Convenient Companions : When It Comes to Pets, Dogs Are Down, Cats Are Up, and You Don’t Have to Walk a Snake

Times Staff Writer

Convenience stores, convenience foods and now--it figures--convenience pets.

That would seem to be the trend both in California and the nation. What with the obligation for them to be taken for walks, plus restrictive leash laws, to say nothing of the waste problem, dog ownership is becoming a thankless task. And with the high costs of upkeep and the lack of space to keep and ride them, horses are also fading in the stretch.

Coming on strong are cats, birds, reptiles and fish.

Observed Thomas H. McLaughlin, executive vice president of the South Pasadena-based Western World Pet Supply Assn. Inc.: “You may not have a low-maintenance child, but you can choose a low-maintenance pet.”


Not only is the time crunch of modern society a factor in this changing taste, so is the reality of economics. Pam Wasson of West Los Angeles, who keeps a horse stabled at the Equestrian Center in Griffith Park, has noticed something: “An increasing number of horse owners are coping with expenses by leasing out their horses. I would say that almost a third of the owners at the center have this arrangement now.”

A November-released study of 40,000 American households, prepared for the Illinois-based American Veterinary Medical Assn., showed that--apparently for the first time--pet cats outnumber pet dogs.

Since 1983, when the AVMA conducted its last survey, the cat population nationwide increased from 52.2 million to 54.6 million, but the number of dogs decreased from 55.6 million to 52.4 million. The number of households owning dogs dropped to 38.2% in the current survey from 42.5% in 1983. The trend in cats was opposite. Households with cats increased to 30.5% from 28.4% in 1983.

“If anything, the dog population had been expected to increase,” said C. Michael Troutman, president of Charles, Charles Research Group, which conducted the AVMA survey.

Dr. Richard Polsky, who operates Animal Behavior Counseling Services Inc. in West Los Angeles, said that “in the last six years, my cases involving cats have increased from 15% to 40%.”

“Nowadays, when the pet is a dog, there is more and more likelihood that it will be a larger, protective type such as a German shepherd or Doberman,” Polsky continued. “It probably is a reaction to crime in Southern California.”

Troutman theorized on the reasons that meows are replacing barks:

* “The nation has more two-income families, which probably means less time available for the care that a dog needs.

* “Leash laws have become more stringent.

* “Municipalities increasingly are requiring waste cleanups after a dog has been walked.”

As for horses, the percentage of horse ownership decreased the most in the AVMA survey while pet birds posted the greatest percentage increase: The pet bird population increased by 24.2%, cats increased by 4.6%, dogs decreased by 5.8% and horses decreased by 6%. (No statistics on fish were given.)

The AVMA survey covered in each state the percent of households owning the four major pet types and found that Oregon rated highest for cats, Nevada for dogs, Idaho for horses and Wyoming for birds. California, meanwhile, ranked third in bird ownership, 14th in cats, 28th in dogs and 30th in horses.

Make of the statistics what you will, many are those whose pet preferences remain loyal to the equine and the canine.

“Sure, Dexter is expensive, but I love him too much to give him up,” horse owner Wasson of West Los Angeles was saying. She was referring to the horse she has owned for two years, and which she keeps in a stable at the Griffith Park center, riding the trails there and riding dressage when her schedule permits.

Until recently, she was an advertising executive. Even when she and her husband, Fred, comprised a two-income family (he is with a real estate firm), Dexter was something of a luxury.

Now, in order to help defray part of the cost with one income in the family, she barters her horse-wise services. “I am barn manager part of the week for Van Dahn International,” she said. “The barn has 40 horses, and I do such things as exercising some of them, buying the food, helping the farrier.

“The room and board for Dexter is $240 a month, and I am paying Swedish dressage trainers $400 a month, so I had to do something. Being barn manager pays for the dressage training.” (Only last Monday, the Los Angeles Board of Recreation and Parks voted to raise stall rental rates by as much as $36 a month.)

The cost could be even more burdensome. Wasson said her horse is in a lower rent district--owners of animals in stables such as she manages pay $340 a month, which buys such amenities as enclosed stalls and more grooms.

As for horse-leasing, Wasson said, “I don’t lease out Dexter, but I have been thinking about it. The way it works is almost like two people sharing the cost of an apartment. With a horse, you split the costs of boarding, the horseshoeing every six weeks (about $60), and any vet bills that may arise. Then you split the days each of you gets to ride the horse. I would say that almost a third of the owners at the Equestrian Center have this arrangement now.”

Another owner at the equestrian center, a secretary who asked that her name not be used, said she moonlights selling Avon products in order to help with the $240 monthly boarding expense. “I know of some former horse owners who had to sell recently because their children reached college age, and they had to cut back somewhere,” she said.

And while owning a dog nowadays may be fighting a trend, it matters not to people such as Karen Payne of Rancho Park. “I prefer dogs over other pets because of their capacity to form bonds and companionships with humans,” she said. “Dogs have a loving nature, and respond to training and love.”

Payne, a psychologist who keeps a schnauzer and two Shar-peis in the yard of her house, said she considers walking the dogs useful to her: “If I didn’t have them, I would get less exercise.”

And the work? “It’s a sacrifice one makes for the benefits one gets. I regard my dogs as friends rather than pets.”

Be it a dog or cat or one of the other creatures kept in homes, West Los Angeles psychologist Janet Ruckert spoke about something else that is new:

“Not too long ago the scene was that when a child returned home from school, the child would be greeted at the door by the mother and the pet.

“Now, more likely, the child will walk the dog or take care of the cat--and they will be at the door to greet the mother and father coming back from work. In some ways, the pet is child sitting until the parents get home.”

Ruckert also said she gets the feeling that more single adults in the Southland own pets than used to be the case:

“People in Los Angles, for instance, can be very isolated and lonesome. Pets are a solution to this. And some pets can be a way to meet other single people.”

Think of what an icebreaker it is to walk into a party with a boa around your neck.

“Reptiles are becoming very trendy,” said Dr. Rick Woerpel, a veterinarian and co-owner of Avian and Exotic Animal Hospitals in Hawthorne and Fountain Valley. “A lot of our clients have them. Reptiles don’t generally need a lot of space, or any aerobic exercise.”

In other words, you don’t have to walk a snake.

Woerpel, who owns an iguana, said lizards can be allowed supervised run of the house. “They’ll even climb up the drapes.”

Another hitherto uncommon house pet that is finding favor in Southern California, said Woerpel, is the rabbit: “They can be trained to a litter box, just like a cat. They are amenable to staying in a house. You just have to watch that they don’t chew on the electric cords. Apartment owners are increasingly allowing rabbits.”

Longevity apparently is becoming a factor in choosing pets too. “Take macaws,” Woerpel said. “They can live as long as a human. There isn’t as much potential for grief from their deaths.

“Tortoises are becoming quite popular. People sometimes don’t like pet relationships that are short--and tortoises can live more than 100 years. Owners have been known to make provisions for them in wills.”

With fish, the new wave, so to speak, is the living reef aquarium for saltwater residents. Explained Ray Meyers, owner of Del Monte Pets in Monterey: “You can re-create what you have seen while scuba diving or snorkeling.”

Economics and inconveniences notwithstanding, “The relationship between any human and any pet is unconditional,” as Woerpel put it. “The pet doesn’t sit in judgment of the owner.”


Here are some popular animals and the percentages of California households that own them.

ANIMALS HOUSEHOLDS Birds 8.9% Cats Dogs 38.7% Horses 2.4%

SOURCE: American Veterinary Medical Assn., 1988