- The Washington Times - Monday, October 10, 2005

Steven Gajewski and Jacqui Russo’s breakfast room looks like that of any other large family. A plastic baby gate cordons off sections of their house in Herndon that are only for grown-ups. Toys and bits of forgotten snacks litter the floor.But the mess wasn’t created by children — the couple doesn’t have any. Their “family” consists of two Rottweilers, four cats, two pythons and a tank full of fish.

“It looks like a PetSmart exploded,” said Mr. Gajewski, a stage technician.

But for him and his wife, the mess is worth it. “We both have a deep bond with animals,” he said. “They really enrich our lives.”

The couple and their menagerie are reflective of the surging increase in pet ownership in the United States. According to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, 43 million U.S. households own dogs, closely tailed by 37 million homes with cats. A total of 377.8 million domestic critters now live in the U.S.

In other words, there are 87 million more American pets than American people.

Kelly Connolly of the Humane Society said the rise in pet ownership can be attributed in part to the increased standard of living in America and an understanding that keeping a pet can boost the owner’s health. But the primary factor, she said, is companionship.

“In the past, pets had a different role in the family,” said Ms. Connolly. “You didn’t necessarily need to bring them into your life so thoroughly. Nowadays, a lot of people are so busy they are almost isolated from friends, children, family. Pets become a substitute for those other relationships.”

The devotion some Americans have to their pets became tragically apparent in the days after Hurricane Katrina, when a few New Orleans holdouts refused to evacuate the flooded city without their dogs and cats. One woman reportedly offered her wedding ring to a rescue worker, hoping to purchase a seat on a rescue transport for her dog. Others remained in their homes, risking death rather than abandoning their animals.

Americans also are spending more on their pets. Last year, Americans shelled out $34.4 billion on pet food, health care and toys — nearly double what was spent on pets a decade ago.

Leslie Alexander tapped into this expanding market by executive producing “Doggy Daycare,” a movie on video disc for dogs to watch while their owners are at work. Mr. Alexander, a board member of the Humane Society, said it is “a little bit cruel” to leave pets home alone all day with nothing to do. Dogs “lie around all day because they’re bored.”

The 60-minute film, from a dog’s-eye view, depicts dogs playing and receiving belly rubs. The canine reaction has been positive, Mr. Alexander said.

“It’s an attention-grabber for them and keeps them calmed down.”

Producers said all profits from the movie will go to animal charities, and sales are likely to swell as the holidays approach. The American Pet Association (APA) reports that more than 31 million dog owners purchase Christmas gifts for their dogs.

Dog beds, kitty condos and pet medicines are some of the best sellers at pet-supply companies. One such company, Doctors Foster and Smith, sells canine “Howl-oween” costumes for owners who want to dress their canine friends as Superman, a witch or a hippie.

For those who want to pamper their pups and coddle their kitties, companies offer pet strollers and goggles to protect dogs’ eyes from harmful solar rays. A specialized Web site for owners of pet reptiles and amphibians peddles turtle- and snake-themed clothing, jewelry and home decor.

Pet owners also are spending more on health care for their ailing or aging animals.

“Nobody likes to see their animal in pain or starting to become impaired in activities,” said Matt Stelter of Doctors Foster and Smith. “With these products, they can provide a dog with two, three, five more years of normal activity.”

Keeping a pet healthy can become expensive.

“It costs what it costs,” said Mr. Gajewski, who once footed a $1,600 bill for orthopedic surgery on a Rottweiler. “I’ll spare no expense. People who have children don’t ask, ‘How much will this cost me this month?’”

He is not the only animal owner to draw the comparison between pets and family. As more couples choose not to have children, some say pets make a less demanding substitute.

“People are having less kids because of time and cost,” Mr. Stelter said. “But pets are able to work around schedules. They don’t require to be taken to soccer games and music lessons.”

Mr. Gajewski, whose left leg bears tattoos of his Rottweilers’ paw prints, said he and his wife think of their critters as family. “You come home from a [bad] day at work, and your dog is happy to see you.”

On Mother’s Day, he gives his wife cards from the pets, and the dogs wolf down on gourmet steaks on their birthdays.

“They’re spoiled and well taken care of and well-trained,” Mr. Gajewski said. “They’re like our kids.”

The trend toward pampered pets troubles some.

“There’s nothing wrong with having a pet; they can bring great joy to anyone,” said Bob Knight, director of the Culture & Family Institute, an affiliate of Concerned Women for America. “But it’s also no secret that pets are filling an ever-growing void in the human heart that family might have filled in years past. … Pets keep people in smaller and smaller households from talking to the walls.”

The pets-as-family motif also worries syndicated columnist Don Feder. “Pets are child substitutes,” Mr. Feder said. “A lot of people, especially yuppies, don’t want to have children, and pets are a substitute.”

Animals are “cheap in terms of the emotional, physical, time investment. A child is very demanding. … Pets are a lot easier. It will never misunderstand you the way people do.”

As a dog owner, Mr. Feder said, he understands the companionship a pet can provide, “but some people take it overboard.”

More than half of American dog owners, when asked by the APA, said they felt more attached to their dogs than to at least one person in their lives. The association reported that more than 8 million dog owners say they are as attached to their pooches as to their children. Twice that many said they cared for their dogs as much as for their best friends.

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