It's more than puppy love

Denise Anderson, left, and Gail Keener do water therapy with Anderson's dachsund Riley at her Baxter Village home.
Denise Anderson, left, and Gail Keener do water therapy with Anderson's dachsund Riley at her Baxter Village home.

A big white van visits Suzy Decker's home once a month to provide special services -- not for Decker and her husband, Keith, but for their dogs, Hannah and Moses, and cat Scooter.

The van is a mobile canine groomer, bathing Decker's pets and giving them personalized hair cuts. After they're done, bandanas are neatly tied around their necks.

A new survey finds that the family dog is sitting prettier than ever -- more popular, more coddled, more considered, some might say even more human, than ever before.

It's something Decker and many other pet owners already know.

"They have a nice life," said Decker, a 53-year-old retired flight attendant, who doesn't mind treating her pets to a few pleasures. "They are my babies."

Whether it's a matter of dogs finally getting their due, an increasing human need for companionship -- in its most loyal, least confrontational form -- or another step in the evolution of the always symbiotic human-dog relationship, there is little dispute that the bond between the two has never been stronger.

The American Pet Products Manufacturers Association's National Pet Owners Survey, released last month, found that pet ownership is at its highest level ever, with 71.1 million U.S. households, or 63 percent, owning at least one pet. That's up from 69 million households in 2004, 64 million in 2002 and 51 million in 1988, when the association's research began.

Those numbers help explain the mushrooming number of doggie boutiques, gourmet dog treat makers and other services, including massages, acupuncture, physical therapy and pet sitting.

And Americans are spending more on dogs, and pets in general, than ever before, with sales expecting to top $50 billion annually by the end of the decade, the association predicts.

Gail Keener, a professional pet sitter in Fort Mill, has seen her 11-year-old business expanded from two clients to 312. Her clients are simply looking for someone to "spend quality time" with their pets. She has about 70 active clients for whom she provides services throughout the week.

"The bond of an animal life with a human touching it is universal," said Keener. She has fielded client requests that range from playing the piano for a bird to reading a book to cats.

"The only reason why I do all the extras is because no one really does it right now," Keener explained. "I feel like that's what I'm supposed to do."

Keener's services range from pet massages and physical therapy to painting pets' nails, putting on colored nail tips and even brushing their teeth.

She offers obedience training, behavior modification, hospice care and other services. Prices range from $15 to $30 per visit, depending on the service.

But beneath those costs and the numbers of a billion-dollar industry, beyond what we casually discount as "pampering," there's something else at play -- another full step, it seems, in the evolution that has seen dogs go from worker to companion to family member, or even soul mate.

Once upon a time, dogs were dogs.

This was back when we went to pet supply stores, instead of doggie boutiques; before kennels became doggie resorts, before bars offered dog friendly "yappy hours;" before there were animal acupuncturists, psychics and masseuses in the yellow pages; before the advent of doggie day care, complete with the canine version of the nanny cam.

But Fido is no longer that friendly lump of fur in the back yard; today he lives inside, has his own bed, his own toothbrush and a more human name. He's no longer an afterthought when it comes to family life.

Decker's pets are Hannah, 5, a springer spaniel, Moses, 9 months, a cocker spaniel, and Scooter, 16, a short-haired domestic cat. They share her attention and affection as if they were her children.

Decker, who does not have any children, hates to leave her pets alone. It's rare to see her out riding in the car without Hannah and Moses. If she can't take them into a business, she leaves them in the locked, air-conditioned car with treats until she returns.

Dogs once were valued for the work they did -- as hunters, herders, guards and more. But today, people acquire pets primarily for the company, especially when a relationship ends -- after a breakup, a divorce or the death of a spouse.

Dr. Linda Connolly, a veterinarian at Catawba Animal Clinic in Rock Hill, has been practicing for 14 years and has seen the increase in pet ownership, including pocket pets like hamsters and guinea pigs, as well as birds and snakes.

"It's a general trend in America and the way (pet owners) see animals as a more integral part of the family," Connolly said. "There's really no one set reason for it. Everybody has their own set of reasons."

The biggest boom in pet services is in dog-related products -- not so much "froufrou and bling," says Charlotte Havely, lifestyles director for PetSafe, but items that promote the animal's mental and physical well-being.

"The dog is now truly another member of the family," Havely said. "There has been a shift in social attitudes, with people marrying later, if marrying at all, and having children later, if having them at all. What we're seeing is pets really become like children."

Fort Mill resident Denise Anderson owns two dachshunds, Riley, 5, and Lucky, 4. Anderson, 50, who also is a retired flight attendant, doesn't have children.

"He's our child," Anderson said about Riley. "For people who tend to get indoor dogs, they tend to get attached to them. For me, you walk in the door, their tails begin to wag and they are glad to see you. It's an emotional feeling you have for them. They are calming and loving."

Studies have shown that having a pet can lower blood pressure and help a person deal with stress and depression.

Anderson's pets are always welcoming. One way she repays them is by feeding them whole chickens that she cooks and mixes with rice and vegetables.

Riley, who is recovering from a ruptured disc in his back, gets at-home water therapy treatments from Keener, as well as acupuncture at a Charlotte animal clinic. He's getting the special care to help him start using his hind legs again.

"The needles don't bother him the least," Anderson said. "If he turns around and looks, that means he's feeling something. I truly think it has helped to jump start those nerves again. The acupuncture really relaxes him. He lays his head down and he goes right to sleep."

Not only are there more pets now -- 74.8 million dogs and 88.3 million cats, according to the recent survey -- but the vast majority are nearly full-time indoor-dwellers, often with a door of their own, a nook of their own, sometimes a room of their own.

More homeowners are incorporating the needs of their cats and dogs into their home design, too -- installing lower windows that allow pets to see out, built-in sleeping nooks and see-through pet doors.

Decker has installed pet gates throughout her home. And when it's time to go out to the pool, Decker makes sure her pets are strapped into their doggie life vests for safety.

Some car makers -- most notably Volvo and Subaru -- have even taken steps to make their vehicles more pet friendly, with cargo doors big enough to put a kennel crate through, special slings and seat belts for dogs, space dividers, stain-resistant fabrics and hose-able rubber floor mats.

Nearly 50 percent of American families consider their dog's comfort when buying a car, according to the American Kennel Club's 21st Century Dog Owner Survey. And 30 percent say when they go on vacation, the dog goes, too.

Vacations for Rock Hill resident Bit Jordan are trips to visit family members with her two lab retrievers, Mousse, 13, and Remi, 8. The 59-year-old dog trainer enjoys taking them her.

"I spend lots of time with my dogs," Jordan said. "Some restaurants that have seating outside allow you to take the dog with you. It generates a lot of people coming up to you and wanting to talk to you. It's wonderful."