Fancy Pet Gifts Abound for Holidays

Posted November 20, 2007 4:05 p.m. EST
Updated November 23, 2007 4:57 p.m. EST

— Coco's Christmas was doggone good last year.

The 5-year-old Shih Tzu got a stocking full of treats and found a pink wool sweater, pink mohair sweater, black fur-trimmed parka and hiking boots waiting under the tree last December. This year, her owner is eyeing a $120 set of pearls with a sterling silver bone clasp along with plenty of edible goodies for the pooch who has almost everything.

"It's an expression of love," said Shannon Fay, a 38-year-old Chicagoan. "She's part of the family."

Pets rule at the holidays, especially dogs, and that helps keep many retailers' registers ringing.

U.S. retail sales may be weak, energy prices way up and housing prices way down, but experts say pets largely defy such economic indicators. Caring owners are no more likely to stiff their beloved animals for the holidays than Santa is to leave rocks in every stocking.

Overall, Americans are expected to spend an estimated $48.7 billion on their pets in 2007, nearly twice the amount of a decade ago and growing at more than 7 percent a year, according to Packaged Facts, a consumer research company in Rockville, Maryland Already, spending exceeds the gross domestic product of about 120 nations.

In other words, whatever Fido wants, Fido gets - and then some, particularly in upscale areas.

"It's kind of recession-resistant where we're at," said Steve Coghlan, co-owner of Spoiled Rotten Pets in Chicago's posh Lincoln Park neighborhood. "People are going to spend on their pets no matter what. They're not going to cheat their dogs."

That's especially true when it comes to the holidays. Fifty-six percent of dog owners and 42 percent of cat owners bought holiday gifts for their pets last year, according to a survey by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association.

Doug Poindexter, president of the World Wide Pet Industry Association, another trade group, says the gift-giving trend reflects the growing humanization of pets in this country.

"If you're going to do it for your child, you're probably going to do it for your pet as well," he said.

Buying Christmas or Hanukkah gifts for the kids - the furry kind - isn't what it used to be. Walk the aisles of a well-stocked pet store at the holidays or cruise Web sites and there is abundant evidence of how enterprising American businesses are trying to part pet lovers from their cash.

High-end, luxury items are increasingly popular. A prospective pet pamperer can find everything from organic cookies and doggie basketball jerseys and jackets to $70 treat jars, $399 temperature-controlled pet carriers and $499 cashmere pet beds.

At Barker & Meowsky, a particularly creative Chicago pet store, the range of products could cheer up any sour puss: Catnip cigars, dog antlers, elf outfits, faux fur cat sleeping bags, plush-toy musical menorahs, Christmas scarves and even some real bling: a $250 crystal-encrusted dog collar made from python skins with a matching $190 leash.

Pet owners love to indulge in fun products for their four-legged family members, according to owner Alice Lerman.

"A sense of humor is so important," she said. "And it's got to be wrapped, it's got to be sealed, it's got to be just like you were giving it to a person. That's a really common request that we get."

Some humans, perhaps sniffing a possible promotion, even get Secret Santa gifts for the boss' dog.

Elsewhere, there are all manner of gifts - themed gifts such as rawhide canes and cat stockings; healthy gifts such as dog energy nutrition bars; gifts for the socially conscious such as organic cotton leashes with proceeds supporting African refugee camps; eco-friendly gifts such as biodegradable poop-pickup bags, and gifts for weak-armed dog owners such as tennis-ball slingshots.

Doctors Foster and Smith, a well-known pet supplier, features 16 pages of gift products in its fall catalog. Even Dr. Marty Smith, co-founder of the Rhinelander, Wisconsin-based business, marvels at how gift-giving has taken off - and how some people "go through our catalog and seem to get one of everything."

"For a dog that hasn't had a rawhide bone in awhile and gets one, this is a good Christmas," he said. "One or two gifts is more than enough for every pet."

Derrick Carter knows that, but he can't help overdoing it for his four dogs at the holidays.

"They give me a really, really incredible amount of love and companionship," the 38-year-old music producer said. "So, they give me something, I give them something."

Carter got reindeer clothes for the dogs - referred to alternately as the kids, the monkeys or the monsters - last December and likes to make sure they are warmly and stylishly garbed for Chicago winters. His two miniature pinschers, French bulldog and Brussels Griffon get pampered at both Christmas and Hanukkah, since his boyfriend is Jewish.

"I'm sure they don't really care about the Gucci sweaters or the fancy collars or the shoes and all that," he said. "But the fact that Daddy brought them something, they seem to like that part."