03.31.09

Dogs—So Like Us

The author of the new book One Nation Under Dog set out to discover why we spend thousands on doggie cancer surgeries, pet taxi services, and "human-grade" chow. What he found is that the pet universe has become a strange reflection of the human one.

We swore we weren’t going to become, like, those people. We’d read about them, of course. You can’t go a week in this country without stumbling upon a story about someone outfitting their Chihuahua in a knockoff Oscar dress, or putting up their Labrador in an $85-a-night doggie hotel, or giving up a promotion because their ornery beagle might not like living in Cincinnati.

So as we made our way to a New Jersey animal shelter to adopt our dog one spring morning five years ago, my wife and I spent the drive making up rules for ourselves: We’ll never break the bank for surgery after Murphy eats a cassette tape! We’ll never him get that organic pet food! We’ll never pay for a dog-walker! And we’ll never, never go around referring to ourselves as the dog’s “parents.” Not us.

Read an excerpt from Michael Schaffer’s
One Nation Under Dog.

I don’t need to tell you that things soon got a lot more complicated. It’s an iron law of all those doggie memoirs that seem to perpetually ride the best-seller lists: Just as the romantic-comedy heroine must wind up with the guy she’d vowed not to marry if he were the last man on Earth, so must the adorable pooch stomp on your last nerve—and chow down on your wallet—before working his way into your heart.

Suffice it to say: Five years later, we have a Saint Bernard who is on antidepressants.

My own life, alas, isn’t colorful enough for a doggie memoir. So I set out to do something else: Write a book about just how we became a pampered-pet country, this land of doggie yoga and kitty acupuncture and frequent-flier miles for pets. The stats I came across suggested that this was relatively recent. In 1994, total pet-industry spending was $17 billion. By 2008, it was $43 billion—a boom in spending on “human-grade” pet food, personal pet trainers, feline kidney transplants, canine root canals, and mobile pet grooming. The pet-love defied the 2001 recession and seems to be resisting this one, too.

schaffer-dogs---book-cover
One Nation Under Dog. By Michael Schaffer. 304 pages. Henry Holt and Co. $24. ()

Was this some sort of four-legged version of Dutch tulipmania, a last-days-of-Rome spectacle that demonstrates how doomed we are? I had my moments of wondering. Like, say, the moments I spent beside the runway at Pet Fashion Week, watching Amazonian models promenade couture-clad mutts under the klieg lights.

But as I got into the research a little bit, I realized the changes in how we treat our pets—not just in money but in time and energy and emotional interaction—were actually a fun-house reflection, for good and for ill, of broad currents in American society that have nothing to do with animals. Travel through petworld and you’ll find evidence of big trends, like our evolving ideas about family and nurturing and health, as well as less obvious ones, like the age of two-career families (why else do our housebound pets need amusement via “mentally enriching” toys?) and the rise of modern-day litigiousness (the age of the wrongful-pet-death lawsuit has arrived).

An anthropologist from Mars, with nothing to go on but the contents of a Petco superstore, could learn about all sorts of things in our society—from the culture wars to social networking. (Petco, incidentally, now owns the naming rights to San Diego’s Major League Baseball stadium.)

I decided to journey a bit farther. Over a couple of years, I visited a cutting-edge pet-food factory, a veterinary interventional radiology team, a Chihuahua meetup group, a grooming contest, a pet taxi service, a leash-law activist group, a legal conference on pet liability issues, a pet-loss bereavement group, a pet funeral home, a training academy, a puppy mill, a homeless-animal shelter that looks more like a Restoration Hardware boutique, more kennels and day spas than I care to mention, and a pet swimming club. My little story about pet pampering turned out to be equal parts Bobos in Paradise, Fast Food Nation, and Beethoven. It wasn’t about pets so much as it was about people.

In the end, the voyage made it easy to understand why we jettisoned so many of those promises about pet-care abstemiousness. It wasn’t about the pooch melting our hearts; it was about an almost inevitable byproduct of our contemporary era.

Take pet food, the subject of much controversy. Snicker if you will about high-priced “human grade” meat, but the whole market is a miniature version of human food in this era of Whole Foods battling Wal-Mart for customers who all once shopped at Safeway. Of course, those same customers aren’t all going to be satisfied with Alpo anymore.

Then there’s behavior training, made popular this decade by the TV trainer Cesar Millan. In some places, it’s as basic a service as drivers’ ed for your kids, motivated by the same modern safety culture, lawsuit-phobia, and anxiety about what unsupervised dependants might get themselves into. But the disagreements over how to train also seem familiar: Millan’s adherents saying pets act out because we don’t remind them just who’s the boss; more-established, less-telegenic trainers advocating a cuddlier approach and calling Cesar cruel. Our polarized nation, predictably, is also home to four-legged culture wars.

And veterinary medicine has also undergone an especially revolution in the modern pet era. During my reporting, I watched an array of space-age procedures on cancer-ravaged dogs. The owners knew full well that the several thousand dollars they were spending were purely palliative, earning just a few more months with the animal. But having experienced the miracles of modern human medicine, they demanded the same standard for the pet. Same goes for the behavior meds that have eased my dog’s post-shelter jitters. About the only difference from the human pills is that his are beef flavored.

The marketing folks of the pet industry, in fact, use the term “humanization” to explain their good fortune. The pet owners driving the growth, many of them baby-boom empty-nesters, aren’t satisfied with shopping for their pets as animals. They’ve promoted them to junior humans, entitled to the same concern for health and happiness and company. Nearly half of pet owners in one survey say their animal sleeps in their bedroom (which probably explains the boom in the grooming business) and the most popular names for pets—Max, Chloe, Bella—sound a lot more like babies than the Spots and Fidos of yesteryear.

Economic doom seemed to be looming for much of the time I was working on this book. Pet-business types would tell me they were bulletproof. AIG, though, once said the same thing. So, with my manuscript deep in the editing process, I jittered at every one of those accounts about pets made homeless by foreclosures, about heartsick owners unable to pay for crucial surgeries. And yet, six months into the new era, the pet industry looks a lot more solid than most sectors—hitting its 2008 targets and predicting a small bit of growth for ’09. It’s no wonder. Once promoted from Man’s Best Friend to America’s Fur Baby, it’s very hard to earn a demotion.

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Michael Schaffer is a writer in Philadelphia. One Nation Under Dog, his book about petmania, the pet industry, and what modern petkeeping says about modern America, is available from Henry Holt. For more visit www.michaelschaffer.net.