NEW YORK — This was the dog writers' biggest night.

The only things missing were the red carpet and interminable speeches.

And the dogs.

But they were there in spirit at the recent awards ceremony of the Dog Writers Assn. of America, which each year honors the men and women who write about man's best friend.

"This is our version of the Emmys, the Grammys and the Academy Awards," member and past award-winner Mary R. Burch said as she opened the evening at the Hotel Pennsylvania.

For the next three hours, more than 50 medallions, cash prizes and a trophy with a blue bone attached were handed out in a variety of categories, from droll ("Dogs vs. Cats: 10 Reasons Puppies Are Better") to dry ("Dachshund DNA Samples Help Advance Understanding About Hemangiosarcoma"), underscoring what dog writers say is the broad range of their craft.

"People who are not in and of the dog world think, 'Dog writers. What do they know?'" said Terry Cardillino, former editor of Ruff Drafts, the group's quarterly newsletter, and of the Courier, the official magazine of the Portuguese Water Dog Club of America. "People who are in the dog world regard it as an incredible expertise."

Cardillino has won seven Maxwells — named for Maxwell Riddle, one of the group's founding members — for her editing and writing.

"When I tell people I spent all these years in dogs, they think, 'Oh, that's nice,'" said Cardillino, who edited the Courier from 1999 through 2012, and later edited Ruff Drafts for a year. "They have no idea."

The Dog Writers Assn. of America was formed in 1935 by about three dozen writers — most of them sports reporters who covered dog shows. Membership now numbers nearly 700, according to the group's secretary, Pat Santi, who says the growth reflects the widening interest in dogs.

"You can only write so many books about how to put a collar around a dog, so now people are looking at the psychological problems of dogs, about dogs in war, about using dogs to deal with stress," said Santi, a registered nurse who joined the club after writing a book about Cardigan Welsh corgis.

The group's members also include teachers, veterinarians, attorneys, psychologists, photographers, graphic artists and writers such as newspaper columnists and celebrity ghostwriters.

There are even some cat writers.

"There's a lot of crossover," said Susan M. Ewing, former president of the Cat Writers Assn. and a longtime member of the Dog Writers Assn. of America. "There is always going to be a need for both."

You only have to look at pet industry statistics to see the interest in all things pet-related. Americans spent more than $53 billion on their pets in 2012, a 4.7% jump over the previous year, according to the American Pet Products Assn. In the United States, 47% of households include at least one dog, and 46% have a cat.

"It's a huge part of our life and our economy," said Michelle Maskaly, editor in chief of Pet Age magazine, who worked as a reporter and editor at several news organizations before moving to Pet Age in 2012.

She has never looked back. "News was my passion, but pets are different," Maskaly said. "If you're having a bad day or get laid off, the animal is there for you."

At this year's awards ceremony, arrivals were greeted by a large poodle made of white silk flowers. Downstairs, the pet-friendly hotel's lobby was teeming with dogs on leashes, dogs in carriers and dogs cradled in protective arms as their owners arrived for the Westminster Kennel Club show starting the next day.

Nominees, newcomers and past winners talked about what makes a great dog writer and why the world needs them. All agreed that those who dismiss dog writing as fluff fail to see the bigger picture.

"I think all of us do this because we not only have a love for dogs and a passion for them, but because we like to think that something we're doing could help someone with their dog," said Elaine Gewirtz, the contest chairwoman and a longtime dog writer who lives in Westlake Village, Calif., with her husband and four Dalmatians.