Pricey paws

Marie Havenga • Jul 21, 2015 at 12:17 PM

Americans collectively spent $53 billion on pet care in 2012, according to the American Pet Products Association. That includes $34 billion on food and vet care; $4.4 billion on grooming, boarding and pet-sitting; and $12.5 billion on alternative care such as animal acupuncture.

And let's not forget the seasonal wardrobe.

It's nothing these days to see a dog walking down the bike path or sidewalk wearing a dress and sunglasses during the summer or a coat and scarf during the winter.

Apparently, local pet lovers also have a long leash when it comes to funding furry friends. Tonya Christiansen, owner of the Must Love Dogs shop in downtown Grand Haven, said the national numbers are “right on” with local trends.

Americans are also willing to spend more to feed their pets.

“People are interested in more natural approaches and healthier options,” Christiansen said. “They're getting more into raw feeding, which is really the way a dog should be fed.

"People are thinking about their own health and eating whole foods and foods that aren't processed," she added. "It's the same way they feed their dog.”

But like organic food in grocery stores, there's a price for going natural – 6 pounds of doggy chicken patties cost $25.99.

“People just aren't going to the grocery store and picking up a bag of 'fill in the blank,' they're caring more about their dog's health," Christiansen said. “A lot of dogs die from cancer for the same reasons people die from cancer — there's all the chemicals in the food, water, flea and tick products.”

When Christiansen opened her pet store in 2006, she envisioned an upscale boutique that sold items such as $250 leather dog carriers. But the economy soon tanked and she was forced to evolve, changing her inventory to more practical “fiscally efficient” items.

Despite the economic downturn, people didn't skimp on their pets, according to Christiansen. If anything, the economic uncertainty of 2008-09 brought people and their pets closer, she said.

“As things are uncertain around us, our dogs are the only consistency in some people's lives,” the dog shop owner said. “We're going to hold onto that for as long as we can.”

Like parents often do for children, Christiansen sees many pet owners sacrificing for their four-legged friends.

“My dogs will always get good food and I will eat Ramen noodles if I have to," she said. "They can't do for themselves, and you feel the need to do the best you can for them. Some people may think that's loopy, but a lot of my customers say that they would do without before they would have their pets do without."

Local pets are treated like part of the community with resources such as dog parks and pet drinking fountains.

When winter storms hit, Christiansen said customers buy coats, paw protectors and scarves for their dogs. She also stocks an array of doggy dresses, earrings and car booster seats.

“Our pets are with us a lot more than family members are,” Christiansen said. “Kids come and go and they're out with friends, but your dog is always with you.”

Christiansen said she's seeing a trend in which more and more people consider their pets as their kids.

“I'm not for the humanization of dogs, but I love my dogs more than anything and I'll do anything for them," she said. "People want things for their dogs that they get for their kids. The past six years, I've noticed more people dressing their dogs. Some people think that's ridiculous.

"You can't help but smile when you see a Chihuahua in a pink dress," she continued. "How bad can it be? I don't think this trend is going away.”

Grand Haven resident Mary Stancik doesn't dress her horse in pretty pink dresses, but she does outfit him with shoes. Between horseshoeing (farrier) costs, boarding fees, vet expenses and feed, she said her horse, Teddie, costs her about $5,000 a year.

To read more of this story, see today’s print or e-edition of the Grand Haven Tribune.

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