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Pet projects pay off

From walking to washing, firms court clients who love their animals Owners indulge in massage, organic treats and cool clothes for pet friends

You probably wouldn't think twice about buying organic foods or splurging on a trip to the salon for a loved one. But what if that loved one is a dog?

For many Portland pet owners, the idea of pampering their pets isn't at all unusual, and many are flocking to Urban Fauna, Beauty for the Beast and other local businesses that provide products and services for their favorite four-legged family members.

Some are childless or retired couples who focus on Sparky or Snowball as if the animal were their child. Others are busy urban professionals who work long hours and want to pamper their pets.

'Even in this economy, people are continuing to use pet services to keep their pets happy,' says Laurie Morton, publisher of Dog Nose News.

The multibillion-dollar pet industry has extended far beyond the necessities of food, shelter and veterinary care. Pet owners are splurging on such extras as organic pet treats, pet massages and monogrammed apparel made from natural fibers.

On average, pet owners spend $200 a month on pet products and services, according to a Dog Nose News survey.

Nationwide, pet-related sales totaled nearly $30 billion in 2002, twice the amount in 1994, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association.

Oregon Humane Society spokeswoman Kathy Covey says it's more accepted today to swaddle your animal in luxury.

'Ten, 20 years ago there was very little selection in what you could feed your cat or dog,' she says, noting the addition of naturopathic foods. 'The selection has gone overboard. People's attitudes have changed, too. It is as important as a child, and they lavish their disposal income on their pet.'

Pets outnumber households

The number of pet-focused businesses has grown at the same speed as spending.

'There was a strong need (for pet services) in the area,' says owner Suzanne Losh about her decision to open Urban Fauna, a one-stop pet store offering supplies, dog day care, grooming services and obedience school in Northwest Portland. 'Many of our clients work downtown but live elsewhere.'

Urban Fauna attracts urban pet owners as well as clients from other neighborhoods, including Lake Oswego and West Linn. The Portland metro area's 741,416 households are home to 907,382 dogs and cats, Covey says.

Like Losh, Brian McCormick recognized Portland as a niche market for pet-focused businesses.

After months of part-time pet-sitting, McCormick decided to launch a full-time venture. His Portland Urban Pet Services offers dog walking, pet-sitting and a door-to-door pet taxi service for grooming and veterinary appointments; McCormick says business is thriving.

'Everyone in Portland has a pet,' says McCormick, noting the water dishes that dot the sidewalks outside local shops. 'Different parts of the country have different pet mentalities. In Portland, pets are members of the family.'

While hiring a dog walker may seem like an extravagance, McCormick says one of the main reasons people take advantage of his services is for the love and attention their pets receive while they're away at work. 'There are a lot of belly rubs,' he says.

Lori Faulkner, owner of a 6-month-old puppy named Ripley, finds comfort knowing her dog is being taken care of while she's at work. Every day McCormick takes Ripley on long walks and field trips to local off-leash parks.

While Ripley is getting his exercise, Faulkner admits that she is also reaping the benefits of his daily romps in the park. 'Getting out of the house for some exercise makes him a better dog,' Faulkner says. 'Having local businesses providing pet services is essential to our busy lives.'

Dirt keeps customers coming

Since Michael Shapiro opened Beauty for the Beast 10 years ago, the self-serve pet wash on Northeast Sandy Boulevard has increasingly drawn more clients, particularly on weekends.

'Portland has a lot of dirty dogs,' he says, citing the wet weather and outdoor lifestyles as key to his success. 'People take their dogs everywhere Ñ hiking and to the beach. The dogs get dirty and then come here to get cleaned up.'

Shapiro acknowledges there is a lot of competition in town but says business hasn't suffered.

'Everyone is busy,' he says. 'It shows there was a need for this service.'

By providing towels, scrub brushes and an extensive selection of shampoos, it's easy for owners to get their dogs clean without the cleanup. But avoiding a mess isn't the only benefit.

There is a psychological benefit to using a pet wash, Shapiro says. 'When you wash your dog at home, you run the risk of making them afraid of the bathroom,' he says, adding that the built-in restraints in commercial washing tubs keep pets safe.

Fido has his own HMO

Banfield, The Pet Hospital has focused on pet health since 1955. The largest private veterinary practice in the United States, Banfield recently introduced prepaid health insurance packages, called Optimum Wellness Plans.

'People are really attached to their pets,' says Karen Vitt, a spokeswoman for Banfield. 'So we provide preventive care to help them live long, healthy lives. Pet owners are willing to spend a lot of money on the health of their pets.'

The prepaid packages offer an affordable alternative to pet health insurance by covering comprehensive veterinary services with monthly payments.

More than 250,000 pets currently are enrolled in Optimum Wellness Plans, taking advantage of covered office visits and substantial discounts on veterinary services.

When the time comes to say goodbye to their much-loved companions, owners are choosing dignified burials, says the humane society's Covey. Though most people see the humane society as a resource for pet adoptions and information, the nonprofit organization also provides pet memorial services, including cremation, burial and mausoleum services on the grounds of their facility in Northeast Portland.

'Losing a pet is a sorrowful experience,' says Covey, who says that pet memorial services acknowledge the human-animal bond by providing a permanent remembrance to a special member of the family.