June 19, 2024


World's finest Food

Opinion: Americans spent a record $103.6 billion on pet products last year. How much is too much?

Let me first state for the record that I really like my dog, a 11-year-old cutie named Lulu. She plays a good game of fetch. She forces me to get a little more exercise with her constant need for walks. She has also mastered being house-trained (well, almost, but let’s not get into the details).

But would I take her to a dog bar, much like the one that opened recently in London and serves canine “cocktails”?

Not in your freaking life.

It’s National Dog Day, which is yet another occasion for us to overindulge our four-legged friends. You could treat Fido by buying him a Louis Vuitton
carrier (price tag for a new one: you don’t want to know). Or you could book him a stay at a luxury pet hotel, replete with “in-suite television entertainment tuned to Animal Planet or DogTV.” Or you could get him a subscription to a high-end dog-food service.

We indeed seem to be spending money like there’s no tomorrow on our pooches. As it is, the basic costs for a dog, from food to poop bags, can easily top $2,000 a year. But add that Louis Vuitton bag — a “gently used” one runs $1,722 — to the mix and you might be paying more for your pet than your car.

It’s all part of a trend to treat our pets like people. One study, from the Nielsen
folks, noted that 95% of American pet owners consider their animals to be family members. (Little wonder so many have us have taken to calling them our “fur babies”). But I don’t need a study to tell me that: I just have to look at all the pet owners I know who are posting more pictures of their dogs on Instagram
and the like than of their family.

This is not to say our canine companions don’t provide us with, well, companionship, which has especially been a necessity during the bleakest days of the pandemic. To wit: In 2020, Americans spent a record $103.6 billion on pet items and care, according to the American Pet Products Association. (In 2018, that figure stood at $90.5 billion.)

But I think it’s important to distinguish the kind of relationship you have with your dog versus with your family or friends. I spent a fun day a few weeks ago with someone I’ve known since college — we went out for Chinese food, caught up on our personal and professional lives and just laughed ourselves silly.

Contrast that to the kind of “conversations” I have with my dog. Me: “How’s your day going?” Lulu: “Arf.” Me: “Did you catch the latest episode of Awkwafina’s “’Nora from Queens?’” Lulu: “Arf.” Me (in a deeply philosophical mode): “What is the true meaning of life?” Lulu: “Arf.”

And about that London dog bar: When I consider Lulu’s diet, I have to say she has the most undiscriminating palate on the planet. While I forever obsess about which place in my New York neighborhood has the best pizza, she busies herself on our walks scouring the streets for 10-day-old half-eaten chicken legs from the local barbecue joint.

But it’s not just that I see no point to pretending my dog is human. I also don’t think it’s good for our mental health. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we need more person-to-person interaction in our lives, not less. As Martha Tousley, a registered nurse who deals in psychiatric issues, writes: “Wonderful as it is, love for a pet is not a suitable substitute for human companionship.”

Morever, we’re not necessarily doing our dogs any favors when we start pretending that they’re one of us. Most pet experts will tell you that dogs need boundaries — and they need to understand that they’re dogs. That is, they have different needs and desires. No less an authority than pet trainer Cesar Millan (aka the “dog whisperer”) has noted that dog owners “give affection, affection, and more affection, when what the dog really needs is exercise, discipline — and then affection.”

Mind you, I get the whole “fur baby” temptation, particularly now that my kids are all grown up and out of the house. On a quiet day, I’ll chat away with Lulu and feed her one treat too many. I might even take her for an extra walk or have her join me while I sit outside at a restaurant.

But it’s a restaurant for people, not pets. The only cocktails you’ll find on the menu are drinks like a martini or a Manhattan. Lulu doesn’t seem to mind. She’s still likely thinking about those chicken bones on the street.