Tribune senior correspondent
April 29, 2010
Your friends are cooing about their new baby. Oh, yeah, it's a dog.
"Pets have become the first child," says pet industry analyst R.J. Hottovy, explaining why even in tough economic times, spending on our animals continues to climb.
Instead of investing in a human baby (and his college education), we're getting started with dogs, cats, birds, fish.
Look around. That photo in your neighbor's cubicle. It's her Chihuahua — wearing sunglasses. You know who I'm talking about.
"It's the trend of humanizing pets," says Morningstar's Hottovy. It's one reason we're spending more on our animals — even in a recession.
"People are cutting back in other areas to make sure they can still take care of Fluffy and Spike," explains Bob Vetere, president of the American Pet Products Association. And he's not just talking about the basics, like food and rabies shots.
Last year was awful for virtually every retail segment of the economy. But APPA figures show pet spending in 2009 grew 5.4 percent — to $45.5 billion — even as the rest of the retail world was cratering. Sure the lousy economy might have slowed the growth of pet spending. But the arrow is still pointing up.
In fact, the recession might be a blessing for people who make their living from pets. The worse we feel, the more we cherish (and spend on) our animals.
"People are really looking to their pets for comfort," says Vetere. "It's the one place you can turn to for unconditional love."
No matter how lousy your day, they're happy when you walk in the door. "They'll lick your face!" says Vetere. And, in return for a little tail wagging and doggy slobber, "we reward them not in animal terms but human terms."
In other words, we buy them stuff, like the items arrayed here.
These range from the luxurious to the hilarious. There are real wood nonskid steps to help your dog jump on the couch or the bed ($220, petsstop.com) and home-baked PupCakes for treat time ($9.95, luckypawsonline.com).
Tony Deitch, who makes pet beds that resemble Crocs shoes, says, "It's a very inexpensive way to make a feel-good purchase when there's so much going wrong in the world."
OK, maybe a new place for your pet to nap won't bring world peace, but Deitch says he has solved the problems of most dog beds that get "ratty, hairy and smelly."
Michele Levan, creator of the $12 rubber ball that makes your dog look as if he's wearing a cartoon mustache, says her sales are soaring.
"I think people could use a good laugh right now. My stuff is a really inexpensive, funny thing to give you some relief from your economic blues." (Also available in big, dangling red tongue.)
Vetere says empty nesters, too, are contributing to the pet-spending trend. Their kids are grown and gone, and "they're looking for something new to hover over, so they're turning to pets in a big way."
For his part, Vetere has resisted major spending on pet toys and gimmicks for his golden retriever, Dakota, who "just loves to fetch." For that, Dakota settles for old tennis balls.