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Put Fido on Santa's list, as holiday pet spending soars

Owners across Central Florida are shelling out big bucks as holiday spending on animals increases again

Wally, a year-old, soft-coated wheaten terrier, will wake up to a Merry Christmas with treats, toys and a new collar waiting for him under the tree.

"Wally will get plenty of gifts this year," said owner Rod Schrag of Orlando's Thornton Park, who is planning to spend about $100 on him. "He's a great dog."

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Owners across Central Florida are showing love for their pets this holiday season by shelling out big bucks on toys and treats. A poll from Saint Leo University north of Tampa says that Floridians will spend about $121 apiece on their pets, 22 percent higher than the national average.

"People's pets are like their family here," said Susan Kinsella, a professor who works with the university's polling department. "We have so many transplants from other parts of the country that people are giving more attention to their animals because they can't pick up their extended family and bring it with them."

Kinsella said the higher spending shows not only that people care more for their pets but that an improving economy is allowing them to show it.

That all comes as overall spending on pets continues to grow nationally, up about 33 percent since 2009 to $60.59 billion annually, according to the American Pet Products Association.

It's a number that has grown every year for the past two decades, overcoming housing bubbles, tech booms and stock-market slumps.

At the Thornton Park store for Woof Gang Bakery, shelves are lined with holiday-shaped treats specially created for pet companions, including pumpkin-pie cookies and peanut-butter turnovers.

For the Christmas season, bones have been replaced with candy canes, chewable Santas and squeezable penguins.

"Every Christmas season gets crazier and crazier," said Paul Allen, CEO of the 75-store, Orlando-based chain. "Pet owners are coming in with a Christmas-gift list like they would for a child."

The pet-supply industry has responded to the holiday trend, creating more products tailored specifically to the Christmas season.

PetSmart sells a line of sweaters for small dogs that read "My Ugly X-mas Sweater." Woof Gang carries yuletide bandannas with a special clip to keep them around a pet's neck.

There are lines of cat toys to hang on the Christmas tree — as if typical ornaments didn't give felines enough amusement.

Gift cards for friends and family, including packages such as "doggy spa" days, are also popular with customers, Allen said.

"It used to be that you would get one bone or treat and put it under the tree for your pet, and it would be fine," said Robert Vetere, president of the American Pet Products Association. "But if you only spent a few dollars now, people would turn their noses up to you and ask why you don't like your pet."

At Winter Park's The Doggie Door, the pet store caters not only to the animals, but to their very attached humans as well, said co-owner Brian Wettstein,. with shirts, signs and even wine for owners of certain breeds of dogs, cats and horses.

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"People identify very closely with what kind of pet they own," Wettstein said.

And at Louise's Pet Connection in Lake Mary, the store has specialized in all-natural animal food and treats since it opened in 2002. It is now seeing an increased demand as people look to buy healthier food for themselves and their pets.

Dog food is now being made of "raw ingredients" to promote a more natural diet, and cat food contains exotic ingredients such as ahi tuna.

"Pets have to eat all year round, so our business is pretty consistent, but we do get a bump around the holidays," said co-owner Patti Dillingham. "People love their pets because their love is unconditional, and their pets are always there for them. Owners want to show they care."

karnold@tribpub.com or 407-420-5664

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