport Beach’s JustFoodforDogs, or Orijen, Primal, Wellness, Weruva, or Stella & Chewy’s – have replaced the equivalent of feeding your pets hot dogs and Doritos a couple times a day with something akin to a meal in the finest restaurant in town – if the chef were a dietician.

“A healthier animal is an animal that’s going to stay in the family longer,” Berger says. “It’s not the same emotional trauma. Genetics play a big part too, but you’re always going to have health issues if you’re not feeding them… healthy… food.”

The quality of pet food has become a central, driving focus to shop owners like Berger. So much so that even the terminology seems outdated. “Pet stores have had a bad connotation for a long time,” Berger says. “I refer to us as a ‘nutrition store’ or a ‘wellness center for pets.’ I know other owners who do the same. We try to get away from that idea of pet stores equal puppies and puppy mills.”

Even with the best diets, pets still need a good veterinarian now and then. Vet care has taken a quantum leap as well.

“Our pets deserve the best medicine possible, as their love is unconditional,” says Dr. Adam Lassin of VCA Arroyo Animal Hospital in Lake Forest. “Over the last few years, specialty medicine in veterinary care has grown due to the demand of care by pet owners. And a large push for alternative or holistic medicine in animal care has grown to parallel that which owners seek for themselves.”

It’s possible a pet owner can now be referred to any number of specialists, or use various services from dermatologists, oncologists, physical therapists, and neurologists to CT scans, MRI scans or radiation therapy. And with the role of alternative medicine now growing just as it is in human health care, pet parents also can get homeopathy, chiropractic, laser, or herbal therapy for their pets, all things that would have seemed ridiculous in the 1990s.

“I still stress the importance of Western medicine and proper annual care, including yearly heartworm testing and blood work,” Lassin says. “Integrative therapy combining both Western and holistic is where I feel veterinary medicine can provide the best care for four-legged friends.”

What They Do For Us
But you can’t look at all the things we do for our pets without considering what we get back. The National Institutes of Health found that people with pets have lower overall health care costs than people without them. Pet owners have to visit the doctor less, especially for non-serious issues.

Research continues to show that pets help improve our health, ease our tension and put us in a better mood. The Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition in England found that walking your dog was very effective at calming people. In particular, men with dogs weathered stressful situations better than men without.

A study at the University of New York at Buffalo found that owning a dog or cat could lower blood pressure in people with hypertension, while the National Institutes of Health found that because of the reliable friendship that pets provide, pet owners in turn are more psychologically stable and have extra protection from heart disease.

Having a pet around can keep us going on, even if sometimes we think we can’t. Doctors at Purdue University and the University of Pennsylvania found that the simple act of your pet’s expressing affection and bonding behavior have a real positive impact on people suffering from depression.

Sandra Zaragoza of Anaheim Hills knows it too. “2007 was a really bad year,” she says. Just a few months after losing a baby, Zaragoza’s mother died suddenly. Her husband, Al, works weekends and a lot of nights. Zaragoza was really struggling. “I started going to group therapy and had a lot of medication. I had suicidal thoughts.” But she says her faith and a little shih tzu named Desi Lou saved her.

“My sister-in-law had a puppy they couldn’t get rid of. So we bought Desi (named after Desi Arnaz of “I Love Lucy” fame) sight unseen. He came to me right away and wagged his tail. He took the place of my baby and I felt my mom [had] sent him to me. He senses when I’m not feeling good and kisses me on the face. He hardly barks. He’s the perfect dog.”

Zaragoza says she’s even been approached to have Desi become a therapy dog. She understands his gift to her and is considering sharing it with others. “He has a good life,” she says. “He’s given me more than I’ve ever given him.”

The animals we share our lives with represent the most unique relationships on planet Earth, which seem bound to only get closer. But the question of which species benefits more is already impossible to answer.

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