Catering to Pets Is Stock and Trade of These Stores

A glance down the pet aisle of any grocery store proves that those other members of families have buying power. But those supplies seem mundane when compared to what's available at the stores in North County catering to the pet trade.

More than half of all American households share their homes with one or more companion animals. Cats recently edged out dogs as the No. 1 companion animal, and other species have recently become popular.

"The trend has been toward smaller animals, like rats, reptiles and fish," said Cheryl Wegner, owner of Animal Supplies of Poway, "partly because of our transient lifestyles, but also because a lot of people live in apartments or condos which don't allow more traditional pets."

All need food, shelter and water, but also available are treats, toys and even togs for most of them.

Some stores, like Animal Environments in Carlsbad or Tropical Reef in San Marcos specialize; the former in housing and accessories for birds, the latter in fish and aquatic environments. Others, including Best Pets Center in Encinitas, offer everything from the pets themselves to grooming, and still others like Petmart and Petco stock only supplies.

Supplies include ready-release collars (some in Hawaiian prints); breakaway collars for cats; dog leashes in a variety of lengths and material, including a 30-foot retractable model; and leashes and harnesses for cats, rabbits and other creatures.

There also is a confounding array of food, especially for dogs and cats, including special diets for every stage of life.

"There's a trend toward diets which deal with allergies, especially flea allergies," says Wegner. "There are also low-calorie foods for yuppie puppies."

Diets for pet birds have changed dramatically with the newfound knowledge that they need a far more varied diet than that supplied by seed alone. Many pet stores have begun to stock specialty foods and mixtures.

One of the most important services provided by knowledgeable pet suppliers is education. Wegner says she spends a lot of time standing in the flea-product aisle talking to desperate people.

"I tell people to buy flea combs," said Wegner, "and to start getting prepared in March, instead of waiting until they have a real problem."

The trend in flea control has been away from the more toxic chemicals, except in extreme cases. Every summer cats and dogs actually die of anemia caused by fleas, say local veterinarians.

One of the most popular new products is a type of kitty litter that clumps when wet, said Chris Olsen, pet department manager at Mary's Tack and Feed in Del Mar. Since the clumps can be removed, completely changing the litter box becomes unnecessary.

Pet doors have been around for a while, but now there are a number of different types, including one that can be installed in a sliding glass door. Others operate electronically or magnetically, thereby limiting access.

For the outdoor dog there are different kinds of shelters, from igloos to those with a Southwestern theme and automatic watering devices that attach to the hose. Automatic feeders also are available.

Playthings for pets seem to be limited only by the human imagination (and the buyer's checkbook): cat furniture in every shape and size, cow hoofs as an alternative to rawhide, floppy Frisbee-type saucers, scratching posts with corrugated surfaces, even videos to occupy animals while their human companions have to be away (earning money to buy the toys, no doubt). To rest up, cats and dogs have lots of bedding choices; from orthopedic to cedar-filled to water beds.

In the pet clothing department, there are T-shirts, visors, booties, even sunglasses. To help carry the necessary paraphernalia, there are backpacks for pups.

Although products for dogs and cats still fill most of the shelves, there are modular housing units for hamsters, hot rocks for reptiles and alfalfa hay for rabbits. Many stores have on hand a wide variety of bird cages. And other shops, like A Bird Haven in Escondido, also will arrange for cages or outside aviaries to be custom-made.

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