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In "One Nation Under Dog," journalist Michael Schaffer takes a look at America's $43 billion love affair with pets, and the lengths we'll go to for them, from antidepressants to luxury day spas. His adventure began with a Saint Bernard named Murphy.
Back in the spring of 2004, my girlfriend and I drove to a shelter in New Jersey and adopted Murphy, an emaciated, filthy, and incredibly sweet Saint Bernard. I'd never had a dog before, and at the time, I vowed never to become one of those people who shell out for doggie day spas or organic pet food.
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We got married a couple months later. Murphy was soon a full-fledged member of the family, and all our ideas about being dog cheapskates started to crumble. When he had a hard time adjusting to a house after being in a shelter as a stray, we put him on antidepressants. When we felt guilty about feeding him generic kibble, we traded up to premium stuff.
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And we sat for pictures with him and Santa.
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We even dressed him up for Halloween (he was French).
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...And Deeper Still
And taking him on vacation. Where he got his own lifejacket on the boat.
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One day, in the park, Murphy went into a hollow tree and a black stray cat came out. We took her home and called her Amelia. Now we were buying high-end pet toys for two. It took Murphy about six months to accept his competitor. I think he still regrets making the discovery.
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What's Going On?
Around the time we bought Murphy his set of Christmas reindeer antlers, I got to thinking: How did we manage to become the pet-pamperers we swore we'd never be? I'm a reporter, so I started asking questions. It turns out that in 2008, Americans spent $43 billion on pets, nearly triple in 15 years. What was going on?
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Global Pet Expo
My research took me to places such as Global Pet Expo, the giant trade show where I came across this robotic kitty-litter box. (The business is so competitive that one guy accused me of being an industrial spy when he saw my camera.)
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I visited fancy dog hotels with in-room TVs and met professional dog-walkers looking to make $100,000 a year, and this private doggie gym in New York, where owners could make appointments for their dogs to have a swim lesson with a private trainer.
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Pet Fashion Week
I also spent time at Pet Fashion Week, where the fanciest couture pet clothing is put on display before an audience of buyers for upscale pet boutiques. Those stores are some of the fastest-growing businesses in the pet world.
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I visited pet-friendly vacation resorts, pet-friendly airports, and pet-friendly office buildings. In San Francisco, pet owners were so determined to fight for their rights to take their animals with them into the parks that they put bumper-stickers on their cars that read: I HAVE A PET...AND I VOTE.
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I visited a Chihuahua social networking group. I came the day they were holding their annual Chihuahua Christmas party.
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The Uglier Side
I also saw some pretty horrible things. In the Amish country of Pennsylvania, puppy mills -- which breed dog-store dogs in terrible conditions -- are such a common business that there are signs like this one all over the roads. I like that he's selling both yellow labs and root beer.
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A New Family Member
But all in all, I came to think that the current state of Americans and their pets is pretty sweet. I fully realized this after we added a two-legged baby to our family. People warned us that we'd resent all the time and energy the dog would still demand. In fact, the opposite happened.
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Happily Ever After
Our daughter has never known life without Murphy around. They have a great relationship: She drops food, and he eats it, and everyone is happy. It would never occur to her that having Murphy was once a choice. Because, by the time she arrived, it wasn't.
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About the Author
Michael Schaffer has written for The Washington Post, Slate, The New Republic, and US News & World Report, among other publications. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Keltie Hawkins; their daughter, Ellie; and their well-loved -- but not freakishly pampered, they insist -- pets, Murphy the Saint Bernard and Amelia the black cat.
photo (c) Ryan Donnell
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"One Nation Under Dog" is about America's pet obsession -- the explosion, over the past generation, of an industry full of pet masseuses, professional dog-walkers, leash-law militants, luxury pet spas, veterinary grief counselors, upscale dog shampoos, and the like: a booming economy that is evidence of tremendous and rapid change in the status of America's pets.Learn more about "One Nation Under Dog"
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