Weeks before the big day, Kathy Kontrim begins planning the annual birthday party for her trio of basset hounds, Herbie, Webster, and Barney.
Kontrim, a structural engineer in Memphis, Tennessee, reserves a cake made just for dogs, buys party hats, balloons, decorations, and party favors, and sends out invitations that specify no cats allowed. Last year, 30 dogs showed up for the bash in her backyard. “When we got out the cake, Herbie knew it was for him,” Kontrim said. “He barked when we sang ‘Happy Birthday.’”
Don’t snicker. Kontrim’s on-trend. Americans are spending money on and investing emotional energy in dogs like never before. Last year we spent almost $70 billion on our pets, a nearly 70 percent increase from 2007, according to the American Pet Product Association. We’re taking them on vacation with us, buying them premium food, giving them birthday parties, and taking them to dog-friendly restaurants. Around 75 percent of us say our dog is part of our family.
We love our dogs. And the days when we left them outside to guard the house, herd the sheep, or sleep in a doghouse are long gone. More than half of us let our dogs sleep in our beds, according to that APPA study. Since there are 90 million dogs owned in the United States, that means around 45 million pooches are sharing their human’s pillow on any given night.
What’s going on here? Has something fundamental changed in humans’ ancient relationship with dogs?
Our Dogs, Ourselves
Demographic shifts help tell the story. More Americans live alone these days: Nearly 30 percent of U.S. households have just one person in them; that’s nearly double the number of people who lived alone in 1960. Millennials are waiting longer to marry and have children. And baby boomers are living longer, healthier lives. These trends mean there are a lot of people who have the money, time, and desire to treat a pet like a child, says John Bradshaw, an honorary research fellow at the University of Bristol in England and author of The Animals Among Us: How Pets Make Us Human.
We’re not the first to treat animals like children, says Bradshaw, who pioneered the study of pet ownership that has come to be called anthrozoology. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors were doing something similar as long as tens of thousands of years ago. “They raised baby animals as one of the family, much as we do with our dogs and cats today,” he says. Royals and nobles in the Middle Ages had dogs, cats, and birds that ate people food and were treated very well, he says. “The recent explosion in indulgent pet-keeping can be seen as a re-expression of an instinctive part of human nature, which our relative affluence allows us to express to an unprecedented extent.”
Dog parties certainly fall into the “unprecedented extent” category. Take Roxy, a Shih Tzu. She had a “bark mitzvah” when she turned 13. Her dad, Howard Gelb, a therapist and social worker in Chicago, and her “uncle/babysitter” John Oldakowski, a media company executive, wanted to continue Gelb’s family tradition of throwing the traditional Jewish coming-of-age party for a teen, even if the teen was a dog. “She got gifts and toys. We got her a giant birthday cake from a cute pet boutique,” Oldakowski said. Bark mitzvahs are trendy, and while some dogs wear yarmulkes or are blessed by a rabbi, Roxy was not. “It was just a good excuse for a party,” Oldakowski said.
The people who take their dogs to pet psychic readings, dress them in Halloween costumes, and are regulars at “yappy hours” know some of you are laughing at them. And they don’t care. Oldakowski says he overheard a woman in his building telling her husband, “That’s the guy who dresses up his little dog and talks to it all the time.” She doesn’t get it, he says. “I’m not crazy, because talking to that little dog keeps me from going crazy on humans. That little nugget has gotten me through some rough times.”
The Cost of Love
While we’re spending a lot more money on our pets, we’re not buying more pets. Our dogs live longer, thanks to good veterinary care and high-end dog food. Life expectancies vary by breed, but dogs live twice as long as they did 40 years ago. We’re spending more money on grooming, boarding, training, daycare, dog walkers, and vet bills. The APPA says we shell out around $3,000 per year on a dog, depending on the breed. But most owners say that’s the low end.
“I spend a small fortune on my dogs,” Kontrim says, estimating her costs to be $10,000 total annually, especially when she counts the health insurance and the unexpected expenses, like the furniture she bought for her hounds. “They were taking up the couch and chair and I had no place to sit, so I bought them their own loveseat with an ottoman. Because Barney loves sitting on ottomans.”
Erica Dombroff, who lives in Manhattan with her 10-year-old basset hound, Stanley, says she spends around $8,000 a year on him, including vet visits, dog walkers, dog daycare for him so he won’t get lonely while she’s at work and the pizza party he and his friends get on his birthday. She says she’s embarrassed to admit she spends that much, but Stan, whom she adopted from a dog rescue, is worth it. He was traumatized and unhealthy when she got him, she says, and helping him heal made her a better person. “Stanley is my child and best friend,” she says. “He keeps me grounded. I like to think we rescued each other.”
Have Canine, Will Travel
Nearly 40 percent of us take our pups on vacation now, nearly double the number who did so a decade ago. The hotel industry has taken notice. About 75 percent of hotels and motels now welcome pets, 20 times the number of hotels that welcomed dogs in the late 1990s. Accommodations range from bargain chains like Red Roof Inn to high-end boutique chains like Kimpton, which provides beds and bowls at no extra charge for four-legged guests, along with a concierge who can point you to dog parks, groomers, and pet-friendly restaurants in the neighborhood.
Airports have become more dog-friendly too, with many offering pet relief areas in terminals complete with AstroTurf and fire hydrants. Atlanta’s Hartsfield Jackson International, the busiest airport on the planet, has a real dog park with real grass outside its domestic terminal so dogs can get their ya-yas out before getting on their flight.
Don’t want to fly your dog? Board your sweetie at the airport. Denver International, Dallas/Fort Worth, Chicago O’Hare, and JFK offer 24-hour pet resorts where you can leave your dog while you travel. They’ve got indoor grass play areas and bone-shaped splash pools.
Jen Barol, a social worker in Albuquerque, New Mexico, took Henry, her Australian cattle dog, on road trips all over the West before he died a few years ago. “I had a bumper sticker that read ‘Dog is my copilot,’ and there would be Henry in the passenger seat with his head sticking out of the window. He was my co-everything. We went everywhere together,” she says.
Roxy, the Jewish Shih Tzu, also goes on vacations with her humans. “We never board her. Ever,” says Oldakowski. “She loves to travel. I have to hide the travel backpack [that she rides in on planes] because she’ll jump in as soon as she sees it.” Roxy has a scrapbook of her travels; she’s been to Scottsdale, Arizona, Miami and Boca Raton, Florida, and Los Angeles. And then there was the time Roxy went to a LeAnn Rimes show in Palm Springs and got a selfie with Rimes.
What's In It For Humans?
Ask a pet owner what they get in exchange for the homemade treats, trips to the dog park, and $1,000 dental exams at the vet, and they’ll tell you it’s about companionship. Unconditional love. Happiness. “When I come home from even the worst day, they are glad to see me,” Kontrim says of her bassets. “They bring me joy.”
Bradshaw says it’s not your imagination. Science has proven dogs have the power to turn your frown into a smile. When you pet a dog, your body produces oxytocin and endorphins, hormones that lift your mood and strengthen the emotional bond between you and your fur kid. Oxytocin is the “love hormone” that bonds a mother to a child and one lover to another; our bodies also make it when we’re breastfeeding or having sex. “Simply watching dogs playing or goofing around helps people feel happier and more relaxed,” Bradshaw says.
And in 2018, who doesn’t need more good chemicals in their brain? Love’s in short supply in this world, says Barol. “Animals fill that void. They make us feel valuable. They don’t just notice us, they pay close attention to us. Who wouldn’t want to nurture that?”