When it comes to pampering pets, the sky is the limit

DETROIT — When the stock market took a nose dive this summer, Steve Sturn was bummed about the performance of his 401(k). But the uncertain economy didn’t stop him from splurging on Bruno, his French bulldog. Sturn bought a $15.95 bone-shaped cake from Three Dog Bakery in Plymouth, to celebrate Bruno’s one-year birthday.

“He loved it,” said Sturn, 31, of Ann Arbor, who works for a mortgage company. “He went at it.”

Sturn, who is engaged, doesn’t have any children, unless you count Bruno and his other dog, Rod, a 10-month-old Boston terrier. “They are like family members,” Sturn said. “This is a special occasion. It’s like a kid’s birthday.”

Despite a weak economy, pet owners continue to spend big money on their pets, pampering them with everything from massages to treats to teeth whitening.

“People pay us to brush their dog’s teeth every day,” said Liz Blondy, who owns Canine to Five in Detroit, a doggy day care currently offering a “spa special” that includes an oatmeal shampoo and teeth cleaning for $14. “It sells like crazy.”

Americans spent more than $3.5 billion in 2010 on pet services — a figure that has doubled in the past decade, fueled by high-end grooming, luxury pet hotels and specialized day care centers, according to the American Pet Products Association, or APPA, a not-for-profit trade association. We spent $45.5 billion on pets in general in 2009, $48.35 billion in 2010, and an estimated $50 billion-plus this year.

This growing trend of pampering our pets has coincided with the disappearance of the doghouse, experts say.

“If you look at Americans’ relationship with dogs over the last 30 or 40 years, dogs are no longer animals that stay in the backyard. They are truly family members,” Blondy said. “They eat in the same room as the family; they sleep in the same room as the family; and they treat their dogs like their kids.”

And when owners are at work, the dogs go to day care. “Business is great,” Blondy said.

Canine to Five is in the process of doubling its space to more than 10,000 square feet because so many people want day care ($25) and overnight boarding ($40), where the dogs can sleep in a bedroom with a person. “You don’t want to leave Fluffy in a crate overnight when you are in the Bahamas,” Blondy said. “You want Fluffy to sleep in the room with his teacher, who he knows and loves.”

The weak economy might actually be the key reason why people are pampering their pets, according to Dr. Stephen Zawistowski, a science adviser at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

“We saw this post-9/11,” said Zawistowski, who has written a college textbook about the relationship between people and animals. “People were home nesting. They weren’t traveling so much. We saw this growth in home improvements and making more pot roast at home. Part of that home nesting is the comfort our pets give us.

“The reality is, when times are tough, even if you are one of the bosses, it’s stressful if you have to lay off three out of 10 people in your department. When you come home, let’s face it, the dog likes you. The cat will come sit in your lap. When you want to treat yourself or your family, you may not be able to go to Disney with the entire family. But you know, it’s not all that expensive to buy the dog a treat.”

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Posted by Tribune News Services

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