Pet Corner

Pet Corner


The Secret Price of Pets

The care and feeding of America’s “fur babies” has grown increasingly baroque.

Article by Peter Haldeman for New York Times

Miles, our pug puppy, was 5 months old and mounting everything he could wrap his front paws around. “We’re having him fixed soon,” my partner and I repeated like a mantra to friends as they politely extricated their legs. This is how we found out about Neuticles.

Neuticles, one plugged-in acquaintance revealed, are prosthetic testicles for neutered pets. Kim Kardashian West’s boxer was Neuticled, as were Larry Flynt’s Doberman pinschers. Altogether over 500,000 animals have been surgically implanted with the silicone testes, according to Gregg A. Miller, who invented them in 1995.

“Some people throw the dog in the car and have him turned into a eunuch because they don’t care,” Mr. Miller said recently. “But there’s a certain segment of pet owners that do care, and that’s where Neuticles come in. And it’s not only canines and felines. We’ve done an elephant, we’ve done prairie dogs. I Neuticled a monkey in Pocahontas, Ark., and a colony of rats for the University of Louisiana.”

But the majority of his clients, Mr. Miller said, are “everyday pet owners who opt for Neuticles so their pet will maintain its dignity and self-esteem.”

I was not entirely unfamiliar with such indulgences. When our late pug Weenie had to have a diabetes-ravaged eyeball removed, we replaced it with a fake eye that cost roughly 15 times what we had paid for Weenie himself. No one mistook it for the real thing, but it did lend him a raffish Sammy Davis Jr.-like charm.

I had a hunch, however, that Neuticles were less vital to the self-esteem of pets than to that of their owners. We ended up having Miles snipped the old-fashioned way, without any apparent deflation of his ego. But Neuticles opened my eyes to a world of pet pampering I’d barely glimpsed before.      

“America’s house pets have worked their way into a new place in the hearts, homes, and wallets of their owners,” Michael Schaffer wrote in “One Nation Under Dog: Americans’ Love Affair With Our Dogs.” Not for nothing are they now nicknamed “fur babies”: Stop by Urth Caffe in West Hollywood, Calif., or Barking Dog Restaurant in New York on any given afternoon and you’ll find the place crawling with strollers that hold not mewling infants but yapping Havanese and drooling doodles.

Some think this is because of the steady uptick in childless households. Others point to the atomizing effects of the internet on inter-human relations. Personally, I wouldn’t underestimate the impact of all those movies with talking dogs.

Last year Americans spent $69.5 billion on their pets, according to the American Pet Products Association. Kibble and vet bills are only the beginning.

Teddy-Bear Cuts and Glitter Tattoos

Some dogs and cats are having as much so-called work done as Beverly Hills house spouses.

Petplan, an insurance company, estimates that pet parents dropped $62 million in 2011 on plastic surgery for their little angels. Popular procedures include tummy tucks, nose jobs and eyebrow and chin lifts.

True, the operations often have practical benefits. Widening the nostrils of snub-nosed dogs (like the genetically challenged pug) can improve respiration. And eyelid lifts can reduce infections in especially wrinkled breeds like shar-peis. But anyone who’s seen before-and-after pictures of a shar-pei with an eye job can tell you there’s a cosmetic upside.

Dogs and cats are also going under the knife for hip replacements, heart surgery, even gender reassignment. Transgender pets usually fall into one of two categories: animals whose birth sex poses health issues (like Bishop, a German shepherd from Chicago who became Bishy to get rid of the stones lodged in his bladder and penis) or those with risks tied to being born intersex (Red, a California Pomeranian whose male organs were removed to reduce the chance of cancer).

But perhaps in time the growing trans pet community will embrace its gender-nonconforming brothers and sisters (male dogs who squat to urinate, females who mount).

As for cisgender pets, they have plenty of opportunities these days to express themselves. Dog grooming, for instance, no longer means a flea bath and a clipping. Dogs are having their tresses colored, straightened, curled and waved. They’re getting mohawks and fauxhawks, lion cuts and teddy bear cuts. They’re volumizing with feathers and accessorizing with beads.

“Right now ‘Asian fusion’ is trending,” said Jorge Bendersky, a New York dog groomer, of a cut that was developed in Japan. Mr. Bendersky charges up to $300 an hour to style clients like Rita, Gisele Bündchen’s Yorkshire terrier, and Sophie, P. Diddy’s miniature Maltese. “That’s very short on the body and very long on the legs, like big bell bottoms, which gives them the opportunity to wear a dress or a sweater and necklace without messing up the hairstyle.”

Mr. Bendersky is also getting a lot of requests for French “pawdicures,” pink and purple highlights, and, “for that extra rock ’n’ roll edge,” glitter tattoos.

A busy day at the salon may be followed by a chill session at the spa. Dogs are wallowing in mud baths and detox wraps, hot oil treatments and blueberry facials. The Deep Sea mineral mud mask and oatmeal soak with “hydrosurge” are popular treatments at the Barkley Pet Hotel and Day Spa in Westlake Village, Calif., a luxurious resort where four-legged guests can sprawl on wrought iron beds and watch DOGTV on flat screens.

(Like their human equivalents, the pet resorts and boutique hotels that have sprung up across the country build their brands with distinctive amenities: Stay Dog Hotel, in Chicago, has riverfront suites and a lap pool; Oh My Dog!, in Scottsdale, Ariz., offers dog yoga (“doga”) and a retail boutique with handmade, locally sourced apparel.)

This is probably the place to mention that the crocheted sweater is no longer the ne plus ultra of canine and feline fashion. Pets now have their own Vogue (Unleash), Kate Moss (Jiff, a Pomeranian who has over 7.4 million Instagram followers and, like Ms. Moss, favors skimpy T-shirts) and Ralph Lauren (Ralph Lauren, whose Ralph Lauren Pets line features cashmere sweaters and polo shirts; don’t forget to flip up the collar). Posh animals will find options like the timeless tuxedo and shirred dresses, while those who are normcore inclined are also covered (snoods and hoodies made of sustainable bamboo).

As our dogs’ and cats’ “lifestyles” — a popular term in the pet care industry — increasingly mirror our own, greenness, mindfulness and wellness have become other marketing buzzwords. The food aisles at the local pet store look more and more like those at the nearest Whole Foods: locally sourced produce; cage-free poultry; grain-free, pesticide-free, gluten-free everything else.

Dogs are losing weight and gaining muscle on the canine version of the Paleo diet: raw vegetables and raw meat, just like they consumed in the Stone Age, except now it comes frozen or freeze-dried.

Petco recently signed a deal with JustFoodForDogs, a Southern California purveyor of “handcrafted” meals with “human quality ingredients,” to install in its stores the answer to Whole Foods’ juice bars and sushi stations: exhibition kitchens and pantries where pets and pet parents will be able to watch chefs prepare the company’s signature dishes — venison and squash, say, or chicken stir fry.

Couch potatoes (biped and quadruped) can enjoy home delivery of prepared meals from JustFoodForDogs and other takeout services; for a festive touch, serve with dog beer or cat wine (nonalcoholic, available through Amazon).

Dogs and cats are indulging in cannabis as well, and not just by getting into their owners’ weed brownies. Start-up companies are marketing CBD, or cannabidiol (a non-psychoactive compound in cannabis), in the form of pet treats, sprays, even lip balms that provide relief, they promise, from ailments including anxiety and cancer.

“There are a hundred claims for what it does,” said Lynn Hirshfield, whose Los Angeles-based business Leafy Dog makes peanut butter and grain-free CBD pet treats. “Can I send you some biscuits for Miles?”

From ‘Off the Couch!’ to On

At 5 months old, Miles was afflicted with nothing more serious than a surplus of energy, I thought. But after speaking with Ms. Hirshfield I wondered if he may also have a touch of obsessive-compulsive disorder. She sent over a box of artisanal hemp dog biscuits. Strangely — because this is a dog whose appetite extends to ear plugs, coffee beans and small rocks — he sniffed at one of the cute bone-shaped crackers, then wandered off to consume some more pebbles.

Remember when alternative health care for your pet meant acupuncture or chiropractic? I recently learned that a friend is treating his pit mix’s stress with lavender aromatherapy. Does your cat have arthritis? Consider the Ayurvedic herbs boswellia and ashwagandha. Is your dog constipated? Book a Tui-Na massage to balance her chi. Is she just run down? Hire a reiki master to realign her chakras.

Perhaps the problem is more psychological than somatic. A growing number of animal shrinks, or veterinary behaviorists, are treating pets with drugs and therapy for issues rooted in early childhood and beyond.

“When they find themselves in the pressure cooker of life, animals’ emotions can erupt into psychological problems that in many ways are similar to the ones we get,” said Nicholas Dodman, the program director of the animal behavior department of clinical sciences at Tufts University and the author of “Pets on the Couch: Neurotic Dogs, Compulsive Cats, Anxious Birds, and the New Science of Animal Psychiatry.”

In particular, veterinarians are making use of advances in psychopharmacology. “Puppy Prozac” is so last decade: Dr. Dodman, who has diagnosed Tourette’s syndrome in racehorses and autism in bull terriers, ticked off an extensive if familiar-sounding list of remedies for mental disorders in animals: Buspar to treat anxiety, Ritalin for A.D.H.D., Xanax for phobias, an arsenal of S.S.R.I.s for depression, PTSD, and O.C.D.

Can LSD microdosing be far behind?

For a less clinical approach to little Bella’s acting out, there are, perhaps not surprisingly, life coaches. “For me and for my clients the dog is a family member,” said Tamar Geller, a dog life coach and an author of “The Loved Dog.” “I’m interested in how I can empower that family member to be all that she can be.”

Ms. Geller has used her motivational methods — think Abraham Maslow by way of Tony Robbins — to coax Jon Stewart’s French bulldog, Oprah’s golden retrievers, and other prominent family members “from impulse-based behavior to the way of higher consciousness.”  

I mentioned to her that Miles tended to be a little over-caffeinated. “Chances are he has a lot more to offer, like a gifted child,” Ms. Geller said. “That takes a different level of you showing up as a parent. There are some dogs who are just the Ferrari of dogs, and we treat them as if they are Hondas.”

The opportunities for treating our pets like Ferraris, or at least like high-maintenance children, would seem to be as plentiful as those for coddling ourselves. Maybe more so.

With the advent of animal cloning, a cheek swab and a small fee ($50,000 for dogs, $25,000 for cats) lets you give your pet the one gift you can’t give yourself. Of course, lab-hatched eternal life is an ethical minefield, not least because, as Barbra Streisand, who cloned her Coton de Tulear, Sammie, discovered, “you can clone the look of a dog, but not the soul.”

Cloning is not the only form of extreme pet devotion to elicit pushback. Many trainers take a dim view of babying and otherwise anthropomorphizing our pets. “One of the biggest mistakes that dog owners can make is assuming that dogs feel and think like people do,” warns the best known dog trainer in the country, Cesar Millan, a.k.a. the dog whisperer, on his website. (Mr. Millan was unavailable for comment, presumably because he was busy manifesting calm, assertive energy in the company of alpha Rottweilers and snarling Chihuahuas.) “Dogs live solely in an instinctual world,” the site also says, “and it is up to us as Pack Leaders to meet them there.”

I’m not sure whose world we’ve been living in at our house, but it’s definitely a new one. In addition to my experiments with hemp biscuits and life coaching, I recently upgraded Miles’s wardrobe. I got him a vibey, tribal-looking “Mama’s Mambo” collar, made of a repurposed textile, from Beast and Babe, a company in Venice, Calif., that donates a percentage of its proceeds to a nonprofit offering free spaying and neutering in Mexico.

The collar only added to the natural swagger of a pug with a Don Corleone underbite. (If he suspects he’s not the local “pack leader,” he’s not letting on.) And it felt good to know we were helping to address dog overpopulation in Mexico. Even if it seemed unlikely that any of the beneficiaries would ever see a pair of Neuticles.

Article by Peter Haldeman for New York Times

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