Sure, over the years they've been bestowed with the title of man's best friend or even, in some cases, taken on the role of the family baby.
But how far are people willing to go to ensure the happiness of their pets? From gourmet food and designer clothes to high-end services, such as pet sitting and doggie cabs, American consumers are turning what was once the simple life of a dog into a lifestyle of four-paw luxury.
In 2006, Americans will spend an estimated $38.4 billion on their furry friends, a 35% increase compared to the $28.5 billion spent five years ago, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association.
Out of this, an estimated $15.2 billion will be spent on pet food alone, which is telling of the fact that pet owners are going beyond the traditional doggie biscuits and into more extravagant treats for their four-legged friends.
There is no doubt that the pet market is a booming arena, and it's not just pet retail giants such as
that are taking advantage of the market situation.
The latest trend in the industry? Entrepreneurs who are popping up all over the country to get in on the pet-crazed action.
One Pooch or Two?
Becky Marshall was in the process of getting her graduate degree at Columbia College in Chicago when she stumbled upon an idea to start a gourmet frozen-treat business for dogs.
"I was out with my family for ice cream, and I started wondering why ...
there wasn't a treat dogs could eat, since dairy products make them sick," she says.
Polar Pups, a company selling doggie ice cream, was born.
"My biggest hope going into this business was to make dogs happy," Marshall says. "People love their pets tremendously and treat them as their own children, much as I do."
Now two years into her Chicago-based business, the 36-year-old Marshall packages, markets and sells Polar Pups ice cream in four doggie flavors: Beggin' Banana, Barkin' Apple, Berry Bite and Puppy Nutter. The ice cream, filled with protein and vitamins, is sold individually in four-ounce cups at around $2 each.
One secret of her success? Hailey (a German Shepherd) and Sam (a black Lab) are Marshall's two dogs and her most reliable taste testers, she explains.
Marshall has already expanded her business to supermarkets and grocery stores in California, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Wisconsin, and as Polar Pups grows, she is looking to market her product in warmer areas and move into other pet food products as well.
Another entrepreneur who ventured into the four-legged world is Robin Hollis, who started her
Guardian Petsitting Service nearly six years ago.
"For the first six months or so, we had three or four clients," Hollis recalls. Now she manages a roster of more than 300 customers and has consequently needed to hire four independent contracted reps -- and is still looking to add to her staff.
Based in San Jose, Calif., Guardian operates in Santa Clara County, but Hollis, who worked at an animal hospital for 11 years before she founded her company, says she will expand her business soon.
"Our busiest time of year is the summer and holidays," she says. "Mid-January through early March are usually the slowest months, but a lot of times those months are busy too."
To view Hema Oza's video take of today's Good Life segment, click here
The rate for one 20- to 30-minute visit starts at $24, for up to two pets. During the visit, services include walking, feeding, brushing and giving the pet its medicine, "but it's mostly about giving the pet attention," Hollis says.
"We tend to service upper-class families that pamper their kids -- I mean, their pets," Hollis corrects, adding that often the pets she cares for are like children to their owners. The owners are very specific in their directions; as Hollis points out, "they really want you to do this or that."
Polly Wanna Doctor?
Four years ago, Laura Bennett and Alex Krooglik were just two classmates at Wharton Business School in Philadelphia toying with the idea of starting up a pet insurance business.
At their graduation a year later, the pair, along with two other students, won the year's Wharton Business Plan award for a business based on the idea.
Now, 40-year-old Bennett and 33-year-old Krooglik are co-founders of Cleveland, Ohio-based
Embrace Pet Insurance and are set to launch their first policy in August.
Although the company officially started in July 2003, it took more than three years to get it running, Bennett says.
"We had a difficult time finding an insurance partner in the U.S.," she explains. Eventually they had to travel to the U.K., where the concept of pet insurance is more established, to get an insurer to back their agency.
Despite the hurdles that seemed to come in their way, Bennett and Krooglik were determined to stick with their idea.
"It was a unique opportunity to do something in a market that is so ready to take off," Bennett says.
The market is poised to grow for a number of reasons, Bennett explains. First, there is a growing use of human technology in the veterinary world, which is making vet care much more expensive. Also, there is the factor of the growing trend of the humanization of animals, where people are demanding higher standards of care for their pets.
And finally, there is more disposable income for people between the ages of 35 and 54 as children leave the household, Bennett points out. As this happens, pets become these people's surrogate children, and owners begin to spend more money on them. Rates and coverage vary widely, but policies can run from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars per year.
Although pet insurance does exist in the U.S. now, less than 0.5% of cats and dogs in the country are insured. Compared with the U.K., where more than 20% of dogs and cats are insured, this is minimal, Bennett says, on the basis of research she compiled.
The pet insurance business has been growing 30% a year, and once people become aware of it, if will grow even faster. "Soon it won't be a novelty," Bennett says. "It will be a normal thought that people will
consider when bringing a new pet to the family."
Enjoy the Good Life? Email us with what you'd like to see in future articles.