Absolutely barking

Yoga sessions for dogs, video players for cats, palaces for hamsters... So, asks Meg Carter, is there anything that pet owners won't do for their furry friends?
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The Independent Online

If you thought that it could only happen in New York, think again. British dogs will soon be able to cultivate a sense of inner peace and tranquillity when the UK's first yoga workshops for dogs and their owners launch in London later this month. Dog yoga, or "doga", comprises a number of variations on traditional poses, such as the "downward dog", and is an ideal opportunity for you and your pet to relax together and bond, the company behind it claims. It is also further evidence of the increasingly bizarre lengths to which Britons are going in order to pamper their pets.

If you thought that it could only happen in New York, think again. British dogs will soon be able to cultivate a sense of inner peace and tranquillity when the UK's first yoga workshops for dogs and their owners launch in London later this month. Dog yoga, or "doga", comprises a number of variations on traditional poses, such as the "downward dog", and is an ideal opportunity for you and your pet to relax together and bond, the company behind it claims. It is also further evidence of the increasingly bizarre lengths to which Britons are going in order to pamper their pets.

"Once, you'd buy a hamster cage. Now, it's a pink palace complete with mini adventure playground," says Catriona Marshall, the marketing director of Pets at Home, the Cheshire-based pet-shop chain that has just announced plans to double its number of stores to 300. The company has seen pre-tax profits rise from £4.5m to £12m in the past two years. "We are enjoying unprecedented growth as consumers spend more - both on everyday items and pet luxuries."

She's not joking. Last year, British pet owners spent a staggering £11.23bn on cats and dogs alone, according to Sainsbury's Bank. Food accounted for the lion's share of this, but a further £1.75bn went on treats and presents. Both figures are rising, and this despite a decline in the overall number of Britons now owning a pet.

Two factors appear to be driving this trend. The first is changing attitudes among pet owners towards their pets. The second is the increasingly aggressive marketing tactics now being adopted by the pet industry.

"What we are seeing is the growing humanisation of Britain's pets," claims Graham Smith, group product manager for Legal & General Insurance, which, this month, joins the stampede into pet-related insurance products. Arguably, this has always been the case; some pet owners have always attributed human qualities to their furry friends. However, a growing obsession with lifestyle, labels and luxuries is leaving an indelible mark on pets' daily lives.

Like many working parents, pet owners today are lavishing more money on their pets to try to relieve their guilt for not spending more time with them, he says. And, when they're not trying to buy back their pets' favour, others, stressed after a hectic working week, indulge themselves through indulging their pets with the latest "must have".

And the pet companies, of course, are cashing in. "As both men and women spend more on their own clothes, haircare and cosmetics, so they want to spend more on their pets," says Dan Thomas, head of grooming at Pet Pavilion, the company that is bringing "doga" to the UK, and that also offers aromatherapy, conditioning rinses and hot-oil treatments to its customer's pets. "It's like sending your child to a better school - it's simply another way of upgrading your lifestyle."

"The market is driving forward the humanisation of our pets. Which is why much of today's product-development activity is closely shaped by what has already happened with baby-care products," says Marshall. So, rather than hosing your dog down in the bath, you use a selection of delicately fragranced pet wipes for eyes or ears. Instead of bouncy balls or rubber bones, you buy your new puppy an activity mat modelled on a baby gym.

These products are great for the pets, but they also cater to the owners' parental feelings towards the animals. "More pets are now being bought by two-person households. And there is a clear and growing pet-owning trend among young adults and empty-nesters," Marshall says. "For many people, owning a pet has become like having a new baby, and that's how pet companies are now treating it, too."

The growth in luxury pets products, however, seems to be fuelled by a growing tendency among British pet owners to have more money than sense. "As our personal disposable incomes rise, we are spending less for rational reasons and more for display - so it's no surprise that luxury has become a significant feature of the pet market," says Miriam Jordan-Keane, managing partner of the luxury brands consultancy, Publicis Focus. "Domestic animals have become more than just pets in people's lives today, especially as more of us grow up in cities that are dislocated from the natural order of the countryside. Increasingly, people are creating their own family groups among friends, and pets fall into that."

Similarly, the more that the likes of Harry, Geri Halliwell's shih-tzu, and Chiquita, Madonna's chihuahua, are paraded in public, the more some people want to do the same. And, the more they have to spend, the more willing they seem to fork out ridiculous amounts of money on pet fripperies. Japanese electronics firms were among the first to cash in, launching an extensive range of hi-tech animal gizmos that now includes security devices, electronic toys and clip-on mobile phones for dog collars. You can even buy a cat video player - activated by a scented remote control, and smelling of meat and fish - that allows puss to watch footage of mice, and listen to recorded birdsong during those hours when you can't be there to see personally to its every need.

The Government's four-year-old pet passports scheme has also created a mini-boom in travel-related pet accessories. Asprey & Garrard now produce a suede-lined alligator-skin pet carrier - a mere snip at £10,000. Alternatively, £10 will buy you a Littermaid Self-cleaning Litter Tray, a nifty gizmo that rakes pet poop into sealed containers while you're away.

Meanwhile, pet cosmetics are enjoying unprecedented demand as moisturisers and essential oils have joined the rapidly expanding range of increasingly exotic pet shampoos now available. And that's not to mention the growing array of pet perfumes - such as Oh My Cat! and Oh My Dog! eau de toilette sprays, and K9 doggie cologne - which promise to combat unwanted pet smells.

For Dr Glyn Collis, a psychologist at the University of Warwick who has spent years researching the relationship between owners and their pets, all of this represents a worrying trend. "I don't subscribe to the view that some people keep pets as surrogate children, life's more complicated than that. But pets do satisfy a craving within all of us for engagement and interaction through a relationship with another living being."

"Lots of people don't think of their pets as another person but, despite this, still treat them as though they were. There's a lot of make-believe involved in most relationships between owners and pets, which is why people are ready to invest so much in them. But the more this happens, the more susceptible you can become to product marketing. And it can become difficult to draw the line between what is best for the pet, and what is pure self-indulgence."

There's little evidence to suggest any imminent cooling of Britain's current pet shopping boom. Labour- saving and convenience products for pets are tipped for major future growth by the market researchers Mintel - toilet seats for cats, for example, are set to take the world by storm. Indeed, the American inventor Kevin Rymer's Feline Evolution CatSeat, which encourages cats to use the family toilet, is already selling well in the US.

There are also significant new product developments in designer pet attire, electronic pet toys, and alternative pet therapy - currently big business in the US, where the plethora of pet-help books include titles such as The Cat Who Cried For Help and The Dog Who Loved Too Much. Healthier eating is also likely to become a focus in coming months. Human obesity is already a concern and, not surprisingly, the RSPCA has also expressed fears about the dangers of overfeeding pets. A brand new market for the Atkins diet, perhaps? Time will tell. In the meantime, when all these new products start appearing on the high street, chances are pet owners will buy them.

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