It is not uncommon to see pampered pets nowadays, especially with stylish coats and snazzy leashes for dogs, scratch post playgrounds for cats and quality food better than what some humans eat.
What is becoming even more common is seeing baby boomers, well, spoil their pets rotten.
“My husband jokes [our pets] eat better than we do,” said Wendy Barrett.
Barrett, 55, of Old Orchard Beach, includes a stop at Sooper Dogs in Biddeford on her regular errand route to buy frozen raw food diet for her English bull terrier Plum. The 7-year-old dog looks like she was ripped from a Target advertisement, minus the red bulls-eye and black ear.
Plum is not the first pet the Barretts have owned. The couple had three dogs cohabitating at one point and a cat ruling the whole pack. The reason Plum may be most spoiled now is she is the only pet in the house and Barrett is working significantly fewer hours than previously.
“Plum gets a lot of attention from both of us when we’re here,” said Barrett. “A lot of my friends do the same thing.”
The pet products industry has certainly noticed a trend among baby boomers spoiling their pets in recent years. Pet owners as a whole are on track to spend $55.5 billion this year – $21.3 billion on food, $13.2 billion on supplies, $14.2 billion on veterinary care, $2.3 billion purchasing animals and $4.5 billion for grooming and boarding.
Many industry analysts believe baby boomers spend the most on their pets. Some research indicates the demographic is spending nearly twice as much on their pets than those in their 20s or 30s.
And companies are responding. One example is Planet Dog, which started in Portland in 1997 and offers a huge line of upscale puppy and dog toys, accessories and grooming products. According to its website, the company is known “as the industry’s leading socially responsible, values-based design house, bringing people and dogs together for fun and mutual support. The fire in our belly is to concept, innovate and develop premium products ‘made for dogs, by dog lovers,’ all while being fully dedicated to satisfying both you and your best friend’s needs.”
Baby boomers grew up watching Lassie and her boy companion roaming the fields of the family’s farm. They were the first generation to really beg for a dog and they grew up with family pets in the house.
Today, those baby boomers’ pets have become like their children.
For some, that’s because their children have moved out and even started a family of their own. For others, like Barrett and Barbara Swartzlander, pets have been their only children all along.
“I don’t have children,” said Swartzlander, 62, a Scarborough resident who owns two performance dogs. “I treat [my dogs] as if they were professional athletes.”
Bet, a red Border collie, and Sadie, a black and white Sheltie, train for agility competitions. The two dogs are regularly treated to warm water swims, chiropractic, whole body massages, acupuncture and even physical therapy. Swartzlander reported each treatment ranges between $35 and $75, a cost occasionally covered by the pet insurance she buys at about $30 a month.
“It’s great fun,” said Swartzlander. “[Exercising them] keeps me fairly fit.”
Like Barrett, Swartzlander has always had animals. She sees her dogs as not only companions, but also a way to socialize with others through the various groups and training classes she partakes in.
Amy Lambert, owner of Biddeford healthy cat and dog supply store Sooper Dogs, has certainly noticed her baby boomer customers shopping differently from others.
“I think they’re more interested in looking for things that are healthy,” said Lambert. “Baby boomers don’t necessarily pay attention to price. They’re more interested in the benefits than cost.
“They’re past the point of raising children and dogs or cats have become more the priority,” she added.
Sooper Dogs is stocked with some of the healthiest dog and cat food in the industry, as well as natural treats, fun toys and a wall of collars, leashes and coats. Barrett goes there primarily for the frozen raw food.
When she started feeding her dogs a raw diet, Barrett said, “it used to take me an hour and a half to prepare their food.”
The frozen raw food serves the same purpose as preparing a raw diet, but is more convenient. It is one of the pricier foods on the market – a 6-pound bag that feeds an average-sized dog for about a week costs $28.99 up to $42.99. That cost doesn’t matter when it comes to the health of Barrett’s dog.
“Our first bull terrier was Abby,” she said. “Toward the end she got lymphoma. The vet gave her three to four weeks and she lasted nine [months because I fed her raw].”
When it comes down to it, though, food is only a small sector. Lambert admitted all her customers spoil their dogs, herself included, but baby boomers seem to pamper just a bit more.
“They want to parade their pets around in cute things,” said Lambert.
Renee McKinnon, a veterinary technician and owner of For Spoiled Pets in Lebanon, both agrees and disagrees with the idea that baby boomers spoil their pets more than anyone else.
“I think it depends on the type of person and how they grew up,” she said. “When it comes to lonely older people, that is their baby. That is their life, but a lot of people live for their animals.”
She’s worked with people who own smaller dogs that hardly ever let their dog walk on the ground. Instead, they carry them or have special bags to tote their pet around. She’s also seen cases where pet parents share their regular meals with their animal, cooking specially for the dog or cat.
McKinnon’s clients call on her to check in on their pets at $25 a visit for dogs or $15 a visit for cats. She also offers dog sitting in her own home at $25 a day. She also offers animal behavior training at $25 per session and grooming from $12 to $60, depending on the service and pet.
“My prices are low,” said McKinnon, compared to other area services. “But I prefer to charge less and work for more people.”
Some area businesses charge between $25 and $30 a day for doggy day care and upward of $50 for boarding depending on the boarder and accommodations desired. In-home pet sitting can run owners up to $100 a night. Private behavior training can typically run around $60 a session. Photographers are even capitalizing on the pet business with animal-centric photo shoots running between $70 and $100 a session.
Emma Bouthillette is a freelance writer who lives in Biddeford.