Owners spend lavishly for gifts pets will howl over

November 27, 2005|By HANAH CHO | HANAH CHO,SUN REPORTER

Alfie, a cute fellow who loves attention, has two drawers full of designer duds that include a Burberry cap, Puma shirts, and Juicy Couture and Coach bags.

Christina Leonard spares no expense to spoil Alfie, and you can be sure this holiday season the 5-month-old Yorkshire terrier's stocking will be brimming with presents.

"I got him a Santa Claus hat, a reindeer ear," said Leonard, 27, of Elkridge. "I'm addicted. My husband looks at me and says, `You got it bad.'"

Step aside, kids. Adults are spoiling Fido or Kitty with gourmet treats, designer collars and other gift items this holiday season. Though animal lovers have always shown affection for their pets, industry experts say pet owners, especially of dogs and cats, are spending more on them as their relationship evolves.

This holiday alone, nearly 154 million pet owners are expected to spend $2.6 billion on pet gifts, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, a trade group in Greenwich, Conn.

Besides the big chains, PetSmart and Petco, discount stores such as Wal-Mart and Target have expanded their pet supply offerings, while designers such as Coach and Burberry offer chi-chi items.

"She's at the top of my list," Catonsville pet owner Margaret Morris said of Zoe, a 13-year-old Lhasa apso. "I have no kids. She is my kid. She's spoiled rotten."

At a time when pets are becoming a larger part of the family, buying holiday gifts for them is as normal as picking out presents for children and other relatives, said Dr. Marie Suthers-McCabe, a veterinarian and associate professor of human-companion-animal interaction at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine.

"It's definitely an accepted thing, like you're not even thought of as being weird," said Suthers-McCabe, owner of a dog, three cats, four horses and three chickens. "Now, oh yeah, dog stockings, squeezy toys. They say dogs love unwrapping presents. It's becoming part of the holidays."

These days, pets sleep in bed with their owners, go on vacations with them and participate in other social activities. By nature, people want to nurture and feel connected to animals, especially as society has become more urbanized, Suthers-McCabe said.

As a result, the changing human-animal relationship has helped transform the pet industry in the past decade. Since 1994, sales of pet food, supplies, grooming and veterinary care have more than doubled to an estimated $35.9 billion this year, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association.

In particular, analysts say empty nesters and young professionals who are waiting to have children are the main drivers in the booming business.

"Especially baby boomers, like myself, whose kids have gone off to college, we're still looking for someone or something to be there when we come home," said Bob Vetere, the trade group's chief operating officer. "Pets take on that role very nicely. They're not going off to college."

John Alpaugh, marketing director of Petsmart, likened pets to surrogate children. They've always been part of the family but "it's gotten one level deeper."

As evidence of that, Alpaugh pointed to PetSmart's growing apparel business, particularly for dogs, and the popularity of such services as pet photos with Santa.

With a growing industry and the estimated 90 million cats and 74 million dogs to pamper, competition is getting stiff in the pet market.

At Target, a fashion-conscious dog owner can buy an Isaac Mizrahi trench coat for $14.99, while ribbon-like collars cost $9.99.

Meanwhile, traditional high-end designers such as Coach, Kate Spade and Burberry have crossed over to the four-legged market. A dog bed with the classic Burberry plaid interior could be bought for $395, while a trench coat would set you back $225.

And those traditional best-gift lists in magazines and elsewhere are no longer limited to two-legged living things. The December issue of Instyle magazine, for instance, is offering several suggestions, such as hemp dog bones and Italian leather pet collars with charms.

Holly Hoenes, owner of the Yuppy Puppy Pet Boutique in downtown Ellicott City, credited marketing and celebrities such as Paris Hilton, known for carrying around her Chihuahua, Tinkerbell, for making pet pampering popular and acceptable.

"People really like pampering their dogs, calling them princes and princesses," Hoenes said.

A year ago, Hoenes opened her luxury pet store because she couldn't find cute collars and leashes at other stores. She had no clue how brisk business would be until she opened her doors. The store carries everything from catnip cigars for $5, to a large "Sniffany & Co" bed for $120, to a $199 pet stroller,

"The rude awakening was when I opened the store. A week before the holiday season, I ran out of merchandise," Hoenes said. "I'm in a better situation now, a year later."

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