Lucky pets get pampered from cradle to grave

Chicago Tribune

Funeral services were held recently for 14-year-old Marshall "King" Scarborough who, surrounded by his loving family, died in a hospital after a brief illness.

The mother of the family, Karen Scarborough, chose a simple white casket for Marshall. The services were held in a quaint chapel with only two pews, a chandelier hanging overhead. He was buried in a grassy plot near a fountain, shaded by blooming dogwood trees. His grave was adorned with miniature red carnations and a simple bronze marker.

In the bereavement registry, Scarborough's son, Chip, a college student, wrote fond memories of Marshall, describing him as a "wonderful, loyal dog." Marshall was the family pet, a 36-pound Pembroke Welsh corgi.

"We are lucky to be able to come and do this," said Karen Scarborough, leaning over the coffin and stroking her pet's back. "My husband was not going to do it any other way. We all just feel so much better knowing that he's in a good place."

The cost of the comforting experience: $1,993.53. And that's after the family spent $1,600 in emergency medical care two days before he died.

Despite a slowdown in the economy, pet lovers with disposable income appear to be sparing no costs when it comes to keeping their animals dressed in the latest fashions, maintaining a lavish lifestyle at home and even paying for funerals.

Americans are expected to spend $43.4 billion this year on their pets, almost double the amount spent a decade ago, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Assn.

"You have your baby boomers and their children are grown, and they're getting pets in their lives to replace them. They're already secure financially," said Stephanie Ellis, founder of the Luxury Pet Pavilion, an annual trade show, where buyers can check out the latest in pet products while being served hors d'oeuvres and listening to piano music.

"Then you've got people in their 20s and 30s who have a career and they are not having kids, they are having grand dogs. To have a dog, you have to know you can bear the expense. It's not like getting pregnant accidentally and saying, 'Oops I've got a kid on the way.' "

Many pets lucky enough to be in homes where they are considered part of the family enjoy lives of luxury -- a standard promoted by young celebrities such as Paris Hilton, Beyonce Knowles and Britney Spears, who carry small dogs with them to Hollywood hot spots as an accessory.

Even in the real world, it is hard to miss them. Their tiny heads poke from designer pet carriers as their owners stroll along Michigan Avenue in Chicago. They often are seen boarding the first-class section of the plane as less affluent humans shove their way down the aisle to coach.

Exclusive doggie day-care centers have become a necessity for owners to drop off their pets on the way to work and pick them up on the way home. There is an abundance of specialty boutiques in malls and on the Internet, where pet owners can buy their pets anything from custom furniture and ski-resort wear to fur boas -- even a custom satin evening gown.

Ellis, who also owns a Web-based boutique, Pawniquely Yours, said her bestselling item is the $1,250 pink-and-white checkered Lillian cuddle couch. A more recent trend, she said, is the dog wig, a necessity for the dogs of high style.

"Believe it or not, when they get dressed up, they can get long blond hair to go with the outfit," Ellis said. "It's funny, but people buy it, and dogs wear it."

To find the latest in pet fashions, one needs to travel to New York. Two years ago, dogs began taking to the runway during Pet Fashion Week, a trade show where dogs strut their stuff in high-end designer labels such as Iv San Bernard, Ruff Ruff Couture and Les Poochs of Paris.

After filling their little bellies with gourmet pet treats and biscotti, they can take a run on a doggie treadmill or relax with a new trend sweeping the country called doga -- yoga for dogs. If that's not enough, there are weight-loss boot camps for overweight pets and therapeutic massages for their aching joints.

And when a pet's posh life has come to an end, cemeteries such as Oak Rest Pet Gardens, where Marshall is buried along with 4,000 other pets, offer upscale funerals that can cost as much as a human one.

"Most people couldn't care less about the money when they come in. They want what they want," said Juliann Brace, funeral director at Oak Rest Pet Gardens. "What they're looking for is not too far off from a human burial. They want to give their pet a dignified and honorable close-off."

Sometimes, according to Brace, that means a $10,000 marble casket or a $5,000 granite monument. About half of their clients, Brace said, choose to have their dogs embalmed. And afterward, bereavement counseling is available for those who can't move on.

Harold Herzog Jr., a psychology professor at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C., said that lavish pets were a part of popular culture, but like most trends, that would fade.

"Paris Hilton gets a Chihuahua and the next thing you know, Chihuahuas are hot. But the type of pets that are popular can change, and our preferences for certain types of dogs have not necessarily been good for the breeds," said Herzog, who has studied human and animal relationships for 30 years.

"The cycle takes about 25 years. So in 13 years, a pet can go from relative obscurity to being really popular, and in another 13 years, they are back where they started. We've seen that in Rottweilers, Old English sheepdogs, Dalmatians and pit bulls. So a disproportionate number of them end up in shelters where they are euthanized."

As the economy tightens, pet expert Charlotte Reed, author of "Miss Fido's Manners," an Emily Post-style guide for dogs, said she was seeing a move toward more casual clothing for pets, such as team jerseys and sweaters. But owners still prefer to splurge on household items such as beds and feeding bowls.

By the way, those ceramic bowls with the dog-bone motif are out. Classy marble and stainless steel serving dishes are the rave, particularly those that match the countertop and backsplash.

"Some people might not be spending tons of money on fur coats anymore, but they are spending it on dog beds. When guests come over, you don't want to have to hide the pet bed," she said, adding that environment-friendly products are gaining center stage.

"People like looking for the next best things for dogs, so they are focusing on a healthier diet for their pets. That means Eco is really hot. Eco fashion, Eco leashes and Eco collars are the next big thing."

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