AN ESTIMATED 9 million Americans bought their pets Valentine's Day gifts this month, part of the $31 billion it is estimated they will spend on their animals for all of this year, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association in Greenwich, Conn.
And we're not talking rawhide chew toys. Last fall, a posh pet boutique called Down Town Dog opened in Chicago's Marshall Field department store, selling Italian croco and crystal collars for $86 and Life of Ryley jackets for $122.
Upscale doggie day care, the rage in big cities these days, starts at $30 a day and lets Fido run free to make canine friends.
Oh, and sorry, but the Burberry pet carriers at UptownPets.com are sold out.
Are you sputtering with indignation at what those billions could have done to feed the homeless? Cure AIDS? Save the rain forest?
Pardon the pet owner who doesn't lie down and roll over at the tsk-tsking.
"All the money spent on luxury cars, going to Vegas or Hawaii ... all of it could go to charity," said Jim Wilson, a lawyer and veterinarian who wrote a textbook on legal issues for the profession. "The fact is, we still have a right to spend our money as we wish."
But there's an even tougher dilemma brewing in the four-legged world: If pets are becoming more like us, our financial responsibilities to them surely will grow.
Wilson cites case law and a handful of statutes in states including Tennessee and Illinois that are strengthening pet owners' ability to sue and collect damages from veterinarians and other caregivers for negligent or cruel treatment.
Although the industry enjoys the huge rise in spending on pets, it also must expect more pet owners to hold caregivers responsible when things go awry, Wilson said.
Pet owners face such tough decisions as where to draw the line on medical spending if a pet is more like a member of the family.
"These are horribly difficult decisions," said Wilson. And they get harder the more pets are pampered.
Jo Ann Murray runs Phoebe and Friends, a swank kennel in Miami. Many of her clients don't have children, and they fill that void - emotionally and through discretionary spending - with their pets.
"They feel guilty leaving them, and here they get to socialize and interact with other dogs," Murray said.
Animals always have given joy, solace and comfort to Heidi Simon, 47.
As a child, she threw birthday parties for her dogs. When her parents died within three months of each other when she was 15, her dogs helped her feel as though she still had family. When she divorced, her ex-husband informally pledged animal support for her three dogs and two cats, along with child support.
When she applied to manage Down Town Dog's Lake Forest, Ill., location, her cover letter was "written" by her dogs.
Now, her 5-year-old pug, Bailey, helps earn his keep by going to work with Simon to socialized with customers.
Not that she's counting, but Simon spends about $6,000 a year feeding and clothing (yes, clothing) her five pets, and taking them to the veterinarian, and that's not counting catastrophic care, such as the time she spent $1,700 nursing back to health a 17-year-old cat with kidney trouble.
"I did ponder it for a while, but I talked it over with my ex-husband, and he reminded me we'd done it for our other cat, so we should do it for Sonya," she said.
"I know it sounds a little silly when there are so many other things I could be doing," she said. "I do volunteer and have been involved with my children's activities.
"I guess everyone has their cause, and this is mine."
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