It may be the time of giving, but are we going a little too far when it comes to our pampered pooches and coddled cats? Jennifer Lipman explores ...
As the popular saying goes, a dog is for life, not just for Christmas. But with the festive season approaching, what do you get that dog for the holidays? If your answer is a bone, or the leftover turkey, you’re wide off the mark. The modern British pet is, quite simply, a spoilt brat.
Britain has long been a nation of animal lovers. The Queen has her corgis, while at last count nearly half the population was a pet owner, covering 8.5 million dogs and nearly 7.4 million cats. If our traditional stiff upper lip trembles, it’s usually pet-related. But whereas once this soft spot might have stretched to extra kibble; now, according to Euromonitor, British owners will have spent in the region of £4.6 billion on their ‘fur babies’ throughout 2015, running to everything from spa treatments to hotel stays.
“There does seem to be an increase in pet pampering in the UK,” agrees Caroline Kisko, secretary of the Kennel Club. She points to their research showing that two-fifths of people see dog ownership as a good alternative to having children. “It could be that dog owners are choosing to spend their money and attention on their pets rather than children, resulting in more pampering.”
Certainly, the way owners describe their pets has changed. Man’s best friend has long been humanised – think Lady and the Tramp – but modern pets are part of the family, have their own Twitter and Instagram accounts, and generally rule the roost.
Take Pandora the cat, whose possessions include a £400 cat-flap fitted with her microchip, so other cats can’t follow her in. “She’s very spoilt and totally in control of me,” says owner/servant Katherine from north London. “I chose my flat based on her. I ruled things out that I loved because she wouldn’t be able to get outside.”
Fellow besotted owner Lauren, who is expecting her first child, echoes this. Her dog, ‘Princess’ Pebbles, has already laid claim to the new nursing chair, while Lauren’s husband refers to Pebbles as his ‘favourite girl’. “She completely rules the house,” admits Lauren. “At first we were intent on making sure she didn’t go on the sofa or come upstairs, but that soon became irrelevant. She’s now even allowed in bed for morning cuddles.”
According to Paul Dennison of Fetch, the Ocado-affiliated pet store, the trend for humanising pets “means that pet pampering has increased to levels never seen before” with an explosion in products and growing numbers of high-street groomers. Not all of this is outlandish – as Paul says, “most pets need a basic level of grooming, like making sure your guinea pig’s nails are cut regularly’ – but some is. “The most ‘out-there’ trend I’ve seen is in the USA where styling for competitions often involves dyeing and cutting dog’s hair into unusual styles,” he says.
In the UK, pet pampering is big business in areas such as travel and fashion, with the coolest cats served up gourmet snacks like ‘Kitty Caviar’ – ‘a secret blend of tempting and mineral-packed herbs’, on sale for £9.95 – or taken for reiki treatments. Meanwhile Selfridges sell cricket jumpers for dogs and ‘Mountaineer’ jackets priced at £75. And as London Fashion Week kicked off in September, the Athenaeum Hotel hosted a fashion show showcasing ‘haute paw-ture’ by design team Hiro + Wolfe. Styles featured ‘colourful quilted coats, pearly button trimmed leads and show-stopping ruffle collars’.
At London’s The Pet Spa, dogs can have ‘blueberry & vanilla facials’ and therapeutic mud baths, while cats can enjoy treatments using ‘herbal flower extracts’. For porky pets you can purchase a personal fitness session. Even rabbits, ferrets and hamsters are catered for – everything your pet needs to ‘look good naked’ – while ‘the body-conscious tortoise’ can relax with a moisturising foot treatment.
Another trend, notes Caroline, is dressing pets in costumes and hosting birthday parties for them “which may not be particularly enjoyable for the animal.” Indeed, Pandora is one such privileged creature, who has a birthday party thrown for her, with feline-themed going-home bags and personalised cakes for pets and human guests; she doesn’t stay for the whole event, though. “It’s overwhelming,” Katherine says.
Perhaps the biggest growth market is pet-friendly travel, with high-end hotels falling over themselves to offer extras like dog beers, organic treats or dedicated concierges. Hertfordshire’s five-star The Grove, at Chandler’s Cross, encourages guests to let dogs ‘experience a touch of luxury’ (although owners must sign a ‘pet security deposit’ and are advised that ‘disturbances such as barking must be curtailed’). Meanwhile at Hertfordshire’s Hanbury Manor, canine guests are greeted with a welcome pack. “They get a saucer and a bed, and a letter from the general manager – we try to find out the name of the dog beforehand to personalise it,” explains Hanbury’s Simon Dowell. He says that demand mostly comes from UK customers. “We got a lot of requests.”
Again, the popularity of ‘doggy tourism’ is down to pets coming first in the pecking order. “People want their dogs to have the hotel experience too, as a bit of a treat,” says Simon. “People are more conscious now about raising their pets as an extension of their family, so putting them in kennels is hard,” adds James Morris of holidaycottages.co.uk, which has a growing portfolio of dog-friendly properties. “They know they may not be able to enjoy their holiday without them.”
Naturally, none of this comes cheap. “We’ve heard of people spending thousands and thousands of pounds on accessories, grooming products, and ‘beauty treatments’ for their pets,” says Caroline. And it’s seemingly a recession-proof habit, with expenditure up 25% on 2010. “We spend (probably too much) buying Pebble’s treats,” agrees Lauren. “There’s probably not a time where we go to the supermarket or pop into Pets at Home for dog food that we don’t come back with a new toy”.
She admits only other ‘dog people’ get it. But while non-pet folk might be baffled by those who spend more on their pets than themselves, experts warn there’s also a risk owners see their pets as ‘accessories’. “It’s a living thing and not a doll to be dressed up in outlandish outfits or carried around in a handbag,” cautions Caroline.
Equally, ‘extreme pampering” may have unexpected health and safety implications. “People may think that feeding their dogs lots of rich, tasty food is a nice thing to do, but it may not suit their dietary requirements,” she suggests. “That could actually result in an upset stomach or the dog becoming overweight.” She advises doing thorough research, including discussing unusual foods with a vet first, to be sure that the pet will actually enjoy it.
Paul echoes this. ‘Pets can find new environments stressful, especially if they are left with unfamiliar people and animals, not to mention subjected to water, shampoo and hairdryers,’ he says. “I’d always recommend meeting a dog groomer beforehand to discuss your dog’s temperament.” As he says, “if the treatment becomes more about the owner looking good, there may be cause for concern”.
In fairness, most owners recognise that the pampering doesn’t replace proper care. As Katherine says, she’d spend “a lot” on Pandora, but comfort comes first. “I know she wouldn’t like most things – anything that involves leaving the house – so I’d only spend money if I knew it wouldn’t upset her,” she says. She takes Pandora to a groomer every six weeks, but it isn’t about luxury. “She’s long haired and gets terrible knots if I don’t keep on top of it.”
The mantra, Caroline says, should be that the animal’s wellbeing is always the priority. A loving environment, with the pet kept healthy, active and well fed, will make an animal happier than any gift. “Pets are not mini humans,” Caroline emphasises. “What humans find comfortable and relaxing isn’t the same as what an animal would - and of course pets cannot say no.”