A Pampered Pet Nation

A record number of Americans own pets—and they are spending a record amount of money to feed, clothes and care for their wee beasts. But is all the attention actually good for the critters? Why we need to remember the lessons of the wild kingdom.

When I decided to buy an overpriced Rhodesian Ridgeback puppy, I vowed never to become one of those “dog nuts.” You know the type: owners who knit sweaters for their pooches and seek the advice of canine psychiatrists whenever Muffy messes on the carpet. My dog would stay off the furniture, wouldn’t tug on her leash and would never ever beg for table scraps. Five years later, I can say with confidence that my pet knows who’s boss. Each morning I awake shivering and clinging to the edge of my king-size bed, with 70 pounds of canine splayed horizontally across the mattress and hogging the covers. Before pouring myself a cup of coffee, I handfeed Samantha the breakfast of her choice: if I give her the “wrong” treat—say, a dog biscuit—she spits it out. Which explains why I once carried a dozen madeleines home from Paris. Samantha never spits those out. But I’ve had to cut back on the cookies ever since the vet reprimanded me for letting my sleek Ridgeback take on the shape of a Christmas ham. I figured more exercise would do the trick, so I decided to take Samantha to one of those pricey Hollywood “dog spas” that I once derided. For $45 a day, she gets to romp around the indoor 2,500-square-foot Astroturf park at LA Dogworks with a couple dozen of her four-footed friends and a few attentive humans at her beck and call. She can even get a $60 massage, or unwind in the “Zen Den” with aromatherapy and Reiki, a “laying on of hands” designed to channel healing energy. Samantha would have none of it at first: she’d spend the entire day staring at the door of the shop and whining for my return. “Separation anxiety,” an attendant explained. But now, whenever I tell Samantha that I’m taking her to “class,” she eagerly jumps into the car and sits bolt upright in her favorite spot: behind the wheel, in the driver’s seat

I know what you’re thinking. How did I become so puppy-whipped? I’m certainly not as bad as the Paris Hilton wannabes who dress Chihuahuas in Jackie-O pillbox hats and tote them around like Fendi baguettes. (OK, I did buy Samantha a little Santa suit with matching gold-lamé booties once for the holidays). Nor, does it seem, am I alone in my obsession. An estimated 63 percent of American households have a pet, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, with a record 44.8 million households owning dogs and 38.4 million owning cats in 2006; since many households own more than one feline, cats actually outnumber dogs in the United States by 88 million to 75 million. (Fish are a perennial third, and you’ll be happy to know that the oft-overlooked chinchilla is rising in popularity.)

As the demographics of America have changed, so too has the nature of pet ownership. It used to be that most pets were bought by families. Now, the majority of pet owners, 61 percent, are childless—singles, unmarried couples waiting to have kids, gay couples, empty-nesters. Invariably, these owners tend to treat their pets like surrogate babies, and they spoil them accordingly. To help these childless pet-parents spend their disposable income, the pet products industry has mushroomed in the past decade. This year we’ll shell out more than $40 billion to keep our furry friends fed, adorned, amused and healthy—the latter a huge growth category, with more and more owners paying top dollar for elaborate medical treatments to forestall that inevitable last visit to the vet. By the end of the decade, we’ll be spending $50 billion on pet products, according to the APPMA. Walk the aisles of Petco or PetSmart, past the Hawaiian shirts and sunglasses for your dog and the $140 Catnip Chaise Lounge for your cat, and you’ll discover just how well-trained we Americans have become. “I don’t know who’s been domesticated: the animals, or the humans?” says Jeff Corwin, Animal Planet’s globetrotting wildlife biologist.

Some 56 percent of dog owners and 42 percent of cat owners buy their pets Christmas presents. Pets can listen to their own Internet radio station (Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” is one of the more popular songs on DogCatRadio.com), post their pictures and make play dates on dogster.com and catster.com, and earn frequent flier miles on United. They even have cell phones now: PetsCell is a bone-shaped telephone that attaches to your dog’s collar and allows you to ring him up (sorry, incoming calls only). And there’s a new beer for dogs (from Amsterdam, no less), called Kwispelbier, which is Dutch for “waggy tail” brew. The recent scare over tainted pet food has made feeding your animal a pricey proposition: I’ve switched Samantha to “holistic” kibble and wet food, hormone-free chicken strips and handmade cookies from a local dog bakery, along with the occasional whole-roasted chicken that we share for dinner. She also gets dried pig hearts, which cost $5 apiece (those, we don’t share).

I know what you’re thinking. How did I become so puppy-whipped? I’m certainly not as bad as the Paris Hilton wannabes who dress Chihuahuas in Jackie-O pillbox hats and tote them around like Fendi baguettes. (OK, I did buy Samantha a little Santa suit with matching gold-lamé booties once for the holidays). Nor, does it seem, am I alone in my obsession. An estimated 63 percent of American households have a pet, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, with a record 44.8 million households owning dogs and 38.4 million owning cats in 2006; since many households own more than one feline, cats actually outnumber dogs in the United States by 88 million to 75 million. (Fish are a perennial third, and you’ll be happy to know that the oft-overlooked chinchilla is rising in popularity.)

As the demographics of America have changed, so too has the nature of pet ownership. It used to be that most pets were bought by families. Now, the majority of pet owners, 61 percent, are childless—singles, unmarried couples waiting to have kids, gay couples, empty-nesters. Invariably, these owners tend to treat their pets like surrogate babies, and they spoil them accordingly. To help these childless pet-parents spend their disposable income, the pet products industry has mushroomed in the past decade. This year we’ll shell out more than $40 billion to keep our furry friends fed, adorned, amused and healthy—the latter a huge growth category, with more and more owners paying top dollar for elaborate medical treatments to forestall that inevitable last visit to the vet. By the end of the decade, we’ll be spending $50 billion on pet products, according to the APPMA. Walk the aisles of Petco or PetSmart, past the Hawaiian shirts and sunglasses for your dog and the $140 Catnip Chaise Lounge for your cat, and you’ll discover just how well-trained we Americans have become. “I don’t know who’s been domesticated: the animals, or the humans?” says Jeff Corwin, Animal Planet’s globetrotting wildlife biologist.

Some 56 percent of dog owners and 42 percent of cat owners buy their pets Christmas presents. Pets can listen to their own Internet radio station (Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” is one of the more popular songs on DogCatRadio.com), post their pictures and make play dates on dogster.com and catster.com, and earn frequent flier miles on United. They even have cell phones now: PetsCell is a bone-shaped telephone that attaches to your dog’s collar and allows you to ring him up (sorry, incoming calls only). And there’s a new beer for dogs (from Amsterdam, no less), called Kwispelbier, which is Dutch for “waggy tail” brew. The recent scare over tainted pet food has made feeding your animal a pricey proposition: I’ve switched Samantha to “holistic” kibble and wet food, hormone-free chicken strips and handmade cookies from a local dog bakery, along with the occasional whole-roasted chicken that we share for dinner. She also gets dried pig hearts, which cost $5 apiece (those, we don’t share).

But is all this coddling for our pets, or is it for us? A growing number of animal behaviorists, researchers and trainers think we’ve gone off the deep end, anthropomorphizing and infantilizing our pets to the point that we’ve forgotten an essential biological truth: at the level of basic instinct, Tabby is a wildcat and Fido is a wolf. Understand this, the experts say, and you will comprehend such mysteries of the universe as why your cat prefers to sharpen its nails on your favorite sofa and your dog insists on rolling in manure after getting a bath. Ignore the call of the wild in your pet, and you not only diminish the quality of its life; you open yourself to all sorts of bad behavior, from the merely annoying (your cat pees on the bed) to the potentially deadly (snarling pit bulls). “Thirty years ago, dogs were rarely on leashes, they ran loose, they even bit people now and then. They were rarely given human names,” says Jon Katz, author of the best-selling book “A Good Dog” and the upcoming “Dog Days.” “Now, the whole atmosphere has changed. It’s not like we want them biting people, but now they don’t get enough exercise, they don’t do as much, they can’t explore. They’re basically being loved to death.”

Predictably, this backlash against overindulgence has spawned its own multi-million-dollar business with a slew of new books, pet-training services and top-rated TV shows like “The Dog Whisperer,” a “Supernanny” for overindulgent owners who treat their dogs like fur babies. “I rehabilitate dogs. I train people,” explains the Dog Whisperer, Cesar Millan. He’s the pack leader when it comes to showing pet owners just how delusional we’ve become—a latter-day Barbara Woodhouse, the dog trainer and 1980s BBC television personality who admonished, “There is no such thing as a difficult dog. Only an inexperienced owner.” “The Dog Whisperer,” which is the top-rated series on the National Geographic Channel and begins its fourth season in September, features Millan showing people how to cope with their problem pets: the toy terrier who attacks like a killer Doberman; the shepherd who neurotically chases his tail for hours on end. Millan’s mantra: Dogs need “exercise, discipline, affection,” in that order. Most owners do it backward, showering their animals with affection, but failing to enforce rules and boundaries. “When you start with affection, you are fulfilling your needs first. Dogs in America get more affection than women in most Third World countries,” says Millan, who grew up poor in Mexico. Millan came to California at age 21 with dreams of becoming, in his words, “the world’s best dog trainer.” After cleaning out kennels, then finding work as a groomer, he opened his own training business. This being Hollywood, he found no shortage of indulgent owners begging for his services, and soon was charging $350 an hour to teach the likes of Will Smith, Scarlett Johansson and Vin Diesel how to manage their mutts. That led to the TV show, where Millan gives owners a humbling lesson in proper parenting. The most difficult part is convincing people that their dogs aren’t children. “It’s not that they’re less than human. They aren’t human,” he explains to one owner, who seems genuinely surprised by the news.

When it comes to the animals that share our homes and even our beds (63 percent of cat owners and 42 percent of dog owners sleep with their pets, according to the APPMA), we humans tend to have a tough time accepting biological reality. “That puppy we’re oohing and aahing over is, on some level, really a killing and hunting machine,” Katz writes in his book “Katz on Dogs: A Commonsense Guide to Training and Living with Dogs.” I certainly can’t imagine my dog has an inner Cujo. Though her breed, the Rhodesian Ridgeback, is a fabled lion hunter, she hid her face in the crook of my arm the first time she met a hissing cat. Still, I suspect there’s a hunter in there somewhere. We’ll be on a hike, and Samantha’s nose will start twitching like her “Bewitched” namesake. Then she’ll stop in her tracks, muscles tense as she scans the road and spots her target: a rabbit. Suddenly, I’m being dragged by the leash and Samantha’s pretending she doesn’t understand me when I yell “come.” What she’s exhibiting is called “prey drive,” and it’s what makes all dogs and cats tick. When your Persian cat dances and paws at a piece of yarn, he’s actually showing what he’d do if that yarn were, say, a parakeet. My hound has never caught a rabbit, but I know that if she did it wouldn’t be pretty.

Continued Tomorrow…

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About Ask Marion

I am a babyboomer and empty nester who savors every moment of my past and believes that it is the responsibility of each of us in my generation and Americans in general to make sure that America is as good or even a better place for future generations as it was for us. So far... we haven't done very well!! Favorite Quotes: "The first 50 years are to build and acquire; the second 50 are to leave your legacy"; "Do something that scares you every day!"; "The journey in between what you once were and who you are becoming is where the dance of life really takes place".
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