Pet project: Welcome to the world of coddled cats and pampered pooches
It's International Pet Lovers Day. Clodagh Finn on the big business of indulging our four-legged friends
Like any three-year-old, Oscar is excited about his birthday. He's wearing a colourful hat at a jaunty angle and is sitting in front of a big cake with frosted icing. There's a magnificent hand-drawn birthday card on the mantelpiece and a special present has just arrived in the post.
There's just one small detail that makes the celebratory scene exceptional – Oscar is a dachshund.
But then his owner, Jenny McCarthy, sees nothing unusual in marking her "furry baby's" birthday.
Oscar's two doggie pals, Buzz and Lola (Jack Russell-chihuahua mixes, or Jackhuahuas) have sent a card and a necktie for the occasion. Their owner Hilary Glynn specialises in customised dog accessories and reports a lively interest in her hand-made collars and bandanas, which she sells online (buzzandlola.ie) and at markets. Prices start at €10.
As for canine confectionery, Jenny
moved to Dublin from Canada and set up The Cheeky Dog Bakery when she had difficulty ordering a cake for her dachshund. She has been selling a range of dog cookies, cakes, doughnuts, pupcakes and peanut-butter lollipops since last June and says the feedback has been fantastic. Christmas was a high point – doggie gift boxes were a huge hit.
Her canine doughnuts (€1.50 each) with their carob frosting and rainbow sprinkles look just like the human version, but the biscuit base is made from organic beef stock and other dog-friendly ingredients. The cakes are made from organic and sugar-free ingredients and Jenny decorates each one by hand. That will cost you, of course: cakes for dogs are more expensive than their human equivalents, but The Cheeky Dog Bakery will try to suit all budgets.
Barking mad? Well that depends on your point of view.
Martina Semple and her Yorkshire terrier Molly.
"Pets are family members," says Jenny. "I find that people will make room in the budget to allow for special things. I get orders for doggie birthday parties. That seems so normal to me; we have always celebrated our dogs' birthday. When I ring home, I ask how the fur kids – our two dogs – are doing."
Jenny also has a subscription to Dog TV (about €6 a month), which is available online. When Oscar is home alone, she connects her laptop to the TV and he whiles away the hours in front of the box.
While dogs are the pets most likely to be pampered, cats come a close second. You can get toys and treats for the reptile or rabbit in your life too. Indeed, rabbits can, if you feel inclined, be trained to walk on a lead but, it seems, the Irish are either dog or cat people.
Nuala Walsh of Ballyheigue, Co Kerry, is a cat person and her two charges Felix and Benny have been known to stare her out of an armchair when they want to sit in it themselves.
Felix the cat
They have the run of the house, their own beds, a range of toys, scratching posts and a taste for the best kitty food and daily treats. "In fact," Nuala explains, "if they are hungry, they are able to take a sachet of cat food from the box and open it themselves."
If we have started to humanise our pets, it is partly because they can seem almost human. Pet owners, and dog owners in particular, will tell you that there is no love like the love of a dog. Little wonder then that they want to repay that affection in kind.
That might partly explain why pet pampering is still big business in Ireland despite the 3pc fall in spending on pet products recorded by Euromonitor International in 2013.
In the UK, pet owners are fuelling something of a boom in gourmet pet food, designer outfits and treats with a sales spike of 4pc last year.
London is even set to get its first cat cafe this year where customers can sip cappuccinos while stroking the resident cats.
In Ireland, the outlay on pets has been more modest and, according to DSPCA Head of Education Gillian Bird, the society still gets about 20 to 30 calls a day from people who are either emigrating or can't afford to keep their pets.
Oscar's friend Lola
Yet pet-pampering services are still doing a brisk trade and some new ones, like the dog bakery and Buzz & Lola accessories, even started up last year. Grooming, day-care for dogs, walking services and pet-friendly hotels continue to do well and many say they turned a corner in 2013.
Master groomer Suzanne O'Sullivan at Dogsbody in Terenure, Co Dublin, reports a significant pick-up in business in recent months from the lows of 2011.
But then she is quick to point out that grooming is an essential service rather than a pampering extra.
"Some people think that the dogs sit here with cucumber on their eyes. But there has been a huge increase in so-called designer breeds – the cute and cuddly mixes like cockapoos – and even though they are often supposedly non-shed, they require about 10 times as much brushing as ordinary breeds."
Many of the clients who spend about €70 every six to eight weeks on grooming consider it a necessary part of good canine health care.
Oscar's friend Buzz
There are others – a small but sizeable minority – who are still willing to splash out on dog play-dates, designer outfits and puppy parties where dinners, treats and paddling pools are all laid on. "There are people who go a bit over the top," says Suzanne, "but I think Irish people are still moving from the idea that a dog is found outside, tied to the shed, to the notion of a pampered pooch on the sofa."
Mutt Ugly in Ranelagh, Dublin, is a daycare centre for dogs – "It's like a crèche for kids," says groomer Lyndsey Murphy – and some pet owners spend up to €200 a month to have their dogs cared for while they are at work.
"The benefits outweigh the costs," says Lyndsey, explaining that some people with young children don't have the time to socialise their animals.
At 'dog crèche', they play, nap, do brain games, mix with other dogs and go home tired – and, we might assume, happy.