Fido and Fluffy have never had it so good.
Last year, Canadian pet owners spent an estimated $6.5 billion on their pets, pampering them with everything from holistic foods and snuggly little jackets and boots to memory-foam beds and regular trips to the pet spa.
The number of local retailers who are eager to cater to the wants and needs of these free-spending pet lovers continues to grow. Earlier this year, one of the country's largest pet-store chains, PetSmart, Inc., opened two new stores in the city -- one at 1050 Leila Ave. and the other at 1731 Kenaston Blvd. -- to go with the one it already had at 1615 Regent Ave. West. That news was tempered by Richmond, B.C., retailer Petcetera announcing this week it would be closing six outlets across Canada, including its Winnipeg store on Empress Street.
A spokesman for one of the other big players in the Winnipeg market -- the locally owned Petland chain -- said the new store openings were no surprise.
"We knew they were coming," Paula Wiebe said. "It was just a matter of time... "
Although the pet and pet-supply industry is becoming increasingly competitive, Wiebe said it's still a good business to be in.
'Despite the recession and the economic challenges that we've gone through, spending on pets... has continued to increase by an average of four to 4.5 per cent annually.'
"The pet industry is a strong industry, almost recession-proof," she said, noting there will always be people with pets, and pets will always need food and other products.
That view is shared by the voice for Canada's pet industry -- the Ottawa-based Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC) of Canada.
"Despite the recession and the economic challenges that we've gone through, spending on pets... has continued to increase by an average of four to 4.5 per cent annually," said Susan Dankert, the council's communication's co-ordinator. "The industry... is like the little engine that could. It just keeps going."
Although Dankert said the number of pet-specialty stores in Canada has been fairly stable in recent years, hovering around the 3,000 mark, Wiebe said there's been a big increase in the number of Winnipeg stores since her brother and sister-in-law, Robert and Barbara Brissette, opened their first store in 1979. (They now have 30 Petland outlets in Canada, including three in Winnipeg).
When the Brissettes started out, there were five pet-supplies stores in the city, Wiebe said, "and now there are 65."
The local players range from retail chains such as Petland, PetSmart, Pet Valu and Best West Pet Foods to single-store operators like Henry Wasserman, who along with his father, Jacob, opened Pet Shop & Aquariums on Main Street in 1988.
Wasserman and most of local players interviewed said one of the biggest changes over the last decade has been in the variety of pet products that are now available.
Wiebe said Petland stores now carry between 10,000 and 12,000 different pet-related items.
"The (pet-supplies) market has grown hugely over the last decade," added Mike Keweriga, district manager for Best West Pet Foods, which has nine stores in Manitoba, including six in Winnipeg. "Everything has quadrupled in terms of the products that are available."
Nowhere is that growth been more evident than with pet foods and pet-care products -- things such as specialty shampoos and dietary supplements. Along with the regulars, there is now a dizzying selection of gourmet, natural, organic and holistic products on store shelves.
One of the driving forces behind that trend is what industry officials refer to as the "humanization" of pets.
"Consumers are treating pets as members of their families, and this pet 'humanization' has evolved to the point where preferences for natural health products and nutritional ingredients are growing," states a September 2012 Market Indicator Report by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's International Markets Bureau.
"Pet owners are looking for natural, high-quality products to ensure their pets stay healthy," the report continues. "They want to see ingredients that are recognizable, and that are similar to what they themselves are eating."
The pet-food industry has responded, it adds, by expanding its product offering to include a greater variety of natural, organic, eco-friendly and health-and-wellness-type products.
Wiebe noted a few years ago, Petland stores carried two or three different lines of dog and cat food. Today, they carry 47.
Keweriga said Best West has even made specialty products a focus of its business.
"We believe that people are gaining more knowledge about proper health maintenance for their pets. Preventative maintenance products and a good diet are outweighing the costs of going to the vet for illnesses that could have been prevented."
Best West also teaches its employees to look at pets as more than just pets.
"We coach our teams that the pet is as special as a child -- treat them a such."
Although the Bird Shop & Aquariums specializes in exotic birds, fish, reptiles and related products, Wasserman said it also sells dog and cat food and pool supplies.
"You need variety," he notes.
While Wiebe and others say the industry remains strong, Wasserman said his sales are only about half what they were a few years ago. And it's not because of increased competition from other pet-supply stores. Rather, he blames it on mainly on "the economy" and the return of the Winnipeg Jets hockey team.
"We're competing for the leftover dollars after the mortgage and groceries are taken care of," he said. "And they (the Jets) have soaked up a lot of that disposable income."
How much money do you spend on your pet? Join the conversation in the comments below.