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What Fido’s owner wants, Fido gets

The nation’s pet boarding industry has figured out it doesn’t take much persuasion to get pet owners, often guilty about dropping their dog or cat off at a kennel while they head off on vacation, to pay extra for pampering.
Abigail, a labradoodle, chews on a toy while playing with kennel employee Sonya DeFazio as other dogs look on at Best Friends Pet Care in Willow Grove, Pa.Mark Stehle / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Max and Leo race around one of the kennel’s two-room doggie suites, still filled with boundless energy even after a day of treats and activities.

“You want me to read a story?” says Sonya DeFazio, a kennel employee sitting cross-legged on the floor with a “Clifford The Big Red Dog” book on her lap.

The bedtime tale at Best Friends Pet Care caps a busy day for Max, a 7-year-old West Highland white terrier, and Leo, a 2-year-old Pomeranian. During their two-day stay, they’ve already had fitness sessions, walks, play time, ice cream breaks, “suite treats” and bottled water.

The final tab: $57 a day for services and $78 daily for boarding in the 56-square-foot “Boathouse Row” suite, which has a low-lying bed and is decorated with oars, sailboat wallpaper and a framed poster of the Philadelphia landmark for which the room is named. Pets typically stay four to five days.

The nation’s pet boarding industry has figured out it doesn’t take much persuasion to get pet owners, often guilty about dropping their dog or cat off at a kennel while they head off on vacation, to pay extra for pampering: In the last five years, spending on pet services including boarding and grooming has more than doubled to $2.5 billion, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association in Greenwich, Conn.

“It’s the art of the upsell,” said Charlotte Reed, a pet trend watcher who is vice president of The National Association of Professional Pet Sitters, in Mount Laurel, N.J.

From boarding kennels to high-end pet hotels, the perks are growing ever more plentiful. Pet services range from birthday parties and spa treatments (such as massages and aromatherapy) to white-glove packages such as recording your dog’s first CD for $1,600.

The extra services, Reed said, can pad a typical pet owner’s bill by 30 percent to 35 percent.

Pet owners expect kennels to do more than board — they want their dogs and cats treated like children, said Jim Krack, executive director of ABKA, formerly the American Boarding Kennels Association, in Colorado Springs, Colo.

At Best Friends, a privately held Norwalk, Conn.-based company with 42 locations nationwide, customer demand has driven the growth in pet services, spokeswoman Deb Bennetts said.

Pet services is one of the fastest growing areas of business at PetSmart Inc., the Phoenix-based pet supply and services retail chain that changed its name last year from PetsMart. In the third quarter of 2005, revenues from pet services jumped 24 percent, to $71.5 million, from the same period a year earlier.

PetSmart expects those sales to grow by an additional 20 percent this year and again in 2007.

Since 2001, the chain has opened 35 PetsHotel locations, where one popular feature allows owners to telephone their dogs, which bark back in response, said spokeswoman Jennifer Pflugfelder.

Michael San Filippo, a spokesman for the American Veterinary Medical Association in Schaumburg, Ill., said baby boomers and empty-nesters are helping drive the trend.

“The kids are married or away and this sort of fills a parental need,” he said.

When pet owners order services that their pets don’t really need, such as nail polish, “it’s more for the well-being of the owner,” San Filippo said.

“There’s probably guilt there,” he said. “You might be away on business or vacation and you might be overcompensating with some pampering.”

For some pet owners, nothing is too good for their beloved animals.

At the newly opened Mazzu’s Canine & Feline Hotel in Philadelphia, pet guests are greeted with the soothing colors of a spa, a rock wall for a back-to-nature ambiance and scents of lavender. There’s room service as well: Sassy, a nearly 3-year-old chocolate Labrador, was hand-delivered a 12-ounce filet mignon dinner at her $125-a-night carpeted suite. The steak was grilled lightly, sliced and served on a gold platter — and set her owners back by $22.

“I think it’s definitely worth it,” said Sassy’s owner, Christie Graziosi, a Morristown, N.J. resident whose husband’s three kids are grown. “Every time my dog has come home from those (boarding kennels) she’s usually hoarse because she’s been barking. You can tell she wasn’t happy there.”

L.A. Dogworks in Los Angeles, which says its customers include Jake Gyllenhaal’s Atticus and Nicole Richie’s Honeychild and Foxy Cleopatra, offers a “Zen Den” — touted as an “eastern retreat” to promote the “total wellness experience” through massages, aromatherapy and other services.

Even hotels for humans are getting in on the action.

In December, New York-based Loews Hotels started “The Hound of Music.” The $1,600 package lets dogs ride a limousine to a recording studio, where a voice coach will help them cut their first CD. They can bark or howl along with a guitarist, harmonica player or karaoke beat. Lodging is included.

So what’s next for pets?

Geriatric services, said Darlene Frudakis, president of PetAg of Hampshire, Ill., a maker of nutritional products for pets that launched its first products for senior pet care last year.

Frudakis said 75 percent of household pets are past middle age, or around five and older.

When pets get old and sick, she said, instead of putting them to sleep, they can be checked into pet nursing homes such as Bide-A-Wee’s Golden Years Retirement Home in Westhampton, N.Y.

At Golden Years, cats with similar temperaments are grouped together and play in their own room. Dogs have their own cubicles with bedding. Staff play with the pets and provide daily care, such as medication, cleaning and socialization.

Darlene Larson, manager of individual giving at New York-based Bide-A-Wee, said the pets can be adopted as well but it’s rare due to their age. The retirement home fee is $15,000 for your pet’s lifetime.

“They’ll take care of your pet for life,” Frudakis said.