Is it any surprise that the furry, the finned and the feathered among us remain blissfully oblivious to the moribund housing market or the tumult on Wall Street? After all, while some Americans clip coupons and scale back their holiday shopping, Fido and Fluffy continue to enjoy perks that became commonplace during the boom years: professional grooming, regular dental treatments, hired walkers and fun-filled day care.
"The Dow goes up, the Dow goes down -- people still want their pets to play," says Alex Sabouri, manager of K9/Loft, an Echo Park store offering the kinds of services that pet owners continue to pay for, down economy or not. He says that retail is down about 10% -- the $450 cherry wood pet bed has been on the shelf for three months and probably will stay there for a while -- but that demand for the store's grooming, day care and boarding has remained steady.
"Day care is just $25," Sabouri says. "You may not buy the $250 hand-crafted water bowl, but you are going to bring your dog in for day care because it gives them so much joy."
He's hardly surprised that consumers may cut spending on themselves but not on their animals -- not when pets help people get through tough times. "The only thing making you feel good is this little thing that comes up and licks your face and doesn't criticize you, doesn't question you -- unconditional love."
Last December, the American Pet Products Assn. projected that Americans would spend $43.4 billion on food, veterinary care and other pet products and services in 2008 -- a 5% increase over 2007 and 26% higher than just four years ago. Despite the severity of the nation's economic slowdown, the industry is on track to meet that projection, association president Bob Vetere says.
"Dog walkers and day care are still doing well," he says, adding that as people put in longer hours at work, they need help caring for what have come to be seen as members of the family.
LA Dogworks in Hollywood reports that product sales are down slightly but that the service side of the business remains as strong as ever. According to owner Andrew Rosenthal, it's not the housing market meltdown that worries him but, rather, the possibility of a Screen Actors Guild strike.
"We went through the writers strike, and I was making deals and working with people, extending payments, because it went on so long and people really suffered," Rosenthal says. "This would be as scary."
Evey Gold runs Natural Touch 4 Paws, a Tarzana holistic health food store for cats and dogs. She has raw food and holistic kibbles made of organic ingredients that are free of steroids and antibiotics.
"I have one woman, a teacher, who gets 60 pounds once a month, spending more than $200," Gold says. "She tells me, 'My animals eat better than I do.' These are people who are serious about their animals."
But there are signs of change. Although her raw food business remains fairly steady, Gold says, kibble buyers are cutting back, buying smaller bags. Until July, she had her own a 1,100-square-foot store, but faced with a decline in business, she moved in with a grooming and day care business called the Waggin' Tails Lounge in a Ventura Boulevard strip mall.
Waggin' Tails owner Cathy Fiorillo says her business is down too. On a busy day, she used to have about 30 dogs for haircuts or baths, and the number has dwindled to 10 or fewer. Customers who have lost their jobs, she adds, no longer need her day care services.
All of which helps to explain why the pet products group has held off releasing its 2009 forecast, waiting instead to see just how sharply consumer spending dropped in the last few months of this year. The question is whether pet owners will continue to give up their own dinners out and visits to the hair salon while preserving their animals' oatmeal baths and supervised play time.
Graphic designer Victoria Lam has a 5-year-old Shih Tzu named Ernie, for which she spends about $2,000 a year on pet insurance, food, veterinary care, toys, clothes and grooming.
"His hair grows faster than mine, and I was having to groom him every month," says Lam, who spent more on the dog's haircuts than her own. "It was a big expense, so I'm now doing it myself and taking him in once every three months."
For Kristine McKenna, owner of two cats, the change is kitty litter. She used to buy clumping litter that's supposed to control odor better, but she has switched to clumpless litter that's one-third the price. "My clumping days are over."
Spurrier is a freelance writer.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun