Washington "What do greyhounds like?" a shopper asks the manager at Three Dog Bakery, a stylish suburban shop that sells cookies, shampoos, coats and gifts for four-legged friends.
There is no correct answer, as far as we humans know. But what's become clear is that shopping for our pets for the holidays has become as complicated as shopping for people. More than 53 percent of America's dog owners purchase gifts for their pets, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association. Millions of cat owners, bird owners and fish owners do, too, pampering their furry and feathered friends the way they would dote on a beloved relative.
Because more than 63 million of the 105 million American households own at least one pet, we're talking big bucks, especially during the holidays. Owners are remembering their pets with such things as massagers, pearl necklaces, energy-saving aquarium pumps and monogrammed food bowls. And they're looking for good design and quality materials. While some might be trimming their gift lists in these dicey economic times, the faithful family pet is unlikely to be cut off this year.
"It takes so little to please dogs and cats :quot; that is one of the reasons people really enjoy giving to them," says Warren Eckstein, an expert in pet psychology who has a syndicated radio show. "I honestly don't know anybody who has a pet who doesn't give it a gift, but maybe the people I know are more eccentric than the average person."
Well, shopping for them sure is more fun that it used to be. Remember when all there were were those "Daily Growl" newspaper-shaped rubber chew toys hanging on supermarket shelves above the Alpo? Each year, my niece Samantha, 10, delights in selecting a new Beastie Band, a soft Velcro-closing collar, for our cat, Gus. Last year it was a funky red collar covered with black ants. Go figure. Of course, that means we must come up with an equally chic gift for Samantha's two Siamese cats, Green and Blue. I'm thinking of getting green and blue catnip-scented Orbee Mouses, rubbery mice engineered for swattability, from Planet Dog (www.planetdog.com).
The Portland, Maine-based retailer's Web site is worth a look for its high-style, innovative products for dogs and cats, starting with travel towels, hemp collars and everything you need to bake a bone-shaped birthday cake. The company's surveys show that 59 percent of dog owners celebrate their "best friend's" birthday. The tailored black cotton rectangular dog bed ($99 in large) won't look tacky on your $8,000 Tibetan rug. But watch out for slobber.
Many pets now have their own stocking hung by the chimney with care. Shawn Underwood, spokesman for Petco's 600 national superstores, says one of the biggest-selling items in December is still the traditional prepackaged dog and cat stockings stuffed with little goodies. "Often the gifts aren't extravagant, but it may be a simple chew toy so the pet isn't left out on Christmas morning," says Underwood, who says the pet industry hasn't suffered during the post-Sept. 11 economic downturn since so many Americans have turned to their pets for friendship and consolation during tough times.
A generation ago, few consumers would admit to purchasing gifts for their dogs, cats or ferrets (which, believe it or not, have their own line of clothing). The $30 billion that Americans will spend on pets this year is almost double the amount spent in 1994. Eckstein says people aren't ashamed anymore.
"The baby-boomer generation is coming into their own and are comfortable admitting a lot of things now, like having a relationship with our pets," he says. "It's the one thing that makes us feel good all the time, and we are willing to spend whatever it costs."