I am touring the San Antonio Food Bank, a giant warehouse that collects donated provisions and distributes them to homeless shelters and soup kitchens, when something catches my eye – an entire aisle stacked with pet foods. Is a can of Whiskas all that stands between survival and starvation for some?
The explanation is slightly different. Soon after the recession set in the volunteers here noticed that growing numbers of people in need, particularly the elderly, were deciding to go hungry before their pooches. If giving them free pet food meant they’d stop skimping on their own groceries, that made sense.
America is turning to mush when it comes to its animal companions. We all know about the pet spas of Manhattan and Malibu. But that this country has gone pet gaga was brought home when I spotted some numbers shared by the American Pet Products Association (Appa) at this month’s World Pet Expo in Orlando. Last year, it claimed, Americans spent $55.7bn (£33.5bn) on their friends finned, furry and feathered, 4.5 per cent up on 2012. That includes buying them in the first place, feeding them, spoiling them with toys and grooming and paying for their medical well-being.
As Time magazine noted under the headline “Holy Shih Tzu”, that is more than Germany’s entire defence budget and equivalent to the entire gross domestic product of Croatia.
“People are pampering their pets more than ever,” said Bob Vetere, the president and CEO of the Appa, which is based in Greenwich, Connecticut. Owners, he explained, are spending their scant dollars on everything “from interactive and innovative toys to dog walking, doggy day-care and pet-friendly hotels, restaurants and airlines.” Yes, Mr Romney, next time you run out of car space you might want to look up Pet Airways, a Florida-based carrier for cats and canines.
As the San Antonio Food Bank knows, this is a category of spending that seems to be recession-proof. A separate report from the US Labour Department last year pegged annual national expenditure on pets at a yet more shocking $61bn.
Theories abound as to why reason is going the way of used kitty-litter. One is the demographic bulge of baby-boomers, whose children have fled the nest and who are craving company. Another is research suggesting that owning a pet is good for our own health. It also appears that as more of us attempt to adopt more healthy diets, so we conclude that our pets deserve the same, hence the ever-expanding and ever more expensive array of choices in the pet section of supermarkets. When I recently deposited our pug with a dog kennel in Manhattan for a night, I was scolded for what I had been buying him. “It’s as if you are feeding him McDonald’s every day,” the owner exclaimed. Humiliated, I switched to a fancier brand.
Even at 10, our little chap shows terrific health and we have never considered health insurance for him (monthly premiums would start at $120). He is likewise calm of demeanour verging on comatose so we aren’t among the 2.8 million Americans who are giving their dogs anxiety pills such as Prozac every day. Seriously. However, guilt is setting in so I am wondering about giving him a weekend at one of those doggy spas. I like the sound of a place called the Fetch Club in Manhattan which describes itself as a doggy hotel complete with doggy restaurant and doggy gym with special doggy treadmills. The treadmills, the website says, “come with individual LCD televisions”. I wonder what channel he’d watch. Human Planet?
I don’t see rates on the site but I’m sure that buying him a 48-hour spa and exercise package at Fetch would put us firmly in the mainstream of American pet-spending quotients – extravagant verging on barking.