Soaring gas prices forced Nyruh Weaver to drive less. His family loves going to the movies, but these days the group makes fewer trips to the theater.
But Weaver, who recently moved to Fort Mill, still wants pets, possibly a dog and a cat.
"Pets have more to contribute than just being around," said Weaver, who stopped at Wags pet bakery and boutique in Baxter Village on Thursday asking for directions to a Humane Society. "It just makes me feel more relaxed when I have a pet."
Weaver and his 11-year-old daughter, Imani, are searching for a four-legged addition to the family. He wants a cat. She wants a dog. And even though he's adjusted his lifestyle to cope with a lighter wallet, he says pets are worth the expense.
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"Animals have an effect on your life," he said. "It's not just a novelty thing."
He's not alone. While tighter budgets are forcing many to cut back, a 2008 study projects Americans will spend a record $43.4 billion on their pets this year, $2.2 billion more than they paid a year ago.
"Pets have become a more important part of a lot of people's lives, to the point where you hear the term, 'humanize' a lot," said Bob Vetere, president of the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, the organization that produced the study. "People will tend to stop spending on a whole lot of things before they'll stop spending on a, quote, family member."
But the increase in pet spending can't simply be attributed to an undying devotion to Fido. Because of a slow economy, Vetere said some pet owners are opting for less expensive pet food and treats.
An opposing force, however, is countering that loss, Vetere said. Empty nesters with kids in college and young professionals delaying children for careers have created a niche market -- one that is willing to pay more for their furry comrades.
This group likes high-end veterinary care and specialty services such as pet massages and pet spas.
Locally, those looking for tiny dog sweaters, edible thank you cards or all-natural cat food have options. Several specialty pet stores have opened in York County in recent years.
"A lot of people, their dogs are their children," said Lynsay Puthoff, owner of ZaLu's in Rock Hill. Since she opened her pet boutique with self-service bathing stations in October, she said business has grown each month, doubling when she hired a groomer in April.
While people have been trimming luxuries, business has boomed at York's Dogma & Fetch, where collars can cost as much as $70 and dog beds as much as $300.
Tuesday was one of the best days of the year for sales, said co-owner Jordan Garrett. One couple spent $2,000 on two puppies and accessories.
"When I first got into pet business almost 10 years ago, other pet store owners had called the pet business a non-recession type business," Garrett said. "That didn't make sense to me. I figured all businesses would suffer when the economy was bad. It's really amazed me."
But the picture isn't entirely rosy for the pet industry.
At Lesslie Animal Hospital, veterinarian Eric Setzer has been forced to raise his fees because of higher overhead. Some customers are asking for fewer services, and others aren't coming at all because they just don't have the money.
Wags' owner Cindy Curtis said her business has seen mixed results since it opened about a year ago. She's had to raise some prices because her expenses have gone up, and she wonders if people are spending more on pets simply because they have to.
But even as the economy has declined, she's noticed more customers buying preventive care items such as diet food and dental products. The idea is that paying more now will spare expensive vet bills later.
Setzer also said some of his customers are doing more for their animals. Sometimes, he said, that spending emerges from worry. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he was extremely busy as people tried to ensure their pets were in good health.
"A lot of people, they get emotionally distressed," he said. "They reach over and touch their dog and they say, 'Boy, I'm going to take good care of you 'cause I don't know how long we've got.'"
For people such as Fort Mill's Jemma Cook, pampering pets is natural. She came to Wags on Thursday afternoon to buy a bakery snack for Zoe, her 4-year-old Boston terrier. The economy hasn't significantly changed her lifestyle, she said, certainly not enough to stop her from buying goodies for her dogs.
"No matter what, you come home and it's 100 percent unconditional love," said Cook, when asked why people continue buying for their pets in a challenging economy. "The minute you walk through the door, they're so happy to see you. ... You want to give them some happiness back."
What we spend on our pets
Americans are expected to spend a record $43.4 billion on their four-legged companions this year, according to a recent study. Here’s where that money will go:
n Food: $16.9 billion
n Pet services (grooming and boarding): $3.2 billion
n Veterinary care: $10.9 billion
n Supplies, medicine: $10.3 billion
n Live animals: $2.1 billion
Source: American Pet Product Manufacturers Association