Three-year-old Caicos Ruby is spoiled.
He wears Henri Bendel down coats and monogrammed hoodies. His birthday cakes are custom-made, complete with sparklers. Caicos eats fresh food delivered right to his doorstep and only drinks Mount Valley Spring Water. He’s been treated to massages in his own penthouse hotel suite and loves to sip coconut water while on vacation.
Nothing is too good for Caicos, a three-pound ice white teacup Pomeranian, says his self-described dog mom Kris Ruby.
“It’s me and Caicos. That’s my family,” said Ruby, 32, leafing through Caicos’ first birthday album at her duplex in White Plains where a pop-art style portrait of Caicos hung on a wall. “My Christmas card (it was shot by a professional photographer) this year was just me and Caicos. It said, ‘Happy Holidays! Love, Kris and Caicos’.”
Fur families like Ruby’s are a growing trend, particularly among millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996) who make up the largest segment of pet owners with 73 percent owning one, according to a 2018 report by the American Pet Products Association.
Increasingly, pet parents are demanding parity in a society attuned to the wants and needs of human parents.
And they’re getting it.
Housing developments are including dog play spaces and grooming salons; hotels now provide pet-friendly accommodations; even Starbucks has recognized the trend with its puppuccino, a dog-friendly drink on the Starbucks Secret Menu. Yes, it’s a thing. Google it.
Corporate America is responding, too by offering pet perks such as veterinary insurance as an employee benefit, take-your-dog-to work days, and in some cases, “paw-ternity leave” and “fur-ternity leave” (paid time off for newly adopted pets).
Fur parents, and their fur babies (and often fur grandbabies) are here to stay.
In the last 20 years or so, more and more people have started identifying themselves as pet parents rather than pet owners, said David Grimm, author of “Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs.”
“Many millennials have grown up with pets as a member of the family, so their relationship with them is a lot different than previous generations who grew up with a cat or a dog in the yard and maybe only occasionally in the house.”
As people postpone having children, or opt to not have children, furbabies complete a family.
Tracy and Adam Tracey of Nyack most definitely consider their 7-year-old rescue Maltese, Remy, their baby.
The couple has been married for 14 years and have no plans to have kids.
“My husband and I decided that we had settled down, we had purchased a home and we were ready to go forward with getting a dog,” said Tracey. “We had decided not to have children, so that’s our little fur-baby.”
The couple, New Orleans transplants, often dress Remy in a Saints jersey. Remy also has a car seat.
“He gets special treatment. Because he is very small and his back legs don’t work very well, he is not stable while taking turns and the special car seat keeps him in a small space and comfortable.”
Not everyone gets a warm and fuzzy feeling about pets being viewed akin to children, however.
When asked for their thoughts on the humanization of pets, one poster on the public North Rockland Community Facebook page had a bone to pick with the trend.
“Ridiculous. A pet can be loved and cared for as a pet,” wrote Ann Arkis McNally. “Humanization of any animal is just weird.”
Driving the trend
The rise of the internet and social media and the attendant drop in human interaction is a large reason for the evolving relationship with pets over the past two decades, said Grimm.
“Twenty years ago, you’d go to a café with your friends and sit around and talk; now everybody stares at their phone,” said Grimm. “Our human connections are fraying a little bit and we have these animals in our home that are now very much filling that void. They are filling an emotional void which is making the animals more important in our lives.”
Millennials also have a different view of what constitutes adulthood, Grimm said.
“Marketers assume you are going to have kids, you are going to have a home but that notion doesn’t exist anymore,” said Kris Ruby.
Developers have taken notice adding amenities in new housing developments in Westchester and Rockland.
Brian Dashnaw, director of property management for Ginsburg Development Companies, which owns multiple complexes with several more in development, said they have tapped into the millennial pet-owning market.
Two of their recent rental apartment developments, River Tides in Yonkers and Harbor Square in Ossining, where millennials make up about 40 percent of renters, have pet- washing stations in the building.
“A lot of renters are coming with pets, so having pet-friendly features appeals to a larger segment,” said Dashnaw. “The washing station is not just a stainless sink and shower; it’s a whole bathroom. This way, they (owners) don’t have to wash their dog or cat in their apartment.”
It’s a dog’s life
The pet industry has grown more than threefold in the last 20 years, from $23 billion in 1998 to $72 billion in $2018. That includes indulgences such as a penthouse suite at Spot On pet hotel in Stamford, Connecticut, which goes for $125 a night. It comes with a wrought iron bed with plush bedding, chandeliers, 40-inch flat screen televisions with animal programming, and a personal web cam so owners can check in on their pet. Extra services such as massages can be added.
There’s even a doggie beer so Fido can join you when you crack open your cool hipster beer.
The demand for healthful, high-end food has grown, too according to Nielson, the market research firm.
Ruby, who runs Ruby Media Group, a public relations firm, uses The Farmer’s Dog, a meal delivery service. It costs her $150 per month for the service. A bag of supermarket dog food for a month, in contrast, would cost less than $30.
“I get customized gourmet dog food that gets delivered to my house every month. I don’t buy the regular supermarket food,” said Ruby, a former reality show star on Bravo’s “Friends to Lovers.” “I’m someone who is into a very organic lifestyle for myself so I would do that for my pet as well.”
Nicole Morandi, 29, a pet mom of five (two dogs and three cats) belongs to an online community of raw feeders, a Facebook group called Raw Feeding University, which has more than 20,000 members. She spends two days a month prepping food for her dogs, Zora, a Mastiff, and Zeus, an American Pitbull Terrier, after having bought a one-time $90 raw food meal plan from online Perfectly Rawsome, for each of her two dogs.
That meal plan includes a shopping list that details the exact amounts of items such as duck necks, duck wings, ground boneless meat, liver and kidney.
“For one large dog, it would cost roughly $100 to $150 a month,” said Morandi, who was introduced to raw feeding when Zeus suffered from canine vestibular disease and swelling in his brain.
“When he didn’t get better after a few visits to the animal hospital, I went to a holistic vet and they opened my eyes to how the pet industry is not really geared toward what animals need,” said Morandi, a director of educational services at Huntington Learning Center. “They have dog kibble and it’s like feeding your child McDonald’s every day.”
Between a neurologist, a regular vet and the holistic vet, Zeus’ medical bill came to $8,000.
“It was not even a question of ‘am I doing this?’ But it was more ‘how are we going to pay for it?’”
Companies offer perks
According to the the Society for Human Resources Management, from 2014-2018, the percentage of employers allowing a pet at work more than doubled, from 4 to 9 percent. At Google, many Googlers bring their four-legged BFFs, nicknamed Dooglers, to work where they enjoy access to a dog-themed café and a dog park in their California office campus. Zynga, the game developer, has a rooftop dog park, as does Amazon.
Pet insurance is becoming one of the top requested voluntary benefits in companies, said Rob Jackson, co-founder and CEO of Washington-based Healthy Paws Pet Insurance.
In just the last four years, U.S. companies offering pet health insurance as a benefit rose from 6 percent in 2014 to 11 percent in 2018, according to the Society for Human Resources Management.
“The companies do not usually contribute to the premium but sometimes the employees get a preferred rate,” said Jackson.
The U.S. pet health insurance industry, estimated at slightly over $1 billion in 2017, will nearly double to reach $2 billion by 2022, according to Rockville, Maryland-based Packaged Facts market research firm.
The Traceys discovered the high cost of care the hard way.
Soon after the couple adopted Remy, they discovered he had a heart murmur, but they weren’t able to buy pet insurance due to the pre-existing condition.
A few years later, when Remy had an accident and required spinal surgery; it cost them thousands of dollars.
How big was the bill?
“I’d rather not say,” said Tracey, an administrative assistant, with a laugh.
Pet ownership a ‘major responsibility’
These owners don’t take raising a puppy or a kitten lightly.
“There’s this misconception that if you have a dog, you still have as much free time because you are quote unquote a “single person” and don’t have kids. It’s a major responsibility that people don’t understand,” said Ruby.
“I can’t just do what I want. I still have to plan around the dog all the time. If I want to go to the city tonight or travel, it’s not so easy. Is the hotel pet friendly? Sometimes you are paying more for the dog.”
The relationship can also be a factor in the pet parent’s dating life. Nicole Morandi, who was single for a long time, said that her furbabies came first.
“My friends and family would ask how I was going to find someone with me having three cats and two dogs,” Morandi said. “ And I’d say, ‘If it’s not gonna happen, it’s not gonna happen.’ My pets are a part of my family and if I can’t find someone who loves them just as much as I do then, I’m not interested in that.”
She’s now in a relationship and said, “Thankfully my boyfriend does love them just as much as I do.”
Recently, for her dog Zeus’ birthday, Morandi, who has four other pets, took him out for a hike by himself (for some one-on-one time). Like any caring mom, she bought him a few toys and, since he’s allergic to wheat, baked him a birthday cake with almond flour, peanut butter, banana, honey and eggs.
Asked what she got from her pets, Morandi started choking up.
“They give me so much and don’t expect anything in return. They are at my door every night when I get home. They are happiest they can be to see me,” she said.
Swapna Venugopal Ramaswamy is the new audience strategist and a member of the editorial board for The Journal News/lohud, part of the USA Today Network.
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