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Harriet Buscombe, 49, is seen with her two dogs, Hazel the schnauzer and Wrigley the pit mix, Monday, May 14, 2012 in Champaign, Ill. The two dogs protect her on her pre-dawn runs.
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updated 5/17/2012 1:54:08 PM ET 2012-05-17T17:54:08

Hazel the schnauzer and Wrigley the black lab mix mean everything to Harriet Buscombe. The dogs protect her on her pre-dawn runs around her Champaign, Ill., neighborhood, but mostly they make her feel great.

"My children are grown now and having dogs around keeps me 'still a mom' in many respects," Buscombe said in an email interview. "I always feel a lot better — like all of my problems have lessened — because I have spent times with my dogs."

The loving link between baby boomers like 49-year-old Buscombe and their pets is well documented. Boomers — typically defined as the generation born from 1946 through 1964 — are a major reason why Americans' spending on the likes of food, grooming, kennels, surgery, even souvenirs, is expected to top $52 billion this year.

"Boomers are different, for the most part," said Bob Vetere, president of the American Pet Products Association. "What did they call us? Helicopter parents, because we were constantly hovering over the kids. The kids left home and now we're looking to hover over something else. And so we wind up doing it over pets."

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But will the beautiful relationship last?

Pet ownership rates tend to drop among people in their golden years. And boomers are starting to hit retirement age, with the oldest boomers turning 66 this year. The pet industry is already looking years ahead to when aging boomers eventually could be tempted — or forced — to give up high-maintenance dogs and cats because of fixed incomes, smaller homes or physical limitations. Routine veterinarian care alone can run $248 a year for a dog, according to an industry survey.

"I'm in a bit of a conundrum. I want to own a dog until the day I die, but it haunts me to think of dying and leaving a dog I've bonded with without a best friend," said Mike Lewis of Anchorage, Alaska.

Video: Man spends $60K to get custody of dog (on this page)

At 55, Lewis is healthy, but he is thinking ahead. Lewis and his wife have three dogs now, but he says given his age, he probably has bought his last puppy. If he gets another new dog, it will be an older rescue.

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Pampered pets
It's estimated that about 73 million American households keep pets. A report last month from the market research company Packaged Facts found that the generation after the boomers, Gen X, actually has higher pet ownership rates. But the spending habits of boomers — a generation that represents about a quarter of the population — is significant. And boomers do spend a lot, particularly "empty nesters" with children gone from the home, Vetere said.

Boomers — with their desire for flexibility and mobility — are sinking money into products and services previous generations never considered, like automatic feeding devices and litter boxes or pet-sitting services, Vetere said. They often treat their pets like humans, purchasing gluten-free dog food and heated kitty beds. The Nielsen Co. reported in 2010 that boomer households spent $211 a year on pet food, more than any other age group.

In suburban Detroit, Donna Blain has purchased comfy beds for her Yorkshire terrier-Pomeranian mix, Lola, as well as a wicker bike basket with a cage on the top and about 20 dresses.

"Lola likes the attention. Believe me, she likes going anywhere," said Blain, 56. "Does she like getting dressed up? Probably not."

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In its report Packaged Facts noted that "pet product makers cannot afford to take Boomers for granted."

Benefit goes both ways
Already, the industry is promoting the benefits of pets for older people. The pet association is a founding sponsor (along with Petco and Pfizer Animal Health) of the Human Animal Bond Research Initiative, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting the positive role animals play in people's health.

The group's website touts the role animals have in lowering blood pressure and reducing anxiety.

The pets-have-a-benefit message applies to people of all ages, but the argument might strike a deep chord with older people.

"For us, they bring a really a tremendous amount of joy, you know, because after your kids are gone your house is kind of empty and they're just a lot of fun, good company," said 70-year-old Phyllis Singler, of Philadelphia. She and her 61-year-old husband lead an active retirement with boating and trips to Florida and Europe.

The couple owns two biewers, Natty and Gio, that go almost everywhere they do. And when they can't, they hire a sitter. There's a provision in their will to set aside money so their children can care for the dogs, if need be.

Some researchers caution that the good of pet ownership has to be weighed against the bad. Hal Herzog, a professor of psychology at Western Carolina University, said there are so many studies on the "pet effect" with conflicting results that it remains an "uncorroborated hypothesis." Herzog, author of "Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat" noted, for instance, that the Centers for Disease Control estimated there are almost 87,000 falling injuries each year related to cats and dogs.

"The pet industry has really pushed the idea that pets are good for people and they've ignored the substantial literature showing there's no effect or there's a deleterious effect," Herzog said.

Herzog said pets can have a positive affect — he thinks his cat has a positive effect on him — but that the health benefits have been oversold.

Vetere said claims that pets are some awful tripping hazard or otherwise harmful are "greatly exaggerated."

"I don't see that as being even close to a trade off," he said.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Man spends $60K to get custody of dog

  1. Closed captioning of: Man spends $60K to get custody of dog

    >>> back now at 7:42 with a butter custody battle over a dog. craig says his ex-girlfriend kidnapped his dog and he's waging an expensive fight to get that dog back. we're going to talk to him exclusively in just a moment. first nbc's mar were schiavocampo has details for us. good morning.

    >> good morning, ann. the adorable dog at the center of this dispute is named knuckles . dershewicz says he should be back here in new york , instead of in california with his ex-girlfriend. and she says he's lying and knuckles was a gift. now it's a cross-country war of the exes giving new meaning to the term dog fight . with floppy ears and a squishy pug face, craig dershowitz says knuckles or knuck for short, is so much more than just his best friend .

    >> knuckles is my son and i don't mean to come off as if he's more important than actual human child , but to me he is.

    >> reporter: but dershowitz , a new yorker, says he hasn't seen his pugle in many months, since his ex-girlfriend sarah brega moved away to california and took 3-year-old knuckles along.

    >> knuckles is part of my family. i was with him since he was 4 months old.

    >> reporter: they got knuck while still a couple says dershowitz , but there's no question, knuckles belongs to him.

    >> i bought knuckles . i actually spent the money, i was his care taker for the most part.

    >> reporter: so with knuckles 2500 miles away , now dershowitz isn't just sad, he's suing. in court papers filed in new york , dershowitz claims sarah breger has kidnapped knuckles .

    >> it's a property dispute. it's a theft.

    >> reporter: in the meantime, dershowitz insists the dispute's getting very costly. 60 grand and counting, he says. and it's wiped out his life savings. so, he's posted a rescue knuck video online , asking strangers to pitch in.

    >> he's just so loving and so sweet and warm. the only problem is my ex-girlfriend stole him. now this is my dog in every way imaginable.

    >> reporter: she vehemently disputes his account.

    >> we paid for the dog together. we split everything 50/50. vet bills, day care bills. everything was divvied up and split.

    >> reporter: after the breakup she says dershowitz left knuckles with her and her family for eight months. she says knuckles was an unconditional gift.

    >> he claims that he was trying to find a home for the dog. and i did take the dog to california . i didn't need to check with him, it wasn't his dog.

    >> reporter: she's fighting back in court to dismiss the case. brega says it's all about revenge.

    >> i don't think it's about the dog. i think it's about the fact that i moved on with my life, and moved to california .

    >> reporter: knuckles is better off with her, she says.

    >> he does feel like my son. i am his mom. i look forward to every day when i come home and see him. it is emotional, and i wouldn't be okay if i lost him.

    >> this is a simple case, will the facts show that this dog was actually a gift? ultimately, though, the judge will also look at what's in the best interests of this dog.

    >> reporter: it's a bitter case, but when it comes to who gets knuckles , it's also one of dogged determination.

    >> the most important thing to me is getting knuckles back. and i'm going to do whatever that takes.

    >> reporter: now the core legal question in this case is who actually owns the dog. unlike with child custody battles, animals are considered property under the law. ann?

    >> all right, mara schiavocampo, thank you so much. craig dershowitz is now joining us exclusively along with his attorney. good morning to both of you. craig let's start with this, what we just heard in this piece, that sarah is saying that you unconditionally gifted this dog to her.

    >> absolutely --

    >> do you have a response?

    >> yes, i did not. that's silly. when i moved back to new york and i was looking for a place to live, she held onto him while i found an appropriate apartment. and he was supposed to come back after that.

    >> she also told nbc news the documents you provided to prove sole ownership are without merit and she goes on to say that she paid the vet bills, she fed, sheltered and cared for knuckles since he was eight weeks old. and as you heard in the piece she said this is about revenge. it's not about a dog. it's about revenge for her breaking up with you. i'm starting to see why this relationship didn't work out. but would you like to comment on that?

    >> when i called the veto actually get the bills, as well as the doggie day care they didn't even remember her name. they're like, craig , of course, how are you? what do you need? so, if she paid the bills, i don't remember that. as far as revenge, this is an expensive revenge. not something i want to do. i've actually -- i'm happy she's moved to california . i just want knuckles back here with me.

    >> so how is this going to move forward? you want to weigh in, these are not, these are property laws we're dealing with.

    >> the law treats a dog as a what they call chattel, which is a property. it's like a pen or a watch, something of that nature. right now, the battle is being waged in two courts here in new york , as well as in california . and miss brega in the new york court really hasn't challenged the merits of the case. she's only challenged it on procedural grounds, claiming that new york is not the proper venue for the lawsuit.

    >> i think, you know, some people watching might say, this is much ado about nothing. however, we should mention there are a lot of animal lovers out there who feel as strongly about their pets as you and your former or ex-girlfriend do. i was curious, as you were watching the piece, craig , you said embarrassing. that it's embarrassing. is that the way you feel?

    >> i mean, i grew up with a lot of pride. and so to be out on tv pleading for money, which is what it looks like for a lot of people, just to have my name and my face out there on something of this nature, it's embarrassing. it's not something i did lightly. i just was forced to do it.

    >> you know, you, you talk about leading pore money, you're asking for people to contribute to your legal bills.

    >> yes.

    >> through the internet. there are a lot of great charities that people should contribute to. why do you think that they should contribute to you?

    >> absolutely, that's a great question. i'm looks just for small bits. and most of the donations so far have been $20 or less. and i think that give bigger charities to the places that deserve it. there's very important charities out there and i give every year, of course. but this is something that with just a small amount you can make a large difference.

    >> and if you could speak to sarah -- first of all are you in communications or all or no contact?

    >> no contact.

    >> if you could speak to her right now what would you want to say to her?

    >> just let's get over this, bring knuckles back. really there's nothing else going on. contact me however, through my attorneys, i just want knuckles home where you know he belongs.

    >> craig dershowitz and sean dweck

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