More families pamper their pets, treating them like children

More dogs spend time at day care

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AP Jody Meerdink, owner of of Paw Lickin' Good in Sycamore, Ill., uses a knife to spread a yogurt frosting on a dog birthday cake at her business. Meerdink has noticed that owners’ attitudes toward their pets have changed. Her business,…

SYCAMORE, Ill. - For Erika Young, her 3-year-old boxer, Mandy, isn't just a dog.

She's more like a second child.

Mandy is dropped off at day care three days a week. She gets dressed up in Halloween costumes every year and dons a Santa hat around Christmas time. And for her birthday this month, she got some cookies baked specially for dogs.

"I spoil her just the way I spoil my son - on a different level, of course," said Young, who lives in Sycamore. "She's just a member of the family."

Young is among a growing number of pet owners who go the extra mile for their pets, said Carlos Dominguez, veterinarian at Bethany Animal Hospital in Sycamore.

"Pets are switching from owned property in people's minds to actually being part of the family," he said. "We've been seeing that trend for the last couple of years."

Jody Meerdink, owner of Paw Lickin' Good in Sycamore, also has noticed that owners' attitudes toward their pets have changed. Her business, including the pet bakery, has thrived even though the store opened just before the Great Recession. Aside from bakery items, specialty meals - such as dog-friendly "granny's pot pie" and lasagna - also are popular around the holidays. Meerdink said that's mainly the "pamper" side of the business.

"I think for a lot of people, the attitude of having a dog or a cat went from 'I have a dog' to 'I have another kid,' " she said.

Huckleberry's Pet Parlor in Sycamore gives pet owners plenty of opportunities to pamper their pets, from a moist towel wrap to a blueberry facial. But those services also serve purposes beyond pampering, though, said Jenny Kingren, owner of the pet parlor. The facials are popular for dogs with lighter fur because it helps remove tear stains. And the towel wraps help dogs with dry skin.

Kingren said the pet parlor also carries a brand of nail "pawlish" just for pets, in shades including fire hydrant red and poodle pink.

And at the doggie day care, where Young's boxer Mandy goes, Kingren offers a live-feed webcam so owners can check in on their dogs during the day.

"They are a pet, but they're part of the family, as well," Kingren said. "I think many families want to take care of their family members."

Dominguez said extras such as doggie day care make a difference because dogs are social animals that require human attention. A day care can provide the mental stimulation they need, especially if a dog has separation anxiety or compulsive behavior.

He said pets also are living longer for a variety of reasons, including better diets, advanced medical treatments and better access to care.

"The ability to take your dog to a specialist used to be more of a privilege in urban communities," he said.

Kingren said even during the height of the recession, pet owners still found the means to groom their pets, although some added a few more weeks between visits. She said grooming remained essential because, without it, pets' nails can start to curl under or their ears can get infected.

Diet also is more popular lately as a preventive tool to keep pets from having to see the veterinarian as often, Meerdink said.

"We look at how we treat our own nutrition and think, if that affects me, it probably affects my companion," Meerdink said.

For Young, it's the little extras that make Mandy feel more like family. That means buying a birthday cake made specially for dogs or making sure Mandy has a costume for the monthly themed parties at her day care center.

"I can't imagine not having her as part of our life," she said. "We made a conscious decision (when we got her) that we wanted a pet as a member of the family."

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