Santa claws

Pampered pets take place atop many holiday gift lists

By Pamela  H Sacks

TELEGRAM & GAZETTE

2002

At 4 years old, Munch, a Jack Russell terrier, may not have seen it all — but she has it all.

This scrappy, 13-pound canine is the proud owner of a blue nylon collar, a Halloween collar and a Christmas collar. For special occasions, she sports braided brown-leather neckwear, a bow to her hunting ancestry.

She has long leashes and short ones, nylon and leather, in blue, red and brown. She takes car trips in a special crate decorated with a Mexican blanket; at home she relaxes on a plaid bed with Munch embroidered in sunny yellow.

Then there’s the fleece winter coat and four “MutLuks,” tiny booties to keep tiny paws warm on cold, blustery days. Munch chews on Nylabones, Gumabones and raw hide. She plays with a Frisbee, a Kong and a rubber “Rock.”

But the piece de resistance among this dog’s many possessions is her sterling silver Tiffany name tag, a holiday gift from her human niece, Kate Anderson.

“I saw it and I couldn’t resist. I knew Munch had to have it,” an unabashed Ms. Anderson said.

Make no mistake. Munch is not unusually spoiled. Americans spend $5 billion a year on holiday gifts alone for their cherished companion animals, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.

Given that the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association estimates there are 353 million pets in the United States, including cats, dogs and other furry creatures, reptiles, birds and fish, it should come as no surprise that pet paraphernalia is a booming industry year-round.

The American Veterinary Medical Association reports that, during the holidays, the most popular items are plush toys, with snacks and treats second, and beds and other “furniture” a close third. Fourth is the holiday stocking stuffed with goodies. These go mostly to cats and dogs, but stockings for rabbits, ferrets and birds are hot items, too.

Ray Corvese was hired as a district manager for the Petco chain of pet stores a little less than a year ago, and he said he is “blown away” by the amount of money people spend on their animals. Sales at Petco stores have increased about 5 percent for 39 consecutive quarters, he said, and holiday sales are soaring.

HOT SELLERS

“Based on what we’ve seen so far, we’re just flying through the stuff,” Mr. Corvese said.

The other day at Petco in Shrewsbury, JoAnne Brueggemann stood at the Pet Bar choosing treats for her beagle, Magee. This time of year, the bar is decorated with stockings and “candy canes”; containers are filled with red and green snacks and treats.

“Seeing that she’s 18 years old, I try to get the softer treats,” Mrs. Brueggemann said, adding that Magee is “like our child. I usually make her toys. I get nervous with the dyes.”

At the Pet Barn in Holden, co-owner Ellie Girardin is serving customers who come in to buy stocking stuffers — small toys and treats — for neighbors’ pets. Grandparents are shopping for “grand-pets,” she said.

“There’s lots of impulse buying,” Ms. Girardin said with a grin.

Hazel Kirrane of Rutland stopped by for her 6-month-old puppy, Bailey, and 9-year-old Persian cat, Rudy.

“I don’t want to go overboard,” said the 33-year-old mother of two, “but I’m very tempted, especially for Bailey, since she’s so young. I must have five different kinds of treats in the house. Every week, I buy a new toy because it’s something different.”

Mrs. Kirrane’s daughter, who is 8, has announced she will pick out a Christmas gift for Bailey.

“My mother-in-law buys for all the dogs in the family,” Mrs. Kirrane said.

So, what’s up with this desire to splurge?

Alice Moon-Finelli, an animal behaviorist on staff at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine in Grafton, points to busyness and loneliness as reasons for the growing importance pets play in our lives. More Americans live alone and apart from family and friends and have scant time to make real contact with one another.

“We’ve gone from Sunday family dinners to telephoning each other to voice mail to e-mail,” Ms. Moon-Finelli said.

Companion animals have become a substitute for personal contact in the human sphere.

“Our animals are dependent on us and they’re always there,” she said. “They look at us adoringly and they give us what we perceive as unconditional love. For whatever reason, whether the animals are really relating to us the way we want them to, it’s fulfilling for us.”

Combine those emotional needs with savvy marketing, and it’s not surprising that pet products have taken a decidedly anthropomorphic turn.

Consider these items:

Baby Dog shampoo that smells “just like the baby powder used on human toddlers.” (www.crazypet.com)

Pussyfoot Pleasure, “a new home spa that massages cats from head to paw.” (www.hagen.com)

Litterfree, “the first flushable cat toilet.” (www.litterfree.com)

Liver Biscotti, “baked from scratch for the dogs you love.” (www.liverbiscotti.com)

Dr. Steve’s Healthy Digestive System Canine Supplements, to “help Fido digest the holiday season.” (www.our-pets.com)

The Proof is in the Pudding, “a dog-e-licious ice pudding: A healthy alternative to ice cream for pets.” (www.our-pets.com)

Phoebe Inc. is a Denver company that makes clothing with “style, quality and luxury for the pampered pet.” The merchandise is sold exclusively to upscale boutiques and grooming parlors. Holly Haistings said she founded the company in 1999, after struggling to put a cashmere sweater on her pug, Phoebe.

“I thought, `There’s got to be a better way,’ ” she said.

Phoebe makes chenille collars and leashes and terry cloth robes for after-bath wear. On the company Web site, www.AllAboutPhoebe.com, the namesake herself is pictured modeling the apparel, including an $88 faux fur coat with silk lining and imported Italian buttons.

`FEEDING SYSTEMS’

“You can also have everything monogrammed,” Ms. Haistings hastened to add.

Steven Tsengas had a different idea when he formed OurPet Co. seven years ago in Fairport Harbor, Ohio. He started with “healthy feeding systems” to prevent osteoarthritis in dogs. From there he moved on to interactive toys for pets, such as the MirrorMate, which is designed to help cockatiels and parakeets learn to speak. The toy contains a chip that allows the owner to record a phrase.

“We’ve grown 30 percent a year and currently have more than 100 products,” he said. “We develop toys that mentally keep the mind working. You know, use it or lose it.”

He is in sync with Ms. Moon-Finelli’s view that too many products, while appealing to humans, leave the pet on the short end of the good times.

“Instead of antlers and outfits and all that kitschy stuff, I’d rather see people spend their money on toys that allow pets to express their natural instincts,” she said.

FETCH IT, FIDO

Ms. Moon-Finelli recommends items that call for exercise, such as a Frisbee or Kong, toys that can be thrown and fetched. She also is a fan of food-dispensing toys that make the animal work for a treat.

An even better gift, she said, would be agility classes or obedience training so that a pet has the structure and exercise it requires.

“It’s really important to understand that pets are animals and their needs and desires are different,” Ms. Moon-Finelli said. “It’s unfair to humanize them. Once you gear your spending to them, you’ll have a better human-animal bond.”

As for Munch, she’d take her Kong over her MutLuks any day.