Sacramento pet$

As a nation, we’re broke. So why are we spending more than ever on our dogs and cats?

Photo By Shoka

Tamara Watson figured she’d be taking a risk when she quit her administrative job last year to start her own pet photography business. The economy then, as it is now, was in the tank, and she worried there’d be a shortage of clients willing to pay for portraits of their beloved animals.

She was wrong.

In the last year, the Sacramento resident has snapped enough photos of dogs and cats, and even iguanas and rats, to make a living.

“It still surprises me when I get a booking, but then again, it makes sense to me,” said Watson. “It’s usually people who don’t have children, people like [me] whose pets are their purpose.”

Watson, who shares her East Sacramento home with three-legged pug Rue, two cats Olivia and Sweetpea, and her husband Cory Rutledge, is part of a multibillion-dollar United States industry that includes basics such as food and vaccinations and more extreme expenses, such as pricey medical procedures and behavioral therapy, and everything in between—from toys and pet spas to Halloween costumes, professional pet sitters and, yes, photography.

And it’s a number that’s growing despite an economy that seems permanently stuck in reverse.

As a nation, we’re broke—mired in debt, overwhelmed with foreclosures and looking for jobs. But we’re spending more than ever on our pets.

In 2009, Americans spent $45.3 billion on their pets, according to the American Pet Products Association. In 2010, that figure climbed 6.2 percent to $48 billion, and by the end of 2011, it’s expected to exceed $50 billion.

Still, even as the pet economy thrives, the recession’s impact persists: In Sacramento, pet adoptions at local animal shelters are down, while “surrenders”—cases in which a family leaves a pet with a shelter facility—are up.

All the numbers, good or bad, provide a tangible glimpse into how our attitudes about pets have changed during the last century.

It’s a dog’s (and cat’s) life

There are two kinds of people in the world—those who cater to their pets and those who don’t get the fuss over furry friends. But, says author Michael Schaffer, the gap between the two is constantly shrinking.

In his book One Nation Under Dog: Adventures in the New World of Prozac-Popping Puppies, Dog Park Politics and Organic Pet Food, Schaffer explores our “pampered-pet nation”—one in which animals have long since moved from the backyard to inside the house where they claim full ownership of couches and beds and share many of the same perks as their human companions.

Whereas such animals were once seen as luxury accessories for the rich, Schaffer says, in recent decades they’ve earned an increasingly higher status.

“Pet keeping [evolved], following each era’s ideas about kindness, domesticity, and comfort. The lapdog in the millionaire’s mansion became the golden retriever in the suburban backyard; the kitten from the litter of your neighbor’s tabby became the kitten you took straight from the SPCA adoption center to the veterinarian’s spaying practice,” Schaffer writes.

“Everyone knows [pets] are supposed to teach you about love and loyalty and fun but … they [also] serve as a fun-house-mirror reflection of our changing notions about such universal subjects as family, health, and friendship.”

My own notions about pets have also changed over the years.

I grew up with pets—a series of shaggy dogs that I loved, although their primary care (the feeding, the shots, the varied illnesses) fell to my mother.

My life as a devoted pet owner didn’t truly begin until two decades ago when, living in downtown Sacramento, I discovered a tiny kitten mewing on the front porch of my apartment. At the time I was a college freshman, barely able to afford the rent, much less the care for another living being.

And yet it suddenly seemed like the most important thing in the world—to bring this small creature into my home, to feed her, to make sure she was healthy. So I carved my already anemic budget into even tinier slices—anything to keep that gray-and-black tabby in my life.

Veronica Fletes-Nino (right) and her husband, Ruben Nino, acquired two pug puppies in 2009. The couple had long wanted dogs, but didn’t really think about the financial obligations until after Coco and Chandler came into their lives.

Photo By Shoka

In the years since, I’ve reconfigured that budget continuously, with a parade of pets that have brought me much love and joy. The money I’ve spent on them would likely be enough to pay off my grad-school loans, purchase a car or even serve as a down payment on a home.

Bob Vetere, president of the American Pet Products Association, can trace a direct connection between our increasing “humanization of pets” and the economy.

“Pets have become a more important part of all our lives, whether it is due to the scariness of the [economic] global situation, or because we have less interpersonal contact, or because we’re alone in the bulk of our lives,” Vetere said.

“As pets have become more important to us, it has become more important to reward pets in meaningful terms—rather than just in pet terms.”

I’ve learned just how meaningful those connections are, thanks in particular to Sophie, an orange Abyssinian-tabby mix with a lazy eye, autoimmune disorder and perhaps the sweetest disposition ever encountered in another being, four-legged or otherwise.

In the years I lived with Sophie, who died in early 2010 from cancer, my husband and I devoted a small fortune to her care and well-being.

There’s nothing we wouldn’t have done for her, until, eventually, it became clear that being a pet owner is also about understanding that unconditional love for an animal means walking a thin line between want and need, overindulgence and necessity.

Veronica Fletes-Nino started to understand this line after she and her husband, Ruben Nino, acquired two pug puppies in 2009.

Though the Woodland residents had long wanted dogs, Fletes-Nino didn’t really think about the financial obligations until after Coco and Chandler came into their lives.

“I wasn’t prepared at the time, but as time went by, I started figuring their needs into our budget,” she said.

The biggest money shock, she said, arrived shortly after the puppies came home. Then, the couple learned, they’d need to shell out a substantial sum if they wanted to get Coco spayed right away. The dog, the vet informed them, had an elongated palate—a common feature in pugs, but one that makes for risky surgery.

“The vet was concerned about her [not being able to breathe] if she went under anesthesia,” Fletes-Nino said.

It would cost the couple an estimated $1,500 to correct Coco’s condition—on top of the $300 price tag for the spaying.

After consulting with their vet, they decided to wait until Coco was older. Then, the vet informed them, she’d likely be physically mature enough to withstand the risks of surgery.

“We just decided to trust our intuition,” Fletes-Nino said.

Not that the couple doesn’t spend plenty of cash anyway.

Fletes-Nino estimates she and her husband run through approximately $120 a month on toys, food and grooming needs.

That figure only covers the basics.

“It doesn’t include clothing—that’s special-occasion stuff,” said Fletes-Nino with a laugh.

When the pugs were babies, Fletes-Nino dressed them in matching sweaters, but she bemoaned, the pooches “refused to keep them on.”

As they grew older and, one presumes, more sophisticated, she tried again, dressing Coco in a dress and Chandler in a polo shirt for their first birthday.

Tamara Watson quit her job to start up a pet photography business. Despite the recession, business has boomed. Seen here with husband Cory Rutledge, she photographs the couple’s three-legged pug, Rue.

Photo By Shoka

On Halloween, Chandler dressed as a bumblebee and Coco as a ladybug. When the weather turned colder, they donned coats to keep out the chill.

To justify the cost, Fletes-Nino shops at discount stores such as Ross, but she added, she doesn’t care what others think.

“Sure, you worry that someone might judge you for the money you spend on your pet, but I’m comfortable with the money we make [in salary], and I’m comfortable with the money I allocate,” said Fletes-Nino.

It’s about giving them the best upbringing possible, she said.

“When you have these little puppies from day one and you get to see them grow up, you want to make sure they have a good life,” she said. “I’m not going to get them strollers—believe me, I’ve seen people do that—but these are my dogs, and I’m just doing what I think is right for them.”

All in the family

Doing the right thing is a common theme among pet owners and certainly, some seemingly frivolous expenses are rooted in need—something I learned all too well after my husband and I decided that Sophie needed a playmate following the death of our beloved cat Kiwi.

Although Kiwi was notoriously grumpy, she and Sophie had managed a peaceful coexistence. Now her absence made our home feel suddenly big—yawningly empty.

After much consideration, we adopted a 3-month-old gray and white kitten from the Sacramento County animal shelter.

Although Trixie barely weighed in at 3 pounds, she quickly became the dominant cat in our household. Still, we didn’t worry about her aggressively playful nature until after one particularly horrible fight.

At first we thought that post-fight tensions between the cats would ease, but when it became clear that they wouldn’t—the cats had to be separated at all times—our vet recommended we seek the help of a behavioral therapist.

It turned out to be the best money we could spend; the therapist’s one-hour home visit included numerous phone and email follow-ups and bestowed us with a new way of understanding how animals communicate and, eventually, a peaceful, if grudging, accord.

The therapy session only cost $80, but for some friends, it might as well have been thousands of dollars for the way they viewed it as a foolish expenditure.

Indeed, many people thought we were crazy, and eventually I got tired of trying to justify the expense.

Sacramento resident Karen Simmons understands this frustration.

Over the last few years, Simmons has spent thousands of dollars on her cats for various medical crises.

Although the bills are now paid off, Simmons is usually reluctant to talk about her experiences.

“Everyone is like, ‘It’s crazy that you spent that money,’” she said. “It bugs me, and I just say, ‘Well, my [cats] are my priority.’ Instead of getting a new dress or a new cell phone or whatever, I’m paying for this.”

2008 and 2009 were particularly difficult years. First there was Steve, a 14-year-old cat with a heart murmur. At the time, Simmons was without a job and living on unemployment; when she found the cat holed up in a closet, conscious but staring into space, she knew something was drastically wrong. Steve died of congestive heart failure in her arms on the way to the emergency vet.

A few months later, Simmons noticed that her cat Betty’s jaw was puffy, hard and swollen. What she thought was a simple abscess, however, turned out to be a cancerous tumor that required numerous tests to even diagnose.

“Those aren’t cheap,” Simmons said. “Then they only gave her a couple of weeks to live; it was devastating.”

Karen Simmons has spent thousands of dollars on her cats for various medical crises. It bugs her when people think she shouldn’t do this. She says: “Instead of getting a new dress or a new cellphone or whatever, I’m paying for this.”

Photo By Shoka

The tiny tortoiseshell cat ended up living for another three months, but in the meantime Simmons realized that one of her other cats, Lily, had lost a lot of weight.

A trip to the vet—and numerous tests—revealed that Lily had suffered kidney failure. She died in May 2009. Simmons had Betty euthanized two months later.

Ultimately Simmons, who said she had to make tough choices about medical treatments, put thousands of dollars on a credit card.

“With Lily it was too late for her kidneys, with Betty I did have an option that would require chemo, but it was no guarantee and her quality of life would be terrible—I just didn’t want to put that kind of stress on her.”

These days Simmons has two cats, Darby and Marcie, the latter of whom suffers from a thyroid condition that requires daily medication and regular testing.

For $1,300, Simmons can opt for surgery that would cure the disorder. For now she’s holding off—regular blood tests show that the medication is keeping the condition in check.

But, Simmons said, as soon as it stops working, she’ll spend the money.

“Of course I want nice, fun things, but Marcie is way more important to me than any material object,” she said.

It’s funny, she added, but when Marcie first came into her life, she wasn’t even sure the relationship would work. Marcie was skittish and mean-tempered, and Simmons, who’d already fostered her once, only agreed to take the cat back to ensure she wouldn’t be euthanized.

“I didn’t even like her at first, but I told her, I’m going to show you that you can trust me, I’m going to show you that you can love me,” Simmons said. “And now she does, [and] I’m head over heels in love with her. There’s nothing that compares to that.”

All creatures great and small

Still, even as pet lovers continue to spend money on their animals, the recession’s hit local shelters hard.

According to Dave Dickinson, interim director at the Sacramento County Animal Care and Regulation shelter, more families are surrendering their animals there. The surrender rate increased 37.6 percent for cats and 17.8 percent for dogs between January and May of this year, compared to the same time period in 2010.

Pet adoptions are down, too, although the decrease isn’t as extreme—11.6 percent fewer dogs and 14.2 percent fewer cats were adopted between January and May 2011 than in the same period last year.

The reasons for the changes are what you’d expect, Dickinson said.

“It’s the downsizing of jobs; it’s the economy.”

The shelter, he added, tries to help families avoid having to give up their pets. Last year it opened a food pantry to accommodate needs.

The pantry, which is largely supported through donations, came about as a solution to the downturn in the economy, Dickinson said.

“We had so many owners relinquishing their pets because they couldn’t feed them,” he said. “Now we can give them a month’s supply [of food]—all we ask in return is that they get their pets spayed or neutered.”

After the cost of food, vet care is a pet owner’s single biggest expenditure. It’s estimated Americans will spend $14.1 billion dollars on the health of their animals in 2011—up 8.1 percent from 2010.

But what do you do if you don’t have the money? Or, perhaps worse, what if you’re not sure what the outcome will be?

Dogs, like the one seen here getting an intravenous treatment, have long since moved from the backyard to inside the house, and share many of the same perks and expensive health-care therapies as their human companions.

Photo By Shoka

That’s something we faced with Sophie in 2007 after a series of what we at first thought were epileptic seizures turned out to be fainting spells caused by an irregular heartbeat.

After a seemingly never-ending spate of tests, our veterinarian from the UC Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital called, thrilled.

“I’ve figured it out!” she told me breathlessly over the phone, early one Sunday morning. “Your cat needs a pacemaker.”

It was great news to finally know what was wrong—but scary, too. After all, pacemaker operations are rare in cats (they are, apparently, more common in dogs) and the outcome far from guaranteed.

At 13, Sophie was still relatively healthy, and a pacemaker could extend her life considerably. Or complications could arise and bring about even more medical expenses.

This much we knew: Without it, she would die.

And so we pulled out the credit cards and charged her health-care bills. To pay it back, we canceled upcoming vacations, sold personal items and squeezed every last cent out of our budget.

In the end there were complications that ratcheted the final cost even higher than anticipated, but we never regretted the decision. The pacemaker not only corrected Sophie’s irregular heartbeat, it practically turned her into a kitten again—playful and energetic.

Making choices about a pet’s life aren’t just difficult but also tailored to a client’s individual needs and situation, says Dr. Julie Meadows, a general-care practitioner at UC Davis.

Each year the teaching hospital treats more than 32,000 patients in its large- and small-animal clinics with clients coming in from all over the U.S. and even Canada to seek treatments for a veritable Noah’s ark of animals that includes cats, dogs, rabbits, goats and horses as well as turtles, parrots and pigs.

Meadows, who has worked as a veterinary doctor for more than two decades, says she’s seen a shift in attitudes about pets and how we care for them.

“I don’t think the bond between owners and pets has changed, but we pay more attention to it now—it’s in vogue, what with all the specialty pet boutiques—but it’s also more accepted now,” said Meadows.

“Most people understand more now why you’re crying over the loss of your dog, and they validate it more than they would have 15 years ago.”

Still, she added, the economy’s levied a “significant” impact on our choices. Coupled with a rise in the use of pet insurance and ever-sophisticated technologies, it’s a minefield that’s often difficult to navigate, she said.

The hospital uses an “angel network” funded by donors to help offset costs of treatments for financially qualifying families, but most clients must consider a “risk-benefit” equation. This is a calculation that weighs the best possible medical options against financial reality.

“As vets we’ve all been taught to offer the very best care first, but then what we want to do is check in with the client and see if that fits—instead of just saying this is the only option and then closing the door,” she said. “I don’t want clients to feel trapped into thinking there is only [one] option.”

Recently, for example, the hospital treated two dogs that had possibly ingested antifreeze. Unfortunately there was no way of telling if the dogs—one just a puppy—had actually consumed the car fluid without conducting expensive tests.

Mia Lieberman, a student vet at UC Davis, knew the dogs’ owner faced a dilemma.

“We could have given them dialysis, but that’s $2,000 a dog, and he couldn’t afford it,” Lieberman said. “So we ended up giving the dogs intravenous vodka, because that’s another treatment for it—the enzymes in alcohol will bind to the antifreeze. We sent him home and told him to keep the dogs drunk all weekend. They came back in the following Monday and the dogs were fine.”

Pet owners’ options can be as varied as the animals they bring in.

“Some people won’t think twice about putting a 15-year-old dog through radiation therapy even if they don’t have the money—they’ll just charge it and pay it off over time,” Meadows said.

Rachel Leibrock, who wrote this story, was living in downtown Sacramento when she discovered a tiny kitten mewing on the front porch. It was destiny. Over time, keeping Sophie healthy and happy turned into an expensive proposition, but Leibrock (seen here with new kitty Zoey) has no regrets.

Photo Courtesy of Rachel Leibrock

Animal planet

Although they can give us plenty of reasons to worry, pets largely bring us happiness and may, according to various studies, actually reduce stress levels and help us to live longer.

Reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, show that interaction with domesticated animals can lead to a decrease in blood pressure, cholesterol levels and, perhaps most important, feelings of loneliness.

Anyone who’s ever lived with a pet—currently more than 63 percent of Americans do, according to the American Pet Products Association—knows it’s a mutually beneficial relationship that requires hard work, negotiation, patience and more than a little spoiling.

Indeed, for Dan and Erin Reynoso, paying for their dog Malcolm to attend doggy day care at The Pet Inn every Friday is a must, not a luxury.

The couple also has two “self-sufficient” cats, Johnny and Lamar, but Malcolm needs more attention; the weekly $25 expenditure gives the 2-year-old husky-golden retriever mix much-needed socialization and exercise.

“He gets five hours of play in a big yard with other, bigger dogs, and he comes home pooped,” Erin explained. “It’s worth it knowing that my dog is not going to be in a crate all day.”

Malcolm also frequents the facility’s “pet hotel” whenever the couple spends a night away from home.

On New Year’s Eve, for example, they’d made plans to stay overnight at a friend’s house; it gave them peace of mind knowing that Malcolm was being entertained and cared for. The Reynosos could even check in on Malcolm via webcam.

“They had a bubble party for the dogs,” Dan said. “So we’re having fun at a party, and we can go online and watch and see that there’s our dog, also having fun.”

That ethos, Dan added, extends to all their pets.

“We’ve opened up our hearts, we have pet fur on all our clothes,” he said. “These [animals] are our family.”

Pet Inn coordinator Amanda Schath says she’s seeing more pet owners like the Reynosos.

“Premium lodging facilities [like ours] have popped up in the last few years [because] owners are realizing the importance of their pets having interaction,” Schath said. “Before when families went on vacation, the pet went into a kennel and didn’t really get any attention—now it’s like the pet gets to go on vacation, too.”

Hotel stays can be purchased in tiered dog and cat packages that offer add-on perks such as belly rubs, nightly tuck-ins and extra treats. And although the lingering recession means that owners often opt for fewer perks, the core value is still there.

“We do what we can to minimize the stress for the animal—we play music throughout the facility, we limit outside tours and they get nap time and playtime,” she said. “We work hard so that they can be on vacation.”

It’s not overindulgence, it’s in the spirit of ensuring your most faithful companion has a better quality of life.

For Sophie, it meant daily glucosamine pills to ease her arthritis and buying not one but three of her favorite cat beds to ensure she always had a comfortable place to sleep within easy reach.

It meant that when the cancer became impossible to beat and it was time to finally let her go, we stayed with her until the very end, whispering words of love and rubbing her back long after she stopped breathing.

Now, more than a year later, we’re still a happy pet family. There are still pictures of Sophie around the house, and Trixie, now nearly 13, puts up with Zoey, a rambunctious, aggressively playful 1-year-old kitten.

Our house is littered with cat toys and cat beds. Our cabinets are stocked with premium cat food and at night, we pretzel ourselves into awkward positions so that the cats can claim as much of the bed as possible.

Of course we always think about the money, earmarking portions of our budget for regular pet visits and emergencies. Often we forgo vacations and other nonessential expenses. Anything to ensure we can care for these tiny creatures that show us affection but, just as often, act as though we exist solely to attend to their needs and whims.

And like most Americans, we wouldn’t have it any other way.