Pet Connection by Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

PET BUSINESS BOOMS

America has gone crazy for pets.

There's just no other message to take away from the Global Pet Expo, the American Pet Product Manufacturers Association's massive trade show, which just wrapped up a three-day run in San Diego.

"You have two-thirds of the households in this country having pets vs. one-third of households with children," says Bob Vetere, director of the APPMA. "Pets are where the money is."

The growth of the show mimics the growth of the industry, with year-over-year increases in the number of companies represented. They take booth space in hopes of selling to buyers from traditional pet stores and chic pet boutiques to the holy grail big-box retailers like PETCO and PetSmart, and the massive make-or-break buying power of Wal-Mart.

The floor of the convention center took up as much space as 11 football fields, and the booths showcased everything from lone inventors hawking their new-product dreams to such longtime pet powerhouses as the Hartz and Sergeant companies.

And it wasn't just pet-supply companies with names you'd recognize.

"Last year we had 200 new members, and 90 percent were start-ups or new companies," said Vetere. "We also have long-established companies like Home Depot working to extend their brand into pets."

This year, according to APPMA projections, spending on pets will be an estimated $38.4 billion, up from $36.3 billion in 2005. Even more astonishing: The figure is up from $17 billion in 1994.

Much of that growth is in products for dogs, who have become substitute children to two key sectors of the society: Young adults who are putting off starting families, and aging baby boomers who have already raised their children.

"It used to be that when people retired, they didn't want the responsibility of pets. They wanted to travel," said Vetere. "We're just not seeing that so much anymore. And then the 'Y' generation -- my kids -- they're pursuing careers. Even if they get married, they're delaying families. But you don't always like to come home to an empty house."

While the trade show floor offered a vast array of products, several trends were apparent. No surprise, given our busy lives, convenience was the main idea behind many products. Companies are scrambling to make it easy and less time-consuming to care for pets.

Products to pamper pets continue to be popular, along with goods that are more about amusing pet owners than caring for animals, such as outfits for little dogs. Still, the number of vendors pushing doghouses for outside pets could have been counted on one hand, while there were easily several hundred different kinds of beds for indoor dogs on display.

The final trend was a natural one, or at least natural in its appearance. I gave up counting the number of products with "nature," "natural" or some variation on the theme in their name. Clearly, a lot of these products were as natural as purple hair, a new label on the same old products. Label reading will be very important for pet lovers, that's for sure.

The "natural" trend was most apparent in pet foods, which is a $15.2 billion piece of the pet-industry pie. We clearly want our pets to eat well, and that too is all about our seeing our pets as family members, according to Vetere.

"If there's a trend in human food, it'll be in pet food in six months," he says.

In the weeks to come I'll write on more of these trends, from the latest in high-tech litter boxes to pet foods so good you couldn't go wrong eating them yourself.

Q&A

Bunnies great for family pet

Q: I just read your article on "Bunny Love Gone Bad," and I couldn't agree more! In January we adopted Grommet from our local humane society. Since then he has become an integral part of our lives.

His cage and "playground," as we have now come to call it, takes up nearly half of my home office. He gives us all so much joy just being the bunny he should be.

Will you please keep sharing the word about what great pets rabbits make? I'm including a picture of my son Garrett with Grommet. -- Maggie Spikes, via e-mail

A: You are absolutely right that rabbits make wonderful pets when given the opportunity to shine. People who throw them in a hutch in the yard or confine them to a small cage in the house will never understand how lively, playful and affectionate a pet rabbit can be.

Rabbits are constantly being dumped on shelters, typically by people who purchased them on impulse. The animals have very low adoption rates, and yet they adapt very well to new homes where proper care and attention is given. The first place for any person interested in a pet bunny to look should be a shelter.

Q: I just got a rabbit from a friend, and I was wondering what fresh foods are OK to give him. -- J.S., via e-mail

A: A rabbit's diet should consist of a nonstop supply of grass hays (timothy, alfalfa or oat hay, brome or orchard grass), plus daily servings of fresh, dark-green leafy vegetables. Your rabbit also needs at-will access to clean, fresh water. Fruits such as bananas, apples or raisins can be used as treats.

I don't use commercial rabbit pellets at all. I feed them "greens" -- collard, mustard, chard, kale, dandelion, etc. -- along with parsley, broccoli and the leafy tops of root vegetables such as carrots, parsnips or beets. If you have room for a vegetable garden, greens are ridiculously easy to grow. I also give my rabbits the parings from all the vegetables I prepare for myself.

I buy hay at the feed mill (even most urban areas have them). When I had one rabbit, I bought hay by the "flake" (10 flakes to a bale in my area). But now that I have three rabbits, I save money by buying hay one bale at a time. If you keep it covered and dry, a hay bale will last for months.

Rabbits are a wonderful pet for any gardener. You don't scoop out their litter as you would with a cat. Rather, you empty and refill the pressed-paper pellets and hay in their litter boxes at regular intervals. It all goes straight into the compost pile, where it helps to produce rich compost.

Final note: "Wild" greens are fine to feed rabbits -- as long as you're sure the area where you're picking is free of herbicides and pesticides.

(Do you have a pet question? Send it to petconnection@gmail.com.)

PET Rx

Spring shedding normal, healthy

Dogs typically lose their winter coats in the spring, and that means hair everywhere.

The change is most obvious in "double-coated" breeds, such as collies, Samoyeds and malamutes. These breeds carry a protective overcoat of long hair as well as an insulating undercoat that's soft and fuzzy. These breeds lose masses of fur from both of these coats in spring and fall, but the clumps that come out of the undercoat are especially noticeable.

The amount of shedding varies widely from breed to breed. German shepherds, for example, are prolific year-round shedders, while poodles seem to lose very little fur at all. Shorthaired breeds may shed as much as longhairs, but since the hair these dogs drop is easily overlooked, it may seem as if they are shedding less.

All shedders -- even the heaviest -- can be tamed by a regular and frequent schedule of combing and brushing. After all, the fur you catch on a comb won't end up on your furniture.

If you have a purebred, or a dog that has the characteristics of a purebred, seek out breed-specific advice in regard to the proper kind of grooming equipment. The slicker brush that works fine on a close-cropped poodle may not make much headway in the thick mane of a full-coated Alaskan malamute at the height of a seasonal shed.

Shedding is normal, but some heavy shedding can be a sign of health problems. Skin allergies and skin parasites may trigger shedding, and poor nutrition or other health problems can also be a cause of coat problems.

Become familiar with your pet's normal pattern of shedding. Ask your veterinarian for advice if your pet's coat condition seems too dull, or if you notice excessive hair loss or bare patches.

(Pet Rx is provided by the Veterinary Information Network (VIN.com), an online service for veterinary professionals. More information can be found at www.veterinarypartner.com.)

ON THE WEB

'Bettatalk' site witty, helpful

Simply put, it doesn't get any better than a betta when it comes to pet fish. They're beautiful, relatively easy to keep, and are a great fish for beginners and experienced hobbyists alike.

The Bettatalk.com Web site is the place to go for information on these fun fish. Not only is it full of helpful care tips and advice, but it's also one of the most entertaining sites created and designed by an individual.

You'll find pictures, videos, games links and even jokes. You can even buy a betta, since Bettatalk's creator breeds and sells these nifty little fish.

PET TIP

Parrot mind can be read in the eyes

From the tiniest budgie or parrotlet to the largest macaw, parrots can be loving, cuddly, playful or contemplative one minute, and demanding, aloof, manic or peevish the next. Sharing space with a parrot is like living with another human: Sometimes you just have to pick your moments and know when to back off.

Some of these moods are pretty obvious -- an Amazon in a rowdy state or a cockatoo who wants to be cuddled isn't hard to figure out. Other times, though, behavior signs may be more subtle, and the failure to heed these clues may earn you a nasty bite.

Parrots have keen eyesight and often stare at something that fascinates or frightens them, using one eye and tipping the head, or using both eyes for a head-on look.

When you see that your bird is fixated on something, follow that line of vision. A relaxed body posture accompanies a calm, curious bird's staring, and a more defensive or aggressive body language demonstrates fright. Most often, a locked-on look is a sign of fascination: Like the youngest children, birds can become attracted by something colorful in their environments.

Birds are able to control their irises, shrinking and enlarging their pupils rapidly in a display that's called "flashing" or "pinning."

You have to read the whole bird to put the message in its proper context. Birds may flash their eyes when they're excited or when they're angry. Flashing accompanied by aggressive posturing, such as tail-fanning, signifies a bird who's bound to escalate his warnings -- and maybe even bite -- if not left alone.

Consider flashing to be the physical display of strong emotion -- anything from the "I want to kill you" vibes of an angry or aggressive bird to the "Hey there, cutie" of an infatuated bird.

BY THE NUMBERS

Pets are big business

Image: GPE

Optional cutline: We love our pets, and we're happy to spend money on them.

At the recent Global Pet Expo trade show, the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association reveals figures that show the strong growth of the pet industry. In 2006, Americans will spend an estimated 38.4 billion on their pets, including:

-- $15.2 billion on food

-- $9.3 billions for supplies

-- $9.4 billion on veterinary care

-- $2.7 billion for pet-related services

THE SCOOP

Don't trust dogs with mail carrier

It's natural for a dog to bark when a stranger comes to the door. In the case of the mail carrier, that stranger comes almost every day. The dog barks to alert the family and warn the carrier to go away.

From the dog's point of view, it was his brave warning that drove the stranger away. He doesn't realize the mail carrier's just going to the next house on the route. As the dog sees it: He barked, and the interloper left.

Over time, the dog's reaction intensifies as he tries harder to send a message to the stranger who just doesn't seem to understand. As the dog becomes more and more worked up over time, the potential for a bite increases. In the best interests of dogs and mail carriers everywhere, dog owners are well-advised to restrain or retrain their dogs to keep from adding to those bite statistics. -- G.S.

Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies," "Cats for Dummies" and "Birds for Dummies." She is also affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or send e-mail to petconnection@gmail.com. You can also read her frequently updated Web log or view her column archives at www.spadafori.com.

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