Like a lot of parents, Polly and Edwin Sarsfield of Incline Village have their children’s photos taken with Santa every year. They also hang up stockings, put Christmas sheets on their beds and make them wear Christmas bowties.
But these “children” ” Trinity, Brendan and Rusty ” happen to be three Leonberger dogs who, at 120 pounds a piece, weigh as much as a teenager.
“The dogs are our kids,” Polly says, “except they never grow up. They are perpetual children.”
Polly, who doesn’t have any children of her own, gets the dogs their own tree every year and decorates it with ornaments.
“They are like babies because you celebrate their first Christmas,” Polly says as she carefully hangs a glass ornament on the tree with Trinity’s name on it.
Christmas isn’t the only time Polly and Edwin allow their pets to get a sniff of human life. The dogs also take classes, have jobs, go to summer camps and celebrate birthdays and holidays, just like people do.
When Sharon Jenks’ children, two sons and two daughters, left home she and her husband replaced the brood with four dogs ” two male and two female, of course ” all adopted from the Humane Society.
“[Our children] say the dogs are more spoiled than they were,” Jenks says. “They have coats for the winter, a massage once a week, special beds, and we have a car just for them. They all have [Christmas] stockings and they are full.”
Such pampering by baby boomers experiencing empty-nest syndrome is driving the country’s pet industry, says Bob Vetere, president of the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association.
“The house got quiet, and they turn to pets to fill the void. The fact that pets replace kids means they play a more important role in people’s lives,” Vetere says. “It’s more satisfying to reward them in human terms, and pet owners are spending more on them. They are satisfying themselves rather than the pet. The pet is happy either way.”
Younger couples who are delaying childbirth to pursue careers often get pets instead, Vetere says. The sale of timed water and feeding devices that allow career-oriented owners to leave Fido and Fluffy at home while they work are also increasing, he says.
During the holidays pet owners in the U.S. will spend an estimated $3 billion on their pets, an amount, Vetere says, that has doubled in the last 10 years. There has been a steady 6 to 8 percent increase each year in the industry in the last five years, which Vetere said, far outpaces the rest of the retail world.
Last year Americans spent $36.4 billion on their pets.
According to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, companies traditionally known for human products including Paul Mitchell, Omaha Steaks, Harley Davidson and Old Navy are offering new lines of pet products.
“If it’s popular with humans they will try to make it for pets,” Vetere says.
And that, owners say, is all part of the appeal.
“It’s a lot more fun to go shopping for [dogs] now because their is so much stuff,” says Polly Sarsfield, who may buy a winter coat for Rusty this year because he is losing his hair. “What really blows me away are life vests for dogs.”
Much of the success of the pet business is in the name. Kennels are now called pet hotels; groomers have given way to pet spas.
“The name is going to get them in the door,” Vetere says. “Humans respond to human terminology. No one takes their pets to kennels. It’s pet hotels.”
Specialty stores, like Tails By The Lake in Squaw Valley, cater to pet owners who give their pooches an “elevated status,” says proprietor Rob Burks, who has owned the store for more than three years and has been in the business five.
He says dogs have become more like family members, involved and as active as everyone else.
“People say they are spoiling their pets, but I don’t see it that way,” Burks says.
“Yeah, more so than 50 years ago when they were outside, but we are also taking them out more on hikes so we need more things like collapsible bowls, treat bags and boots for winter.”
Burks says many of his customers are retired couples whose children have moved out. The Jenks’ new canine clan is a perfect example of empty nesters.
“[Their dogs] kind of take the place of kids,” Burks says. “They definitely spoil them if they don’t have kids.”
When Jenks opened Truckee-Tahoe Kennels in Truckee six months ago, she marketed the kennel as “a retreat for your pet.” That includes themed suites like “A Day at the Beach,” “Southern Comfort,” and the most popular, “Mountain Retreat.”
“We wanted it to be a little more resorty,” Jenks says. “Our dogs don’t do chain-link fences, so we understand people who like to spoil their pets.”
All suites come with furniture, TV and HVAC climate control. The premier suites go for $45 a night ” almost twice as much and twice as big as the basic rooms.
“Some clients refuse to [have their pets] stay in anything but the pet suites,” Jenks says, adding that owners are almost always willing to pay for a little more. “Extras can vary from special dog treats to more time spent with the dogs.”
Jenks’ venture isn’t an isolated one. PetSmart is building a line of pet hotels in its stores. And more and more hotels are becoming pet friendly, she says.
“Bring him to the local pet hotel and he’ll have a better room than you will when you’re gone,” Vetere says.
When Denise Schoenbeck took her 8-year-old Pomeranian, Martin, to the dog spa for the first time she could smell the difference from traditional groomers.
“He came home smelling like egg nog,” Schoenbeck recalls.
After Martin’s spa treatment he was sprayed with Sparkle Spray for the holidays, says Casandra Taylor, spa director at Truckee-Tahoe Kennels. “Vanilla eggnog is what’s going best for the holidays,” Taylor says.
Schoenbeck could also tell the difference in Martin’s demeanor, who usually is stressed after going to the groomer. She says she also liked the fact the spa was accepting of her relationship with Martin.
“They didn’t think it was strange when I said he was my baby,” Schoenbeck says.
Even though a spa treatment is more costly and time consuming than most groomers ” a $150 full spa treatment can take more than three hours, Schoenbeck says Martin would be going back.
And who could resist? The full treatment includes a bath with a hydro-massager and oatmeal rinse, massage, hair and nails, deep cleaning of ears and nose, ear waxing and teeth cleaning.
During treatment, Taylor plays “soothing music” for the animals.
“I get a massage when I get my hair done,” Jenks says of the inspiration for the dog spa treatment, “and I love that.”
But why stop with an ear wax? Pet owners can have pedicures done on their animals, where nails are dremmeled and painted with a variety of nail polishes.
“Orange was really popular for Halloween,” Jenks says. “We’ve sent a rottweiler home with ruby red nails.”
But the treatments aren’t all for vanity. Taylor says most of the care is general maintenance ” washing, trimming and the like. But she says she believes the dogs also enjoy the treatment.
“Its very dog-oriented,” Taylor says. “It’s all about making the dogs happy, comfortable and fun for them.”
The Sarsfields love having parties for their pets, for which Polly does a lot of baking.
“The dogs get all the crystal and silver and the humans get the paper plates,” she says.
She also has Easter parties for her dogs, complete with an Easter egg hunt.
If you think that’s extravagant, Burks at Tails by the Lake says that’s just the beginning.
“Believe it or not, pet weddings have become popular,” he says. “And so has having pets in (human) weddings.”
Pet owners can spend $300 on a hand-stitched dress, Burks says.
“Now your dog is the ring-bearer, not your nephew.”
Like a lot of parents, seeing her “kids” laying around the house made Polly Sarsfield want to see the dogs get jobs.
The animals are certified therapy dogs and make monthly trips to the Nevada State Prison in Carson City to visit patients. They also go to camps in the summer, including Camps-Lots-Of Fun for children with muscular dystrophy. They are also Reading Education Assistance Dogs (READ), participating in a program dedicated to improving children’s reading levels by having them read to dogs.
“I feel like they need a job and give back to humanity,” Sarsfield says.
“Service animals are on the rise,” Vetere says. “People are finding more positive jobs (for dogs), especially in medicine.”
Some of the workers in these new fields include dogs who can sniff out cancer and sense seizures and warn their owners before they happen.
“As a result dogs are more rewarded,” Vetere says.
The trend of pet spending will continue as long as baby boomers have disposable income to spend on their animals, Vetere says.
“People will stop spending money on a lot of things before they stop spending money on their pets,” he says.
According to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, pet ownership offers proven medical benefits, including lower blood pressure and reduced stress, and psychological stability. Thus, Vetere believes they are rewarded justly.
“People fall in love with being unconditionally loved,” Vetere says. “There’s no back talk. There were days, when my kids were young, I would have traded them for dogs.”
There are so many pet products on the market retailers have to be selective on the items they choose for their store.
“I don’t want get stuff that’s too over the top,” says Rob Burks, owner of Tails by the Lake in the Village at Squaw Valley. “Stuff like $300 dog carriers that sell in LA won’t sell up here. We go for products that are more practical and functional.”
Bob Vetere, president of the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association agrees with Burkss that the popularity of pet products varies from region to region.
“You have got to be sensitive to what the clientele is like,” Vetere says.
Tails by the Lake sells a lot more upscale items online, especially overseas where the pet industry is perhaps lagging behind the U.S. The store recently shipped $3,000 worth of merchandise to a princess in Saudi Arabia. The store also has clients in the United Kingdom and Japan where pet ownership is high, Burks says.
Jessica Solberg, owner of Scraps Bakery in Truckee, says there are more products on the market because people know more about animals and are therefore taking better care of their pets, especially when it comes to nutrition.
“You don’t want to feed your animals junk,” Solberg says. “We love the excessive and fun stuff, but we focus on nutrition.”
The store has been busy for the holidays, and Solberg says she has seen customers drop “$200 dollars, easily” on a pet. Stockings, reindeer antlers for dogs, holiday toys and clothes are popular items.
She also agrees that a lot of the satisfaction is for the owners.
“The dog could care less what his tag looks like,” she says, “but it’s fun for people and that’s great.”
According to Veterinary Pet Insurance the most popular dogs names were Max for male dogs and Molly for female dogs. Most of the popular names for dogs were “human” names. Other popular names were Lucy, Cody, Chloe, Zoe, Sophie, Jake and Jack.
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