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Despite economy, no expense spared on these pets

The pet products industry has become a veritable oasis among the gloom and doom of American business.  A $900 dog bowl, organic treats and clothes with attitude were just a few of the luxury items on display at the Pet Industry Christmas Trade Show in Chicago.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Until last week, I thought I was the owner of one pampered pooch.

After all, Macy Mae and I celebrated our first year together — a day henceforth celebrated in late June as Adoption Day — with a bone-shaped carob cake, a cadre of canine pals and a bright yellow kiddie pool perfect for wading.

What more could my 16-pound mutt need?

Apparently, a porcelain dinner bowl covered with hundreds of hand-placed Swarovski crystals.

Examining the bowl, sold wholesale for $900 by German company Koko von Knebel Trading AG at the Pet Industry Christmas Trade Show, pet-owning insecurities I never knew I had bubbled up. Especially when Sabine Thomaschefski, the company's office manager, told me she had a $1,300 dog bed that wasn't even on display.

She must have seen the throbbing vein in my forehead as I snatched my fingers away from the bowl and pondered a doggie divan that matched my mortgage payment.

"People are waiting and counting their money to do something special for their dogs because they love them so much," she said reassuringly. "You don't have to spend a lot of money."

But lots of money was exactly what was on display up and down the aisles in the cavernous suburban Chicago convention center where hundreds of vendors showcased dog and cat delicacies hoping to hook buyers from pet boutique owners, groomers and others in the industry.

Organic treats! Clothes with attitude! (Proclaimed one shirt: "Yes, I'm on Facebook." A nearby leash screamed: "One of us has balls.") Faux fur! Sparkles! Ribbons! Sparkly ribbons!

As retailers worry about the possibility of the worst fourth quarter in generations, the pet products industry has become a veritable oasis among the gloom and doom of American business. Companies that sell everything from organic dog food to couture-inspired pet toys say business is up — way up — even as economic indicators show shoppers are pinching pennies.

At the Pawsitively Gourmet booth, saleswoman Kimberly Roberts said orders for elaborately decorated dog cookies are up, despite the nation's economic woes. Her top sellers include Christmas-themed treats and Halloween edibles, including a cat-shaped cookie decorated with black frosting.

"It's a little sick," she giggled. "But everybody likes to feed a dog a cat."

Running my fingers over plush dog beds made out of memory foam mattresses and handmade boiled wool toys made by Nepali women, I thought of Macy's pile of well-gnawed plastic PetSmart toys and vowed to stop by Dog-a-holics, my favorite neighborhood boutique, for something organic, orthopedic, or both.

At New York Dog, I eyed a gold lame and fake fur ensemble ($65) and matching dog-carrying purse ($140) that a well-kempt Macy could don for a walk along Chicago's lakefront. After all, winters here — pardon the pun — are a total bitch.

By now, I was in full-fledged guilt mode. Here I was, surrounded by dog decadence while Macy lounged on her hand-me-down blanket at home.

Sensing my vulnerable state, a sales rep offered to show me the company's most popular item this year — organic, earth-friendly chew toys depicting endangered animals that when squeezed, make each animal's distinctive sound.

For about $15, Macy — whose tireless jaws destroy all chew toys — could gut an endangered Blue whale while listening its calming call.

Next stop: Miami-based Copa Judaica, which was offering glittery Star of David charms for pets and their owners.

"A lot of our customers buy them mommy and me — one of themselves and one for the pup," explained Barbara Matzer.

Surrounding the glittery pieces were the company's line of Jewish pet toys, Chewish Treats. A stuffed Menorah. Squeaky Hanukkah gelt. And, yes, even, blue squeaky circumcision scissors.

I managed to keep a straight face as my hard-nosed reporter instincts kicked in.

"Is there really a market for Jewish pet toys?"

"I do very well," Matzer said. "What we see is focused on the fun side of the Jewish subculture. Jewishness is not just a religion. It's a subculture."

As I watched owners cruise the floor with dogs, cats and even ferrets in tow (and sometimes out front, nestled snugly inside doggie strollers), I missed Macy. And empty handed, I headed for the door.

That's where I saw them: knitted wool sweaters for $15 — one emblazoned with a giant smiling pink pig — sold cash-and-carry.

I grabbed two and headed home to my girl.