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American Lifestyle Is Going to the Dogs

Don’t tell your dog, cat or pet iguana that the economy’s gone down the tubes. Because while just about everyone--particularly in Southern California--is pinching pennies, our pets are lounging in the lap of luxury.

We’re talking iguana “resorts"--plastic tanks designed to look like miniature country clubs. We’re talking Los Angeles Raiders T-shirts and caps made just for canines. And for those critters with crusty gums, we’re talking cat and dog mouthwash.

As far as Fido is concerned, it’s only going to get better. The number of new products made for pets is growing at a breakneck pace. While new products for people--from breakfast cereals to beverages--increased in number by a meager 6% in the first eight months of 1993 compared to the same period in 1992, the number of new pet foods and products rocketed 102%, according to New Product News. That’s twice as fast as the next-fastest-growing category, new condiments.

Americans will spend a record $14 billion on pets, pet products and pet foods this year, Pet Age magazine estimated. That’s roughly half the annual budget of the CIA. “When times are tough, people stay home and lavish attention on their pets” said Karen Long MacLeod, editor of the Chicago-based trade publication. “You can always afford to spoil your pet.”

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Do we ever!

We’re buying them “natural” foods (without chemicals or preservatives) that may cost twice as much as conventional brands. We’re impulse-buying in sprawling pet supply stores that look like Toys R Us for pets. And we’re snapping up all kinds of pet gizmos and doodads--(would you believe iguana toenail clippers?)--that humanize our pets.

“In a time of smaller families, people are turning to animals to fulfill their need for nurturing,” explained Dr. Joyce Brothers, the syndicated columnist and radio talk show psychologist. Consider that in a recent survey, 99% of pet owners admitted that they talk to their pets.

But we don’t just talk to them. We treat them as we want to be treated ourselves. And, said Brothers, when a married person lavishes great attention on the family pet, it may be an attempt to send this message to his or her mate: “I wish you were pampering me like this.”

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The folks at Four Paws Products have made a science of this. And, since reptiles have recently become very popular as pets, the Long Island, N.Y.-based firm has decided to cash in on the crawling critters.

An item Four Paws previously packaged and sold as cat claw clippers has been repackaged and is selling--for up to $8.99--as “Reptile Claw Clippers.” The only difference is the packaging. Instead of a picture of a cat, there’s an iguana on the front. Ditto for a leash formerly sold as a rabbit harness. Now it’s repackaged as an iguana harness--at $6.99.

“We sit around and scratch our heads, wondering why this stuff sells,” said Tony Hartian, vice president of sales at Four Paws. Despite the soft economy, the 24-year-old company has seen double-digit sales increases every year for the last three years, Hartian said.

Some of the company’s top executives are themselves enwrapped in reptile mania. Dina Abbott, Western regional sales manager for Four Paws, owns six iguanas. Her favorite is a 3-foot-long one named Igor, which freely roams her Huntington Beach home. “Sometimes he jumps on my stuffed animals,” Abbott said. “He thinks they’re real.”

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Meanwhile, Smart Dog Products has the NFL license to create everything from T-shirts to bandannas for dogs. The top-selling doggie T-shirt? Los Angeles Raiders. The least popular item? “To tell you the truth, the Rams T-shirt is a real dog,” confided Richard Dusse, president of the Picayune, Miss.-based firm.

Some of the country’s fastest-growing companies make pet products. For three years, Nature’s Recipe, a Corona company that makes non-allergenic foods for dogs and cats, has been named to Inc. magazine’s list of the 500 fastest-growing firms.

“People want to feed their dogs and cats as well as they feed themselves,” said Jeff Bennett, chief executive of Nature’s Recipe. He formed the company in 1981 after he found himself cooking special vegetarian meals every night for his ailing dog. Bennett said he expects his company’s pet food sales to reach $70 million next year, up from $50 million in 1993.

O’Dell Industries, which specializes in aquariums, has joined the reptile race. This year it began marketing the “Reptile Resort,” a plastic mold that fits into a glass aquarium to create a scene something like a Palm Springs golf course, complete with sand traps and clubhouse. “The reptile trend started in California,” said Eric Redmond, marketing manager at the Surgoinsville, Tenn.-based company. “Now it’s taken off across the country.”

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Increasingly, pet owners are avoiding grocery stores and instead buying their pet food and pet products from chain mega-stores that cater exclusively to pets.

The largest such chain is San Diego-based Petco, which has 200 stores, mostly in Southern California. Its biggest stores carry more than 7,000 different products. Typically, a customer comes in to buy a big bag of pet food but before leaving will have picked up everything from “Doggie Bagels” to “Kitty Cookies.”

“People visualize their pets as themselves,” explained Brian Devine, president and chief executive of Petco. “Just as they do for themselves, they buy lifestyle for their animals.”

Briefly . . .

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Anaheim-based Carl Karcher Enterprises has split with the San Francisco agency Goodby, Berlin & Silverstein and put its $30-million account up for a review, being conducted by Effective Marketing Strategies of Marina del Rey. . . . The Los Angeles office of J. Walter Thompson has picked up the $3-million Mazatlan Tourism account, formerly handled by Atkins Group of San Antonio, Tex. . . . Brentwood-based Stein Robaire Helm has won the $1.5-million Kreiss Collection account, formerly with Suissa/Miller. . . . Los Angeles-based Sacks/Fuller Advertising has picked up the ad account of Beverly Hills-based City National Bank. . . . Los Angeles-based Weller & O’Sullivan Advertising has been handed the $3.5-million account of Promenity Inc., licensee for Body Glove. . . . Asher/Gould Advertising of Los Angeles has taken on the $1-million ad account of Sanyo Office Automation, a division of Sanyo Fisher USA Corp. . . . Saatchi & Saatchi of Torrance has won the ad business of Long Beach-based Airflite, an aircraft service subsidiary of Toyota Motor Sales.

The Fido Factor

While such exotic pets as iguanas and potbellied pigs have helped boost sales of pet products and pets, cats and dogs are still the industries’ kibble.

Sources: Petfood Industry magazine; Pet Product News

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