The Washington Post
One Nation Under Dog: Adventures in the New World of Prozac-Popping Puppies, Dog-Park Politics, and Organic Pet Foodby Michael Schaffer
A witty, insightful, and affectionate examination of how and why we spend billions on our pets, and what this tells us about ourselves
In 2003, Michael Schaffer and his wife drove to a rural shelter and adopted an emaciated, dreadlocked Saint Bernard who they named Murphy. They vowed that they'd never become the kind of people who send dogs named/p>/b>
A witty, insightful, and affectionate examination of how and why we spend billions on our pets, and what this tells us about ourselves
In 2003, Michael Schaffer and his wife drove to a rural shelter and adopted an emaciated, dreadlocked Saint Bernard who they named Murphy. They vowed that they'd never become the kind of people who send dogs named Baxter and Sonoma out to get facials, or shell out for $12,000 hip replacements. But then they started to get weird looks from the in-laws: You hired a trainer? Your vet prescribed antidepressants? So Schaffer started poking around and before long happened on an astonishing statistic: the pet industry, estimated at $43 billion this year, was just $17 billion barely a decade earlier.
One Nation Under Dog is about America's pet obsession—the explosion, over the past generation, of an industry full of pet masseuses, professional dog-walkers, organic kibble, leash-law militants, luxury pet spas, veterinary grief counselors, upscale dog shampoos, and the like: a booming economy that is evidence of tremendous and rapid change in the status of America's pets. Schaffer provides a surprising and lively portrait of our country—as how we treat our pets reflects evolving ideas about domesticity, consumerism, politics, and family—through this fabulously reported and sympathetic look at both us and our dogs.
The Washington Post
A Fast Food Nation for dog lovers, this astute and amusing investigative report offers a "journey into the $41-billion-a-year world of the modern American pet." Each chapter focuses on "a different realm of the pet universe," and the total effect is reminiscent of Tom Wolfe's New Journalism essays on the sociology of pop culture. Schaffer explores baby boomers who devote themselves to "fur babies" after their children have grown up and moved out. He attends the 2008 Global Pet Expo to take stock of the 2,400 display booths of retail pet items. He observes New York's "burgeoning canine social scene." In San Francisco, he looks at how arguments over dog leash laws are case studies in how cities need to "navigate the controversies" of a new pet-friendly world. And his fascinating piece on the evolution of pet toys-from the first "purportedly educational" ones made in a Colorado garage in the 1970s to today's "veritable arms race"-is essential reading for anyone whose dog has become hooked on Kong bounce balls. (Apr.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
With perspicacity laced with humor, journalist Schaffer examines the sometimes over-the-top attention Americans lavish on their canines in the form of designer clothing, dog parties, cutting-edge medical treatments, mental stimulation toys, professional pet sitters, luxurious pet hotels, pet cemeteries with grief counselors, and superpremium dog food made with ingredients fit for human consumption. But this is no scathing exposé-Schaffer is a willing participant, an inside observer, forcibly immersed in the ethos by his adoption of a rescued St. Bernard who suffered from separation anxiety. Nevertheless, he offers a serious investigation of the human-animal bond and the forces that have driven "pet parents" to what some might consider extremes. Well researched with copious notes yet accessible to lay readers who will chuckle in self-recognition; highly recommended for public and academic libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ12/08.]
"A Fast Food Nation for dog lovers, this astute and amusing investigative report offers a ‘journey into the $41-billion-a-year world of the modern American pet.’… Reminiscent of Tom Wolfe's New Journalism essays on the sociology of pop culture.… Essential reading for anyone whose dog has become hooked on Kong bounce balls."—Publishers Weekly, Starred Review
“Combines research and great … anecdotes for … sociological insight into the obsessive world of dog ownership.”—Philadelphia Magazine
"Doggone entertaining."—Kirkus Reviews
“What makes this book so great is that it neither preaches nor rationalizes - it just explains…. He alternates easily between research and laugh-out-loud tales of his runty St. Bernard, Murphy, and cat, Amelia. And with a historical sweep, he shows us how we got to this place. Ultimately, One Nation Under Dog is not about our pets - but about ourselves.” —The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville)
“In the wake of Marley mania… Schaffer explores the rapidly expanding dimensions of America's pet mania - Mr. President, a must-read before you pick the pup!”—Carlin Romano, Philadelphia Inquirer
"A surprising, often hilarious view of the American pet scene."—Star-News (Wilmington, NC)
"In a finely tuned voice full of wit and grace, Michael Schaffer takes an incredibly smart look at an important cultural phenomenon that too often is dismissed as a four-legged sideshow. I couldn't stop reading, except to repeat to whoever was around some stunning fact or anecdote about Fur Baby America. If you want to understand how we live now, One Nation Under Dog is essential reading."—Benjamin Wallace, author of The Billionaire’s Vinegar
"One Nation Under Dog is a masterwork of comic sociology: The pooch set has found its Max Weber. With witty analysis, great storytelling and a generous spirit, Schaffer has done more than provide a window into our dog obsession; he has provided a portrait of American life."—Franklin Foer, author of How Soccer Explains the World
"Michael Schaffer’s terrific One Nation Under Dog is long overdue. Schaffer understands that the mushrooming love affair between Americans and their companion animals - especially dogs - is one of the most fascinating cultural phenomena in recent history, and that this shows no signs of abating even in hard times. As pets have moved to the center of our families and our emotional lives, One Nation Under Dog - well written and thoroughly reported - explores how and why they have become mirrors of our society."—Jon Katz, author of Izzy and Lenore: Two Dogs, an Unexpected Journey, and Me and A Dog Year: Twelve Months, Four Dogs and Me
"Michael Schaffer has written a thoroughly researched, jaw-dropping, laugh-out-loud exposé of our love affair with the pets in our lives. Go find yourself in One Nation Under Dog!"—Nick Trout, author of Tell Me Where It Hurts: A Day of Humor, Healing and Hope in My Life as an Animal Surgeon
"Simultaneously amusing and eye opening, One Nation Under Dog holds a mirror to our pet-obsessed culture, wherein even we cat lovers will see ourselves reflected. Astutely illuminating the political, social, and economic aspects of our devotion to our animal companions, Michael Schaffer makes us chuckle – and sigh with recognition." —Kathryn Shevelow, author of For the Love of Animals: The Rise of the Animal Protection Movement
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One Nation Under Dog
Adventures in the New World of Prozac-Popping Puppies, Dog-Park Politics, and Organic Pet Food
By Michael Schaffer
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2009 Michael Schaffer
All rights reserved.
The $43-Billion Fur Baby
Meet the Pet Industry
The fans on hand to watch the San Diego Padres face the Los Angeles Dodgers that summer day in 2006 included a two-year-old black Boston terrier named Bandit. With dark glasses covering his big, buggy eyes, and a Padres bandanna around his neck, Bandit — a performing dog who rode on a motorbike in a parade before the game — was likely the coolest dog in the stadium. There was plenty of competition: The crowd included a pug sporting one of the squad's blue road jerseys, a golden retriever clad in a throwback 1980s-style uniform, and a lumbering Newfoundland wearing a Padres terry-cloth towel to collect his ample drool. Baseball and hot dogs, indeed. The "Dog Days of Summer" game is part of a national trend in pet-friendly ballpark come-ons. You can watch the national pastime. And see some baseball, too.
To get a real sense of the economic muscle of America's pets, though, take a look at the name of the stadium where the Padres play: Petco Park. As pet owners in forty-nine states and the District of Columbia know, Petco sells kitty litter, chew toys, birdseed, and dog collars. There's an enormous market for such wares: Roughly 60 percent of U.S. households own pets. That translates into 68.5 million households, up 12 percent in only six years, more than twice the rate of human population growth. Thus, when the Padres opened their new stadium in 2004, the hometown retailer was able to spend the $60 million it took to plaster its name on the ballpark for two decades to come — riding America's love of Maine coons and Boston terriers all the way into a club that includes venerable Fortune 500 names such as AT&T, Bank of America, and Ford Motor Company, as well as new economy titans like Qualcomm and Hewlett-Packard.
San Diego — named America's most canine-friendly city by Dog Fancy magazine in 2007 — hosted a still grander exhibit of pet industrial might during the 2008 off-season. For three days in February, it played host to the Global Pet Expo, America's biggest annual extravaganza of four-legged retailing. Before arriving, I'd thought nothing could top the previous year's Global Pet Expo in Orlando. That one had 2,300 display booths, one of which featured a troupe of actors dressed as Roman centurions to promote a new line of dog chews. The 2008 show was bigger still: With 800 exhibitors and 2,400 display booths pushing everything from scratching posts to retractable leashes to ferret hammocks, it filled a building whose floor space is the equivalent of eleven and a half football fields. The expo's new-products showcase alone contained over 800 brand-new innovations, inventions that may either turn some entrepreneurs into our next pet-industry millionaires or — and here I think of whoever was responsible for the $704 stroller specifically designed for promenading with large-sized macaws — make them wish they'd invested their money in Enron instead. The show drew some five thousand wholesalers, distributors, and buyers representing old-fashioned mom-and-pop pet stores and burgeoning big-box chains alike. Roughly 30 percent of the buyers came from outside the United States. They may not drive our cars anymore, but they love our doggie designers.
The 2008 expo was billed as a fiftieth anniversary celebration for its sponsor, the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association. Back in 1958, the new organization consisted of sixteen businesses; APPMA president Bob Vetere said their first show featured only a handful of wares displayed in a single room in New York City. The room, he said, was about as big as the three aisles of space at the 2008 expo that were covered in hot-pink carpeting and dedicated to the booming, bling-filled "boutique products" sector. For all its history, though, the industry's most dramatic growth didn't come during the domestic 1950s or the dynamic 1960s. According to Vetere, the real boom came at the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first. In 1994, APPMA's first survey of nationwide pet spending put the size of the pet economy, including food and medical care along with the goofy gewgaws that capture the attention of uninitiated expo visitors, at $17 billion. In 2007, when the group released the latest edition of its survey, that number had risen to $41 billion.
Of course, those are the self-generated figures of an organization with every interest in making lavish pet spending look mainstream. But even a skeptic of the industry says they aren't far off. Independent analyst Mike Dillon, who writes the Pet Industry Weekly blog and makes his living producing reports for actual investors in the industry, argued that the business had taken a tiny dip in 2006 and only a small boost the next year. Nonetheless, his figure remained a hefty $39 billion, far above what it had been a decade earlier. Much pricier studies by the respected market-research firm Packaged Facts — corporations pay thousands for its advice on retail trends — predict at least 7 percent growth each year until 2011. If Vetere had any doubts about the figures, his triumphal tone didn't let on. "That's bigger than toys, that's bigger than candy, that's bigger than hardware, that's bigger than jewelry," he said. "If it were treated like a single retail segment ... it would be the eighth-biggest retail segment in the United States." (I checked the industries he compared pets with, and he's right, even if it does depend on a fairly narrow definition that manages to exclude titans like Home Depot and Lowe's.)
With that degree of economic heft on display, I might have expected to be surrounded by crack reporters from the Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times when Vetere held a press conference on the expo's second morning to roll out the trade association's latest estimates. Instead, the audience consisted mainly of scribes from Pet Product News, Cat Fancy, and Pet Business. There was a certain amount of trepidation about the 2008 projections. The previous year had seen a high-profile scandal over tainted pet food, whose casualties included hundreds of animals as well as the reputations of several respected pet-food brands. The national economy was also in trouble, with a mortgage crisis that had led to an uptick in foreclosures. (One consequence: new cases of pet homelessness when new landlords forbade animals.) On day one of the expo, Pet Business reported that a survey of customers showed serious new worries about spending. Could the dog run be over?
Apparently not. Vetere unveiled new figures that showed the industry galloping along once again. He placed the projected spending for the year ahead at $43.4 billion, another 6 percent bump.
"Pet Market Proving Recession Proof," declared Pet Business on the convention's second day.
* * *
Self-cleaning litter boxes. Aquariums that can be hung like picture frames. NASCAR-branded pet beds. Snoop Dogg–themed pet hoodies. Birdcages shaped like castles. Talking food bowls. Dog kimonos.
Leashes that blink. Leashes that beep. Leashes that glow in the dark.
Organic dog treats. Kosher dog treats. Australia-themed dog treats. Dog treats sponsored by Dick Van Patten. Dog treats made from desiccated bull penis. Dog treats made from desiccated bull penis and then kneaded into yard-long braids.
GPS devices. Electronic doggie-door keys. Radio-controlled doorbells that ring when puppy wants a walk. Electric treadmills — a bargain at $499 — for when you don't want to take him on one.
Gear that's proudly made in the USA. Gear that's sold under a sign that reads SHENZHEN HUACHENG SCI & TECH DEVELOPMENT CO.
Dog mineral water.
Cat mineral water.
Hamster/guinea pig mineral water.
Still more pet mineral water — but from Iceland! And in brushed-metal bottles, lest your animal absorb contaminants from the plastic!
Products to combat shedding. Products to combat "tear stains." Products to combat the smell of pet excrement. Products — "scientifically tested" — to combat the smell of pet excrement before it is even excreted.
Pet swaddles. Pet strollers. Pet diapers.
And I think I mentioned the ferret hammocks, right?
This, of all the subsectors of our vast economy, is the one that makes shoppers brave recessions? How could this be the industry that actually got a boost from calamities like the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks or 2005's Hurricane Katrina? In my mind, much of this can be explained by a popular term I first heard at a Global Pet Expo: fur baby. "So many baby boomers like myself are getting pets to take the place of children who have walked away, gone to college," Vetere said. "We replace them with fur babies." What a leap: The conspicuous ornament of Thorstein Veblen's Gilded Age has become the twenty-first century's junior human; the faithful companion of old has turned into the furry ersatz child of modern times. Who better to hold on to when the world seems frightening?
People have always adored their pets, but a sheaf of survey statistics points to a striking change in what that love means. In 2001, 83 percent of American pet owners referred to themselves as their animal's "mommy" or "daddy." The number had been 55 percent as recently as 1995. In 2007, an authoritative survey of pet ownership by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) reported that half of American pet owners considered their pet a member of the family. APPMA's own survey the same year revealed that just over 70 percent of pet owners listed "like a child/family member" as a key benefit of dog ownership; cat owners were only slightly less enthusiastic. In 2008, the shrewd dog-culture magazine The Bark announced that 72 percent of its 110,000 subscribers regularly sing to their dogs. Even the names we give modern pets have followed their trajectory from man's best friend to America's fur baby. In 2007, VPI Pet Insurance, the nation's leading issuer of pet policies — more on that later — released a list of top names among the 450,000 animals it insures. So much for Fido, Spot, or Fluffy; VPI's policyholders, it turned out, had abandoned traditional four-legged monikers in favor of Max, Molly, Chloe, Lucy, and Jake, the sorts of names you might hear thrown around on the playgrounds of fancy Manhattan preschools. (Two of the top dog names, Jake/Jacob and Bella/Isabella, actually made the Social Security Administration's list of the year's favored human-baby names; Sophia/Sophie ranked ninth for females of both the human and feline species.)
By 2008 the quasi-parental self-conception among some pet owners was sufficiently well known that San Francisco public health authorities launched a Web site called www.dogsaretalking.com. What did the adorable dogs pictured there have to do with human health? Nothing. But, the campaign argued, owners who got sick might prove unable to care for their fur babies: "Dogs need their people to go in for regular checkups, too." That same year, VPI celebrated the first "Pet Parents Day" on April 22.
Modern demographics have helped the trend along. As Vetere noted when we talked, the emptying nests of the baby boomers play a big role in the modern pet boom. So do the unfilled nests of folks like, well, me and my wife back when Murphy ambled in and took his place as the object of all our nurturing energies. Call us the DIPPies: Double Income, Pampered Pets. In 2007, some 70 percent of pet products and services were purchased by households without kids, up from 45 percent in 2000. The proportion of parents who have pets dipped slightly between 1991 and 2006; pet owning among singles and childless couples saw a bump. Compared to the cost of real kids, though, even the most coddled of the DIPPies' fur babies is a bargain. "They don't need the car, don't need gas," Vetere said. "It's actually a pretty good trade-off in the long run."
That's especially true for members of Vetere's organization. When 29 percent of pet owners report that they buy birthday presents for their dog and 42 percent say they buy Christmas presents for their cats, it's a good time to be in the pet industry. "Somebody pointed out to me yesterday that we no longer feel good rewarding them as pets," Vetere said. "That's not enough, because of the role they play. We have to reward them as humans. That's what makes us happy. Pets are happy. I could throw an old tennis ball to my golden retriever and he'd be thrilled. But we need more." Pass the organic dog treats, Pops.
* * *
The floor of Global Pet Expo turned out to be a rare place in pet-loving San Diego where pets were not welcome. No wonder: the row after row of new dog-treat lines could be enough to send even the most placid old hound into a tizzy. The human guests working the 250,000 square feet of exhibition space tend to be less excitable. As professional buyers for pet retail outlets, they're looking for products that will sell well, not those that smell well. Of course, there are a few random outsiders. We're easy to pick out. We're the ones walking around gaping at the spectacle of dog bed coolers and cat furniture warmers, the ones likely to receive mildly patronizing stares when we ask, say, why a certain line of Disney-themed canine clothing boasts about its "pre-faded" Mickey Mouse T-shirt. (The answer: "Well, the retro look is in.")
Actually, some of the people working the show look baffled, too. Word of Americans' pet spending habits spread in recent years like news of gold at Sutter's Mill in 1848, drawing people from all sorts of other industries who now shake their heads in amazement at their own customers. According to one market study, more than thirty "human-only" companies have entered the pet economy in recent years. At one pet-goods show I met an Indian entrepreneur whose Chicago-based business sells the stainless-steel bowls and plates used in subcontinental thali dishes. He has rebranded them, complete with bone imprint, as classy food bowls for pets. "When we ship it, Indian customs still lists it as utensils," said Shel Singh, who has thirty employees in his factory in Punjab state. "There's no category for pet goods." Singh said the workers back home are incredulous that Americans would spend $12.95 to feed their dogs out of dishes that Indians use to feed themselves for about thirty-five cents. And they're not the only ones. "I will tell you, my sister is married to an army officer, and in India we think of army officers as very sophisticated and worldly," Singh said, roaring with laughter. "But when they saw this dish, they took it to their house and put it on the table with curry and sauces!"
Odd though his new industry may seem to Singh's relatives, it is as firmly entrenched in the slipstream of globalization as any other. Its goods are the product of often complex international trade. Its retailers are increasingly likely to be national chains engaged in their own cutthroat competition, slashing prices to beneath anything a mom-and-pop boutique could afford. Don't let the big, wet eyes of the puppies in the TV commercials fool you; this is two-fisted capitalism for four-pawed customers.
On the production side, despite the occasional made-in-America boast, a huge proportion of the items displayed are made in China. That includes not simply food, where Chinese ingredients have been a source of much recent controversy, but all sorts of less controversial products: the mitten-shaped doggie clean-up bags, the bouncy balls that promise hours of fun playing fetch in the park, the Paris Hilton–style carrier bags for toting small dogs — Pekingese, even — around town. "You pretty much can't not do business with China" was how toy manufacturer Keith Benson, who travels from the Texas Hill Country to spend a couple of months a year at his Chinese facility near Shanghai, put it.
One big reason for that can be found in who's doing the buying from folks like Benson. While the expo may draw lots of mom-and-pop pet store operators, the sector has in the past few decades joined in the chaining of America. Petco, which was established as a mail-order veterinary supplies firm in 1965, opened its first retail store in 1976 and expanded outside its San Diego home base in 1980. A decade later, it hired a former Toys"R"Us executive and began gobbling up other regional pet-supply chains — twenty-one in all — as it expanded across the country. By 2000, when Petco broke the 500-store mark, it had $1 billion in sales. In 2008, it had 850 stores. Its Arizona-based archrival, PetSmart, has grown even bigger even faster. From two stores in 1987, it zoomed to nearly a thousand stores by 2008. About a quarter of them have added in-store veterinary clinics. Its shares are listed on NASDAQ. In 2007, it was six spots shy of a place in the Fortune 500.
The two titans make up 27 percent of America's nonfood pet-gear sales, compared with 18 percent for independent stores and lesser chains. Combine that with the additional 28 percent that shop at national mass merchandisers like Target and you have an enormous amount of power in a small number of firms — either cruelly squeezing the beloved indy pet store down the street or happily passing on savings to ordinary pet owners, depending on your view of these things. Either way, it's not easy for most stateside manufacturers, paying American wages, to hit the price points the mass retailers demand. Like our human babies, our fur babies are more and more likely to play with toys that come from China, low-budget workshop to the world.
Excerpted from One Nation Under Dog by Michael Schaffer. Copyright © 2009 Michael Schaffer. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Michael Schaffer has written for The Washington Post, Slate, The New Republic, and US News&World Report, among other publications. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Keltie Hawkins, and their well-loved-but not freakishly pampered, they insist-pets, Murphy the Saint Bernard and Amelia the black cat.
Michael Schaffer, author of One Nation Under Dog, is a former staff writer at The Philadelphia Inquirer, US News&World Report, and Washington City Paper, and has written for The Washington Post, Slate, The Daily Beast, and The New Republic, among other publications. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Keltie Hawkins, and their daughter, Eleanor. They insist that their own pets, Murphy the Saint Bernard and Amelia the black cat, are not freakishly pampered.
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