Human Resources

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With the possible exception of Mr. Ed, Flipper and the Taco Bell Chihuahua, animals are pretty dumb. They've never invented fire, the wheel or Palm Pilot personal organizers (sample dog schedule: wake up, nap, torment mailman, nap, lick self, meditate/nap, work on anti-cat nuclear missile, nap).

Fortunately, humans are slaving away to bridge this technology gap. At last weekend's American Pet Products Manufacturers Assn. trade show in San Diego, hundreds of entrepreneurs unveiled the latest creature comforts for creatures: automobiles for hamsters, canine cigars, aromatherapy sprays to boost pet confidence, menorah chew toys, even an animal Easy-Bake Oven.

For almost every human product, there was a pet equivalent. Instead of Altoid breath mints, vendors proffered pocket-size tins of YipYap bone-shaped breath treats. Instead of Aramis and Versace perfumes, they spritzed Aramutts and Grrsace. Instead of garage-door openers, merchants demonstrated doggy-door openers triggered by a sensor on the pet's collar.

"So many products now cross over from people," said Gretchen Ramsey, a spokeswoman for the APPMA. "Pets have become like members of the family."

Exemplifying the crossover trend is Hasbro, which recently unleashed a line of pet toys that mimic the company's human products. Doggie Dough is an edible version of Play-Doh (the treats can also be baked in a modified Easy-Bake Oven). Mr. Potato Hound is a canine replica of Mr. Potato Head. And Tonka trucks have been stripped down into tire chew toys.

"It's a natural extension for us," said Bob Stebenne, president of new business development for Hasbro. "Nowhere is it written in stone that toys have to be just for kids."

Can Scrabble and Battleship for pets be far behind?

The potential market seems limitless. This year, Americans will spend an estimated $28.5 billion on their dogs, cats, reptiles, rabbits, birds and fish, according to the APPMA. That's up from $17 billion just seven years ago. And the 2001 trade show dwarfed APPMA's inaugural effort in 1959, when just a handful of manufacturers and distributors camped out at a Chicago hotel.

All this pampering of pets is not limited to overindulgent Americans.

At the San Diego Convention Center, retailers from Brazil, Korea, Germany and other nations cruised some 1,500 booths looking for the next hit product to entice customers. They contemplated everything from dog pajamas and canine seat-belt systems to parrot party kits and computer monitor fish tanks.

One of the strangest contraptions on display was Lavakan, "the first cabin for washing dogs and cats." Developed in Spain, it resembles a giant washing machine for pets. The animal sits inside a glass door, the device turns on and the pet vanishes behind a wall of water and shampoo cascading from 37 nozzles. After a few minutes, the rinse cycle begins, then dryers kick in.

Inventor Eduardo Segura, a 28-year-old Spanish industrial designer, demonstrated his $19,600 machine on a tortoise-shell Persian cat borrowed from the Humane Society.

"Cats kinda freak out at first," conceded company president Andres Diaz. "Then they calm down."

Sure enough, when the water jets started, the cat clawed furiously at the glass door, then crouched placidly for the rest of the wash, seemingly resigned to its fate. But whenever the water shut off, the cat let out a plaintive meow.

The genesis for these pet products varies widely. Don Knutson created Bow-Ow and Me-Ow, his first-aid kits for dogs and cats, after his pooch was injured during a run. In the mishap, Knutson saw an unfilled product niche.

Catherine Driessen started selling wheat grass to pet stores instead of juice shops because "the wheat grass industry [for humans] is a cutthroat business."

Chemist John Harris' family dreamed up parody perfumes over a bottle of wine. The resulting concoctions, designed to mimic scents for humans, include Arfmani, CK-9 and Timmy Holedigger. (The first name on that last item was changed to Timmy after Tommy Hilfiger lawyers sent a cease-and-desist letter, Harris said. But the matter still isn't settled. "I guess Hilfiger thinks he owns 'mmy' too," Harris said.)

The common theme behind the pet items seems to be converting a human product into an animal one. Chomp Inc. deliberately modeled the packaging for its YipYap breath fresheners and Sniffers treats after Altoids and M&Ms;, respectively.

"We're trying to create a new category, which is candy for dogs," said co-founder Lesley Lutyens. The treats are even being positioned near pet store cash registers as "impulse buy" items.

Ramsey, the APPMA publicist, attributes the trend to the anthropomorphizing of pets. "Our pets are now people," she explained. "We're no longer seeing them as the farm or yard dog. They're coming into our beds. They are [surrogate] lovers, children and best friends. And when you want to show someone you love them, you buy them things."

Strange things, sometimes. Among the thousands of wares on display at the show:

* Critter Cruisers. Little plastic cars powered by hamster wheels in the passenger compartment. And when your hamster is tired of driving around the house (or the custom Hamtrac roadway), he can retire to the Habitrail Space Station, a network of tubes and rooms that resembles an orbiting satellite.

* Lazy Cat Laser. At last, laser technology has been put to its proper use--a laser pen that projects the image of a red mouse up to 100 feet. Rival pet laser maker Ken Epstein said dogs and fish will also chase the red laser dots. "I can take a lobster and make him walk into a trap," he boasted. It's "perfect for couch potatoes" who want to exercise a cat or dog without exerting themselves.

* Talk to Me Treatball. Owners can record a personal message that plays whenever the ball is jarred by their pet. The ball also dispenses treats. "Your dog will never be alone again!"

* Crazy Catnip Bubbles. Just like blowing regular bubbles, but these are made with catnip.

* City Cat Condos. A three-level feline penthouse that hangs out the window of a house or apartment.

* Pet tiaras. The rhinestone-studded crowns--some bone-shaped--retail for $22, or $60 for the Miss America design. They're also the perfect accompaniment for the "Liberace model" fur coat from Italtrend High Fashion for Dogs, based in Las Vegas.

* EZ Fetch Flying Disc. Finally, a Frisbee with a support leg underneath so dogs can pick up the disc more easily.

* King Pup. A pyramid doghouse covered with Egyptian hieroglyphics.

* Greeting cards for pets. "By sending one . . . you are adding to the positive energy of the collective consciousness of pets and people," said a brochure.

* Freeze-dried ice cream for dogs. Other dessert treats include puppy suckers on rawhide sticks and canine biscotti, which is advertised as "perfect for dunking in the toilet."

* Chew grenades. Beef-flavored chew toys for militaristic canines.

* Lightnin' Wheel. Lights flash on when the hamster runs in this baby. Could it be the solution to California's energy crisis?

Now pets are also able to partake of assorted New Age health trends, via aromatherapy sprays designed to "improve confidence and balance the mind and body"; VitaGravy, an antioxidant brew that comes in salad dressing-style bottles; lactose-free milk; and CigRRRs, a vegan dog biscuit shaped like a cigar.

Warning: The surgeon general has determined that he has no idea what smoking a vegan cigar does to your dog's health.

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