Our Pets, Ourselves
Who owns whom?
By Jennifer Frey
Photography by phillip ennis
Theodore Roosevelt gives new meaning to the phrase “It’s a dog’s life.” In this case, the name belongs not to the toothy 26th President of the United States, but to a pampered four-and-a-half-year-old, somewhat toothy, apricot Maltese-poodle mix (a “Maltepoo”).
To say that “Roos,” as he’s affectionately called, lives on canine Easy Street is putting it mildly. Depending on the weather, he might wear one of his Palm Beach-colored polos, a tank, or his best shearling jacket—a $150 Friends of BabyDoll Pliner by, whom else, Donald J. Pliner (yes, the designer who, BTW, named his dog couture line after his Maltese, BabyDoll). If Roos is going out formally with his owner, Kay Dickinson, 47, a human resource manager for IBM who lives in Old Greenwich, CT, she gets out the mandarin silk jacket that her mother bought for him. And when he’s out for a drive in his “mom’s” car, he leans his head out the window, his “doggles” (doggie goggles) on to protect his eyes from the wind and grit.
Clearly, not just anything will do for Dickinson’s dog: when it’s time to get him clipped, she takes him to Mount Kisco for his $85 clippings. Dickinson, who bought Roos as a puppy from the same breeder who sold Paris Hilton her teacup Chihuahua, Tinkerbell, would do anything for Roos and her other dog, Winston James, a 12-year-old Yorkie mix that she rescued from a shelter with frostbitten toes on one foot. Winston sleeps down at Dickinson’s feet, while Roos snores in bed next to her at night, a blanket tucked up under his chin.
Dickinson estimates she spends $2,000 a year on her dogs (not counting vet bills). At times, she admits that maybe she takes her doggie dotings a bit far but, she says, “it’s largely for my amusement and the amusement of other people. There’s a part of me that says, â€˜You’re really over the edge,’ but it’s a lot of fun.”
She’s not the only one. In nearby White Plains, in the home shared by Vaughn Hansen, 36, and his partner, Ryan Morris, domestic life revolves around Spencer, their three-year-old Australian shepherd mix. The day begins early at 6:30, when Hansen, a project manager for Nationwide Insurance, tries to wake Spencer from a deep slumber. “He’s very groggy,” Morris says. But eventually he coaxes the dog down to the kitchen. “My main concern is that he eat breakfast before he starts running around all day.” So Hansen takes him for a walk to build up an appetite, packs him lunch, and takes him to—“school.” That’s right, doggie daycare at Best Friends in White Plains, which is also a boarding facility. It costs up to $500 a month to send Spencer to Best Friends.
Even when Hansen and Morris are at work, Spencer is never far from their minds. “The school sometimes has cookies out front in the morning, but we’ll ask the staff not to give him the treats until he has his lunch,” says Hansen. Sometime during his workday, Hansen takes a break to log onto the Best Friends website where a closed circuit TV monitor shows Spencer playing fetch or tug-of-war with his friends. Hansen and Morris, an actuary for New York Life, e-mail photos of their dog back and forth. At the end of each day, they get a report card “telling us whether he ate his food or that he saw his old friend, Chloe,” Hansen says.
Do they think that perhaps they may be, ahem, hovering a little too much over Spencer? Well, Hansen says, others might think so, but he and his partner don’t. It is “normal,” he maintains. “When I talk to friends, they laugh. They’re of a mindset that he’s just a dog. But for us, he’s our child, and we treat him as such.”
Have you pampered you pet today? There was a time, not so long ago, when pets were treated like animals that we just happened to keep around the house. They most likely slept in the garage (if they were lucky), ate table scraps (and were grateful for it), chased sticks or catnip toys, and were pretty well satisfied with their lot, which, after all, seemed like a pretty good bargain compared to the wild existence of their non-domesticated counterparts. But such an austere attitude strikes many people as so last century nowadays, as the line between respective two-legged and four-legged comforts seems to get more blurred with each passing year.
Americans spent $36 billion last year, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturing Association, including luxuries such as $210 genuine Burberry canine trench coats and $68 bejeweled Coach leashes for their dogs, a $250 Furcedes bed for their cats (from Mount Kisco-based Pawshop.com) and Superman hamster habitats. (There are even wine-flavored puppie treats called Cab-bone-net and Char-dog-nay, but a truly discerning dog lover would never consider serving his pet domestic dog biscuits.) Not to mention how much pet lovers have also spent for such increasingly popular services as canine birthday parties, “bark-mitzvahs,” doggie massages, and yoga.
Of course, the idea of using small dogs as warm-blooded fashion accessories and dressing them in the equivalent of dog couture was around long before anyone had ever heard of Paris Hilton and Tinkerbell. Ladies of Europe’s royal courts in the 16th and 17th centuries would not think of making an appearance at the palace without a perfumed pug dog on their arm. But such affectations are no longer reserved for the nobility; they’ve been democratized. Pet boutiques such as All Paws in Rye and Pawsnickity in Greenwich, CT, will sell the latest in designer doggie sweaters, jackets, raincoats, leashes, and custom-made clothing to anyone who has the cash.
And plenty of ordinary folks do. Debbie Reibeisen, 51, of Armonk, recently looked into purchasing from Pawsnickity custom-made winter coats for two of her dogs, Libby, a white Chinese crested puff, and T.C. (which stands for Too Cute) Beamer (as in you-know-what), a black-and-white Pomeranian. Each couture jacket is dotted with black onyx beads and has an attached cape. The jackets would set Reibeisen back $435 apiece. Libby also wears a pink Swarovski crystal collar with a dangling Swarovski dog-bone charm and a matching leash. How much? Upwards of $400, but Reibeisen evidently thinks the price was worth it. “I’d rather do without if it’s just ordinary,” she says.
Gina Antiaris, a vet at New Rochelle Animal Hospital, recounts that she recently had two canine patients, a Shih Tzu and a Maltese, come in for surgery, “both dressed to the nines, wearing faux-fur jackets” (considering these dogs excessive amounts of fur, surely a case of gilding the lily if ever there was one). And even Antiaris, who might be expected to take a rather unsentimental approach to animals, admits to having spent $250 on a new dog bed and outfits for both her four-year-old chocolate Labrador, Lily, and her five-year-old English springer spaniel, Olive, as well as having bought six sweaters and a hounds tooth jacket for her sister’s hairless cat, Hector. Why does she do it? “It’s a way of spoiling them, making them feel loved, cared for, and pampered. I love doing it.”
It’s not merely dog lovers who are over the top. When Donna Passarelli, 47, and her partner, Yuri Yoshizawa, 39, of Ossining, go out with friends to dinner, they whip out their pictures and talk about their kids—the furry ones, of course. “Most of our friends are animal lovers,” says Passerelli, the proud mom of Macho, an overweight, white male Persian cat, who is turning 12, and Sundae, a long-haired, red female Persian, who is 13. “They’re like our children,” she says. She and Yoshizawa bought beds for the two, but the cats insist on sleeping with them.
And though cats aren’t as amenable as dogs to dressing up, Passarelli says, she is thinking about buying a tiara for Sundae—“We call her Sundae the Queen,” she reports—and a bowtie and booties for Macho. The two have a load of toys; there’s a stocking for each on the mantle at Christmas, filled with treats, catnip, toys, and a mouse or a bell. And they’re planning to buy Sundae a cat stroller. “Sundae likes to go outside,” Passarelli says. “Macho isn’t that curious.”
What’s going on here? Partially, it reflects the fact that in an affluent area like Westchester, there are plenty of people who have the means to spoil their pets as much, if not more, than they would spoil their own children. Why do you spend $400 on a doggie raincoat? Because you can—and to keep up with the Joneses (not to mention their pets). “We’re talking about the excesses of affluence,” says Scarsdale family therapist Elliott Rosen, who currently is not a pet owner but has had dogs in the past. “If we have the wherewithal to indulge our pets, which we indeed love, we’ll indulge them.”
But there are more subtle factors at play, too, reflecting the aging of the Baby Boomer generation. Pets have always served to a degree as child substitutes, and now that many Boomers are empty nesters, they’re focusing their energy, which formerly was devoted to obsessing about their children, on obsessing about their animals. And as a generation raised from the get-go to expect the best of everything, they now expect to have the best for their pets.
Manfredo Casanova, 56, of Tuckahoe, a waiter at the Waldorf Astoria whose five children are grown and out of the house, can barely contain his enthusiasm when he talks about his pet parrots: Skittles, a two-year-old macaw and clearly his favorite; Autumn and Casanova Jr., sibling baby macaws; and a three-year-old amazon, Jabber. “When I get home from work, before I go to my wife, I go to Skittles and say, â€˜Hi Pop.’ He says, â€˜Hi Pop.’ We call each other Pop because he repeats.” Casanova prepares meals of cooked chicken, vegetables, and rice for his birds, which Skittles will only eat if he stays in the room with him.
Casanova plays peek-a-boo with them on the floor after dinner. “I’ll go, â€˜Whee,’ and he’ll go, â€˜Whee.’” And if Casanova should leave the house without saying goodbye to Skittles, the bird “screams like someone is killing him,” he says. “I think I overdo it. I kiss him all the time, whisper in his ear, tell him 15 times a day that I love him. Maybe I love him too much.” Casanova’s wife, Judy, 53, is fine with her husband’s obsession. “The tenderness and love he gives to these animals, that’s exactly how he is with people”—and he knows the difference between the two, she says. “I’m fine with pampering. It’s therapeutic.” Indeed, Judy says she does her fair share of pampering. When her husband is at work, “I do the same things he does,” she says.
Some psychologists believe that people pamper their animals because they offer a rare source of unconditional love and support in a world where meaningful relationships of the human kind are increasingly hard to maintain. “It’s difficult finding time to be with friends, to share that proverbial talking over the backyard fence,” says psychiatrist Dr. Virginia Susman of New York Presbyterian Hospital in White Plains. “Pets are available when no one else is—when our spouse is at a meeting and our kids are at a soccer game. In those precious hours at home, the companionship of a pet is something we can rely on.”
And they’re always game for a snuggle. “Kids talk back and they don’t allow you to hug them all the time. But I can tell Leo anytime, â€˜You’re a good dog,’ and he’ll lick my ear,” says Larchmont psychologist Alon Gratch, who takes, Leo, his wheaten terrier to a doggie shrink and a dermatologist. (Leo’s shrink counseled Gratch on ways to stop him from barking at everyone who came to the door. “It’s a work in progress,” he says.)
But the current tendency is to indulge our pets as if they were little people. Dr. John Young, an attending veterinarian and director of the Department of Comparative Medicine at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center Research Institute in Los Angeles, calls it the Walt Disney effect. “Our children are raised thinking that animals have the same thoughts and personalities as their parents, because of the animation they see on TV. For example, there’s always a mommy deer and a daddy deer.” And apparently, it’s not only kids who humanize animals. “Paul McCartney once said that Bambi turned him into a vegetarian,” notes Dr. Young.
In that light, it’s no wonder that while our grandparents might have named their dogs Rover and Fido, recent surveys show that the most popular names for dogs are the decidedly human monikers like Max, Jake, and Sam for males, while Molly, Maggie, Chloe, and Sophie top the list for females. And once you’ve named a dog Chloe, how can you make it sleep in the backyard and subsist on Alpo?
We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that an increasing number of pet owners think nothing of treating their animals to health regimens that not so long ago were strictly the domain of their two-legged masters. Yoga teacher Kari Harendorf, 35, runs a “doga class”—that’s doggie yoga for pets and their owners—at East Yoga in Manhattan where the “downward-facing-dog” pose takes on new meaning. “It’s about bonding with your animal,” she says. (FYI: The class meets once a week, costs $20, and generally is attended by five to 10 people and their dogs.) Clip N’ Cuddle in Harrison even offers massages with aromatherapy and Reiki therapy for dogs ($60-$75 for a 60- to 90-minute session).
When Americans hit the road, an increasing number take their menageries with them: a 2004 survey released by the Travel Industry Association found that 70 percent of pet owners take their pets on vacation. As a consequence, hotel chains ranging from Best Western to the Ritz-Carlton and even the Four Seasons are expanding their pet-friendly programs. The Ritz features “muttini” hours where dogs and owners can network along with “poochi sushi” dinners that look like real sushi but are made of peanut butter. Vivian Deuschl, a spokesperson for the Ritz says, “It’s primarily a celebrity-driven phenomenon, particularly with younger stars who love to travel with their teacup dogs. People don’t like to leave their pets at home. As they treat pets more like family, they want to travel with them and make sure they are as pampered in the hotel as they are at home.”
But pets that have to stay home need not fret. When Cathy Parisi, 56, of Scarsdale, goes on vacation, her 110-pound gray Neapolitan mastiff, Ella Fitzgerald, checks into the deluxe villa at Best Friends, settling into a $100-a-night two-room suite with an exercise patio, where she can watch dog-friendly movies like Homeward Bound and Milo & Otis from her raised, orthopedic bed. “We treat her like a princess,” Parisi says.
Casanova, for one, worries that he’s spoiled Skittles rotten, which begs the question: Is it possible to spoil pets like we do our kids? Veterinarian Antiaris swears she sees spoiled pets all the time at her animal hospital. “They’re the ones that start crying on the vet’s table even before the vaccine comes out. When Mom leaves the room, they’re fine,” she says. But Ellen Lindell, a veterinary behaviorist based in Dutchess County, isn’t as sure. She explains that we mistakenly try to understand our pets in terms of human emotions that don’t apply to animals.” Veterinary behaviorists don’t measure happiness. We measure comfort and preference,” Lindell says, and that hinges more on the “bond they have with the person. A pet wouldn’t necessarily associate the fact that its owner bought it a fluffier bed with being loved more.”
In any event, this growing tendency to overindulge and pamper our animals shows no sign of ending any time soon. “He does it for me. He’s good-natured,” says Dickinson about why Roos allows her to dress him up. She’s convinced that “he knows a lot of things, including that he’s adored.” When Dickinson threw a party for him last year, inviting seven “of his closest friends” to the beach for a run and a feast of bacon, Boars Head bologna, and cheese, “he absolutely knew it was his birthday,” she says. “We sang â€˜Happy Birthday’ to him. He got everything first. He was prince of the day.”
Just like every other day.