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Moms, dads and dogs

The evolution from pet owners to pet parents

From boutique spas and daycares to Twitter accounts and gourmet treats, Rover never had it so good.

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Full disclosure: I am a dog mom.

My baby’s name is Samson. He’s a two-year-old Maltese/shih tzu cross — a handsome little fella with a wonky underbite, soulful brown eyes and a big personality. The kindly neighbour calls him "Mr. GQ" when he wears his charcoal grey J. Crew-esque turtle-neck sweater. (Yes, he owns a charcoal grey J. Crew-esque turtle-neck sweater.)

I regale friends and co-workers with what I think are adorable, witty stories about his various quirks. I flood my social-media feeds with photos. Samson in the porch. Samson in the park. Plaintive Samson. Artsy Samson. Samson in repose. On my desk at work is a framed photo of Samson and his dad, my partner. Our mothers refer to him as their grandchild. We’ve raised him from puppyhood. We can’t imagine our lives without him.

I am not alone. Many pet owners no longer think of themselves as owners — they think of themselves as mommy and daddy.

PETS BY THE NUMBERS

Click to Expand

Percentage of households that own a pet in Canada: 57%

Percentage of households that own a pet in the U.S.: 68%

Total annual pet industry expenditures in Canada: $6.6 billion

Total pet industry expenditures in the U.S.: $58.51 billion

Total spent on vet care in the U.S.: $15.25 billion

Fifty-seven per cent of Canadian households include a pet as do 68 per cent of American households. They have become members of our families. We’re devoted to them. We take care of them. We shift our schedules around for them. We consider their needs — often before our own. (It’s telling that during the recession of 2008, the pet industry continued to grow in the United States.) We provide them with education in the form of obedience classes. We take them to daycare. We pour our hearts — and savings — into making sure they are healthy and happy.

But does all that mean we’re "parenting"?

Many critics, such as Slate’s Torie Bosch, who wrote a piece pointedly titled I Am Not A Pet Parent, believe Big Pet — or the more menacing-sounding Pet Industrial Complex — banks on us adopting the "pet parent" designation, ostensibly working under the theory we will spend more money on our pets if we treat them like our children.

And we are definitely spending more money. In Canada, pet spending is projected to hit $6.6 billion in 2014 according to the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council of Canada (PIJAC). In the U.S., the American Pet Products Association (APPA) has the number for 2014 creeping toward the $60-billion mark. As Time magazine pointed out, that’s more than the GDP of Croatia. Or $10 billion more than Germany’s defence budget. In Canada, spending has steadily grown at a rate of four to 4.5 per cent per year.

And there’s no shortage of things to spend money on, from doggy day spas — such as Winnipeg’s White Lotus, a chic boutique spa in Osborne Village — to gourmet treats (pupcake, anyone?). People throw pet birthday parties and pet weddings. Luxury pet resorts are popping up all over North America; at Jet Pet Resort, located at the Vancouver International Airport, pups can rest up in posh suites (complete with chandeliers and plasma TVs) and enjoy amenities such as an on-call chef and massages — "because your dog deserves a vacation too!" Seems indulging one’s pet is no longer the sole province of the very wealthy — although the very wealthy take it to the next level. Fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld’s beloved kitty, Choupette, has not one, but two maids.

Japanese pets also enjoy a privileged, if sometimes quirky, status. Pet cafés proliferate — some for owners to try menus along with their dogs, others for petless patrons to enjoy the company of a cat for an hour.

Of course, there’s an argument to be made those extravagant purchases stroke the egos of the owners more than they benefit their pets. After all, an animal with a fondness for eating its own poop probably doesn’t need a personal chef. Which begs the question: Who is it all for?

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