Bark if You're Spoiled

Today's four-legged friends enjoy the same luxurious life as their pampered owners.

Sunny Miller stretches her lean torso out on a massage bed, rolling on her side and arching her back into a half-moon curl. Flopping her head back, her loose jowls peel away from her golden muzzle. The 2-year-old Labrador retriever grins like a silly clown.

"I feel like I can't leave her," Barb Miller confesses, rubbing the baby fuzz behind Sunny's golden-colored ears, which lay flat against her head -- a sign of submission and a cue from Sunny's past.

Barb rescued the pet from an abusive family in March, and the doting Westlake mother will go to no end to pamper her. Already, their bond is super-glue. Sunny simply won't leave Barb's side -- not even for a minute.

"Separation anxiety," confirms Linda McKenna, sympathetically. McKenna, a pet massage therapist and owner of Pet Kneads in Avon Lake, works with a number of rescued animals, treating them to touch and mending their trust. She tenderly doles out TLC to plenty of owners who schedule spa time as well. "For many dogs, there is absolutely nothing wrong with them. They just come to be pampered," she says.

Sunny is there for stress reduction.

McKenna leads the four-legged toddler into a family room, centered on a comfy massage bed. Sunny doesn't hesitate -- she hoists her front paws onto the table and stares expectantly at McKenna, who leans toward her.

"Come to me," McKenna coaxes. Sunny, a ferocious tail-wagger, is anxious about touch from anyone but Barb. But McKenna makes her melt into a lump of butter-colored fur.

She begins the meditative massage with three long strokes from head to tail tip, and then she concentrates on Sunny's still nose. "Muzzle-tav!" McKenna jokes, doing a "thumb walk" around her face, moving to her ears, which are a stress-calming point, she tells Barb. Not all dogs will put up with face time, McKenna says, but Sunny doesn't flinch.

"You are really relaxing, baby," Barb purrs. Sunny responds with a satisfied snort. "Was that a snore?" McKenna sings.

McKenna rubs Sunny away from the heart, which promotes relaxation. She hopes this relief will help Sunny grow more accustomed to touch by strangers so that the next time she visits the vet, she doesn't shake and cower. "She's not arguing," Barb observes.

Sunny lies still for 30 minutes, patiently, until McKenna senses she's ready to be "grounded."

"Was it good for you? You want a cigarette?" McKenna jests. The remark is funny coming from McKenna, who is so concerned with animals' health she's as likely to offer a puppy a smoke as a room mother would be willing to pass out wings and beer to an elementary school class.

Instead, McKenna reaches into a ceramic jar and fishes out an edible reward for Sunny. "You're the treat for me," she tells the pup, who is lounging on the massage bed. McKenna considers Sunny's relaxation the ultimate feedback on her services. A satisfied snort, a quiet rumbling purr -- these cues tell her she hit the dog spot.

And today, more pet owners seek ways to please their pets -- and themselves, as they gain the same blissed-out benefits. It's the feel-good factor, and owners want to extend their luxuries to their furry family members.

Massage (roughly $30 for a 30-minute session at Pet Kneads) just touches the surface of services available to pets. Owners spoil them with manicures, pedicures, haircuts, organic food, high-end clothing and posh beds. They'll take them to spa days complete with massage, aromatherapy, a relaxing bath and a spritz of puppy perfume and sassy bandana to polish it off.

"When dogs come in for grooming and they are dirty and yucky, when they walk out, you can tell they are prancing," relates Lynne Miller, owner of The Chagrin Dog in Chagrin Falls, a quaint shop stocked with doggy delicacies from carob-chip cookies to treats that are close cousins to Stella D'Oro biscotti and Pepperidge Farm Milanos. Owners spare no expense with doggy grocery bills, which can add up when the gourmet goodies go for $6.95 per bag.

Cats are just as spoiled. A window sign at Pet-Tique on Clifton Boulevard in Cleveland announces: "Summer Collection Has Arrived." Inside his store, which looks like a Baby Gap for pets, co-owner Lawrence Carter shows off the season's hottest-selling cat-and-dog baby tees -- little pink-and-black numbers with rhinestone messages that read "Drama Queen" and "Favorite Child." The store used to stock 90 percent of its inventory for dogs. Now, cat fancies consume nearly half of the pet boutique's collection.

Heather Lazar, 33, says her two cats, Glenn and Norman, are part of her family. "You go away and you miss them immediately," she relates. That's why Lazar purchased a stroller and tent from Pet-Tique. Now, she and the kiddies travel in style down the street to the Starbucks on Clifton. When she works in the yard, they're in the tent out back with her.

More people are shopping for treats, toys and even duds for the dogs and cloaks for their kitties, in part because more people own animals today. Pet ownership is at its highest level ever: 69 million American households (63 percent) own a pet, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association (APPMA). Pet spending capped off at $34.4 billion in 2004 -- billion -- the APPMA reported. That makes the industry the seventh-largest segment in retail, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And this is just the beginning, reports Bob Vetere, APPMA's managing director and chief operating officer. "The strong growth in the industry demonstrates what an important role pets are playing in the lives of Americans," he says. "They have become part of the family."

The family pet no longer sleeps in the doghouse. Today's pooches curl up on canopy beds just their size. There's a miniature version with chenille cushions and a breezy linen cover in The Chagrin Dog -- just right for a Chihuahua or petite terrier.

Where do pets fit into the modern family? For empty-nesters, they fill the gap when children leave home. "So many of our friends are the same age as us, and they have dogs that have become part of the family," says Diane Mullen, who admits that Kiwi, a 9-pound silky terrier, is the family diva. "She's a princess," Mullen coos. "I have two girls who are grown and gone, and now we have a third girl."

Mullen doesn't hesitate to dress up Kiwi. For last Halloween, she says, "I put a baby-doll dress on her once because her little paws go right in the sleeve." Mullen, from Vermilion, describes Kiwi like a proud mother bragging to a neighbor. "She is a bit high strung and excitable, but very, very intelligent," she insists.

Lynne Miller says she hears this baby talk all the time in The Chagrin Dog. "Most of the owners talk to their pets like they are children -- and they are," she says. "When ladies are first married and have children, moms get together and talk about how so-and-so is potty trained and who got their first tooth." Gossip in Miller's shop centers on similar subjects. "You hear customers come in here and say, 'He's potty trained,' and, 'I'm having a problem socializing him,' " Miller says, laughing.

But Miller says she talks to her two dogs, too. And she's even taught her English cocker spaniel, Louie, to sing. "I think it might be an irritant for him," she admits. "If you ask him to come up by you and you says, 'Come on...' he goes, 'Aawooooo,' " she imitates, pursing her lips just so.

Miller says regulars often drop in to find something special. One woman was looking for a beach outfit for her dog. They were both taking a trip to Aruba. "She was going on a cruise and bought this itty-bitty bathrobe," Miller says, holding up the terry-cloth coverup, embroidered with a bright yellow duck.

Next to The Chagrin Dog's clothing rack is a display case of accessories, from barrettes and bandanas to a rhinestone-studded tiara. Owners want their pets to turn heads.

Anne Nelson, a lifelong dog lover and owner of Soothing Paws canine massage in Novelty, says a friend purchased a wardrobe to hold all of her dog clothes. Though pets are less expensive to spoil than children, Nelson won't go that far; she sticks to food rewards. "In my case," she says, "my dogs are my family -- not your typical three-kid family, but definitely family. Many people view animals that way."

Nelson treats her three Siberian huskies -- Dara, Maya and Kalli -- to salmon and steak dinners on their birthdays, and she buys special treats called "Greenies," which her energetic dogs drool for.

As humans become choosier about what they serve for dinner, they pass their health-nut habits to their pets, Nelson figures. "People think, I'm going organic, so my dog should go organic," she says.

The organic pet food that Lynne Miller stocks in lamb and beef flavors is quite popular. And because some dogs have corn and wheat allergies just like people, crunchy rice snacks are top sellers.

But Mullen says Kiwi prefers the homemade meals Grandma makes -- eggs and toast for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch. "My mother spoils her worse than I do," she says, laughing. When Kiwi goes to Mullen's mother's house, she expects the table food and turns up her nose at the dog stuff.

Seniors rediscover joy and purpose when pets enter the picture, says McKenna of Pet Kneads. She was once a social worker at Lorain Community Hospital, now Community Health Partners, where she facilitated the pet therapy program, bringing dogs to nursing homes, welcoming animals into the hospitals and taking the pets to visit and cuddle with older patients.

"For some people, it was the highlight of their day, the week, the month -- especially if they didn't have people visiting them," she describes. "For some people, pets aren't just an extension of family -- it might be their only family."

For pets, like people, a little primping goes a long way to boost self-esteem. Mullen can tell when Kiwi feels like a queen.

"When she has a bow in her hair and she's been bathed, she just prances," she says. "She gets foo-fooed up with perfume and she's just smiling -- I can't explain it. But I can tell, her eyes twinkle."

The payoff not only kicks up Kiwi's mojo; Mullen says she feels just as pampered when her pooch trolls around the neighborhood after a spa day. Mullen schedules the same appointments for her silky terrier that she does for herself. Nails, hair, annual dentist appointments -- and, of course, a regular massage.

"It was a logical progression," Mullen says. "She does all the things that I do, so why wouldn't a massage be something that would be really helpful for her and that she would enjoy?"

Besides, a boatload of stress after several moves created tension that wound Kiwi's high strings even tighter. She suffered health problems, and Mullen wanted a natural solution -- massage. "This is a wonderful outlet to pamper her and calm her down, because she is excitable by nature," Mullen says.

McKenna of Pet Kneads only caters to canine customers, but she says frisky felines can also enjoy a massage, if a masseuse is trained in different techniques.

Carter of Pet-Tique says his cat-owner customers tend to treat their feline companions to organic food, treats and toys, while dog owners opt for the clothing.

"Cats tend to eat more than one flavor," Carter points out, while dogs generally stick to a consistent diet. Kitty harnesses and leashes are becoming more popular, he adds, as more people walk their cats and tether them in the front yard while they work outside.

People want their animals to be as mobile as they are -- and in an on-the-go world, that means toting four-legged passengers in luggage-look-alike totes and strollers. The feel-good fac-tor explains why owners today are more attached to their pets. Car-ter calls the pam-pering therapy -- couples therapy, in a sense.

"Even though people pamper their pets, they are really pampering themselves," he says, showing off a display of pearl-studded collars, bling-bling kitty charms engraved with paw prints and Harley-Davidson breakaway collars. He also sells artistic pet-food dishes. "Many people have both cats and dogs, and often the dog will eat the cat food," he explains. "In that case, owners might feed their cats from the table, and they want dishes that match their decor."

Nelson of Soothing Paws says her three "kids" appreciate the TLC -- and she can tell. The three huskies' tail wags of approval are worth every penny. "If nothing else, animals love the attention," Nelson says. "They get that feeling of, 'I'm the star and I can do no wrong.' "

Serve dinner for two -- you and your pet -- with these homemade meals you can whip up with basic ingredients. Kymythy Schultze provides a sampling of organic recipes from her book, "The Natural Nutrition No-Cook Book, Delicious Food for You ... and Your Pets" (Hay House, July 2005). Dogs and cats can both enjoy these treats.

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