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Pricey Treats, Pedicures: Pets Are Recession-Proof

Casey, a Daisy dog, checks out the treats available at Three Dog Bakery in Plymouth, Michigan, on September 19, 2011. Though people have cut spending in many areas, the bakery still sees pet owners buying treats to pamper their animals. (Regina H. Boone/Detroit Free Press/MCT)

Casey, a Daisy dog, checks out the treats available at Three Dog Bakery in Plymouth, Michigan, on September 19, 2011. Though people have cut spending in many areas, the bakery still sees pet owners buying treats to pamper their animals. (Regina H. Boone/Detroit Free Press/MCT)

While Americans willingly cut their spending on upscale restaurants during the Great Recession, their pets continued to dine on gourmet meals.

A recent report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics backs up an October 2011 Time magazine report that claimed pets were as recession-proof as doughnuts, chocolate and condoms, and so popular that Americans spent more than $330 million on their pets’ Halloween costumes that year alone.

Spending on pets and their needs soared to a record $61.4 billion in 2011, according to data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau. The results of two surveys conducted from 2007-2011 indicate that while overall household spending decreased by 7.7 percent, Americans spent 7.4 percent more on their pets during the same time period, said BLS economist Steve Henderson, chief of the Branch of Information and Analysis at the Consumer Expenditure Survey Division in Washington, D.C.

In the BLS’ latest quarterly Beyond the Numbers report, Henderson says that Americans, whether they be higher- or lower-income households, devote about 1 percent of household income to pets.

Americans own 218 million pets that live in nearly three-quarters of U.S. households, according to the American Pet Products Association, cited in the report.

The average U.S. household spent just over $500 on its pets in 2011. Put another way, households reported spending more on their pets annually than they did on alcohol ($456), said Henderson.

“I was interested to see that spending stayed constant, that people kept caring for their pets as much as they did and that (spending) wasn’t affected. The other thing I find interesting is that even when we sliced up the data by age, people were still spending on pet food and pet care into and beyond their 70s,” Henderson said.

The surveys show pet spending decreases as the number of people in the household increases. Spending the most are married couples without children in the home.

The extravagance over pets doesn’t surprise Mindy Pozzuto. She brought her brindle-colored Labrador retriever mix, Jonah, to a shop for what she called his “mani-pedi” appointment.

The visit, she said, was “to beautify him up a bit.”

Jonah was getting his nails ground down by store groomer Merenda Smith to prevent him from scratching the family’s hardwood floors.

Pozzuto said she feeds 5-year-old Jonah, rescued from Summit County (Ohio) Animal Control, a “high-tech” dog food made with lamb because corn and chicken products upset his sensitive stomach.

The Consumer Expenditure Survey by census workers gathers information on consumers, including buying habits, income and consumer unit (families and single consumers) characteristics.

The diary survey is conducted annually with 7,000 households that are asked to keep track of all spending for a week. Census workers examine the diary after the first week, then ask the household to continue for a second week, thus providing 14,000 “good” weekly diaries each year, Henderson said.

The second survey used to collect data is based on interviews of 7,000 households every three months for a year about their spending habits. They provide another 28,000 interviews each year.

“For that part of the population you get the big expenditures, or the repeat expenditures — every month you pay your Netflix bill or your electric bill to keep the lights on,” Henderson explained.

The households represent two different population groups and the same families are not in the same survey. “About one in every 10,000 addresses is represented. In other words, if you are in the sample, you represent about 10,000 people,” Henderson said.

The breakdown of pet spending from 2007-11 suggests that veterinarian services showed the highest percentage increase of 16.1 percent, from an inflation-adjusted $123 to $143. However, in the interim, there was a spike in 2008 to $216.

Pet food was the second-highest expenditure reported in the surveys, increasing each year from $159 in 2007 to $183 in 2011.

The only decrease in spending occurred for live pet purchases, supplies and medicine, down an inflation-adjusted 6.6 percent, or $10, from $151 in 2007 to $141 per household in 2011.

Americans indulge their pets with good reason, said marriage and family therapist Susan Stocker of Akron, who works at the Akron Family Institute.

In the interest of full disclosure, Stocker acknowledged she owns two cats. But it was a German shepherd she owned for more than 13 years that taught her about the unconditional love of a pet, she said.

“I think my cats would probably live with anyone who fed them and changed their litter box. But a dog, oh, my gosh,” said Stocker.

“The level of unconditional love of a pet exceeds most of our human capacity for unconditional love. We humans are very conditional in our love. We are almost incapable of giving the unconditional love a pet can give back to us,” she said.

Stocker said she’s counseled couples who stayed together because they couldn’t decide who would get custody of the dog if they split up.

“It’s not crazy, it’s perfectly understandable. It’s an indicator of how desperately we all need love, affection and attention and we know where we can get it. We can get it trustingly, without question, from a pet,” Stocker said.