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A Pampered Pet Nation

May 31st, 2007, 05:45 PM
A record number of Americans own pets—and they are spending a record amount of money to feed, clothe and care for their wee beasts. But is all the attention actually good for the critters? Why we need to remember the lessons of the wild kingdom.

May 31st, 2007, 05:48 PM
May 24, 2007 - When I decided to buy an overpriced Rhodesian Ridgeback puppy, I vowed never to become one of those “dog nuts.” You know the type: owners who knit sweaters for their pooches and seek the advice of canine psychiatrists whenever Muffy messes on the carpet. My dog would stay off the furniture, wouldn’t tug on her leash and would never ever beg for table scraps. Five years later, I can say with confidence that my pet knows who’s boss. Each morning I awake shivering and clinging to the edge of my king-size bed, with 70 pounds of canine splayed horizontally across the mattress and hogging the covers. Before pouring myself a cup of coffee, I handfeed Samantha the breakfast of her choice: if I give her the “wrong” treat—say, a dog biscuit—she spits it out. Which explains why I once carried a dozen madeleines home from Paris. Samantha never spits those out. But I’ve had to cut back on the cookies ever since the vet reprimanded me for letting my sleek Ridgeback take on the shape of a Christmas ham. I figured more exercise would do the trick, so I decided to take Samantha to one of those pricey Hollywood “dog spas” that I once derided. For $45 a day, she gets to romp around the indoor 2,500-square-foot Astroturf park at LA Dogworks with a couple dozen of her four-footed friends and a few attentive humans at her beck and call. She can even get a $60 massage, or unwind in the “Zen Den” with aromatherapy and Reiki, a “laying on of hands” designed to channel healing energy. Samantha would have none of it at first: she’d spend the entire day staring at the door of the shop and whining for my return. “Separation anxiety,” an attendant explained. But now, whenever I tell Samantha that I’m taking her to “class,” she eagerly jumps into the car and sits bolt upright in her favorite spot: behind the wheel, in the driver’s seat.

May 31st, 2007, 05:49 PM
I know what you’re thinking. How did I become so puppy-whipped? I’m certainly not as bad as the Paris Hilton wannabes who dress Chihuahuas in Jackie-O pillbox hats and tote them around like Fendi baguettes. (OK, I did buy Samantha a little Santa suit with matching gold-lamé booties once for the holidays). Nor, does it seem, am I alone in my obsession. An estimated 63 percent of American households have a pet, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, with a record 44.8 million households owning dogs and 38.4 million owning cats in 2006; since many households own more than one feline, cats actually outnumber dogs in the United States by 88 million to 75 million. (Fish are a perennial third, and you'll be happy to know that the oft-overlooked chinchilla is rising in popularity.)

As the demographics of America have changed, so too has the nature of pet ownership. It used to be that most pets were bought by families. Now, the majority of pet owners, 61 percent, are childless—singles, unmarried couples waiting to have kids, gay couples, empty-nesters. Invariably, these owners tend to treat their pets like surrogate babies, and they spoil them accordingly. To help these childless pet-parents spend their disposable income, the pet products industry has mushroomed in the past decade. This year we’ll shell out more than $40 billion to keep our furry friends fed, adorned, amused and healthy—the latter a huge growth category, with more and more owners paying top dollar for elaborate medical treatments to forestall that inevitable last visit to the vet. By the end of the decade, we’ll be spending $50 billion on pet products, according to the APPMA. Walk the aisles of Petco or PetSmart, past the Hawaiian shirts and sunglasses for your dog and the $140 Catnip Chaise Lounge for your cat, and you’ll discover just how well-trained we Americans have become. “I don’t know who’s been domesticated: the animals, or the humans?” says Jeff Corwin, Animal Planet’s globetrotting wildlife biologist.

Some 56 percent of dog owners and 42 percent of cat owners buy their pets Christmas presents. Pets can listen to their own Internet radio station (Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” is one of the more popular songs on, post their pictures and make play dates on and, and earn frequent flier miles on United. They even have cell phones now: PetsCell is a bone-shaped telephone that attaches to your dog’s collar and allows you to ring him up (sorry, incoming calls only). And there’s a new beer for dogs (from Amsterdam, no less), called Kwispelbier, which is Dutch for “waggy tail” brew. The recent scare over tainted pet food has made feeding your animal a pricey proposition: I’ve switched Samantha to “holistic” kibble and wet food, hormone-free chicken strips and handmade cookies from a local dog bakery, along with the occasional whole-roasted chicken that we share for dinner. She also gets dried pig hearts, which cost $5 apiece (those, we don’t share).

But is all this coddling for our pets, or is it for us? A growing number of animal behaviorists, researchers and trainers think we’ve gone off the deep end, anthropomorphizing and infantilizing our pets to the point that we’ve forgotten an essential biological truth: at the level of basic instinct, Tabby is a wildcat and Fido is a wolf. Understand this, the experts say, and you will comprehend such mysteries of the universe as why your cat prefers to sharpen its nails on your favorite sofa and your dog insists on rolling in manure after getting a bath. Ignore the call of the wild in your pet, and you not only diminish the quality of its life; you open yourself to all sorts of bad behavior, from the merely annoying (your cat pees on the bed) to the potentially deadly (snarling pit bulls). “Thirty years ago, dogs were rarely on leashes, they ran loose, they even bit people now and then. They were rarely given human names,” says Jon Katz, author of the best-selling book “A Good Dog” and the upcoming “Dog Days.” “Now, the whole atmosphere has changed. It’s not like we want them biting people, but now they don’t get enough exercise, they don’t do as much, they can’t explore. They’re basically being loved to death.”

Predictably, this backlash against overindulgence has spawned its own multi-million-dollar business with a slew of new books, pet-training services and top-rated TV shows like “The Dog Whisperer,” a “Supernanny” for overindulgent owners who treat their dogs like fur babies. “I rehabilitate dogs. I train people,” explains the Dog Whisperer, Cesar Millan. He’s the pack leader when it comes to showing pet owners just how delusional we’ve become—a latter-day Barbara Woodhouse, the dog trainer and 1980s BBC television personality who admonished, “There is no such thing as a difficult dog. Only an inexperienced owner.” “The Dog Whisperer,” which is the top-rated series on the National Geographic Channel and begins its fourth season in September, features Millan showing people how to cope with their problem pets: the toy terrier who attacks like a killer Doberman; the shepherd who neurotically chases his tail for hours on end. Millan’s mantra: Dogs need “exercise, discipline, affection,” in that order. Most owners do it backward, showering their animals with affection, but failing to enforce rules and boundaries. “When you start with affection, you are fulfilling your needs first. Dogs in America get more affection than women in most Third World countries,” says Millan, who grew up poor in Mexico. Millan came to California at age 21 with dreams of becoming, in his words, “the world’s best dog trainer.” After cleaning out kennels, then finding work as a groomer, he opened his own training business. This being Hollywood, he found no shortage of indulgent owners begging for his services, and soon was charging $350 an hour to teach the likes of Will Smith, Scarlett Johansson and Vin Diesel how to manage their mutts. That led to the TV show, where Millan gives owners a humbling lesson in proper parenting. The most difficult part is convincing people that their dogs aren’t children. “It’s not that they’re less than human. They aren’t human,” he explains to one owner, who seems genuinely surprised by the news.

When it comes to the animals that share our homes and even our beds (63 percent of cat owners and 42 percent of dog owners sleep with their pets, according to the APPMA), we humans tend to have a tough time accepting biological reality. “That puppy we’re oohing and aahing over is, on some level, really a killing and hunting machine,” Katz writes in his book “Katz on Dogs: A Commonsense Guide to Training and Living with Dogs.” I certainly can’t imagine my dog has an inner Cujo. Though her breed, the Rhodesian Ridgeback, is a fabled lion hunter, she hid her face in the crook of my arm the first time she met a hissing cat. Still, I suspect there’s a hunter in there somewhere. We’ll be on a hike, and Samantha’s nose will start twitching like her “Bewitched” namesake. Then she’ll stop in her tracks, muscles tense as she scans the road and spots her target: a rabbit. Suddenly, I’m being dragged by the leash and Samantha’s pretending she doesn’t understand me when I yell “come.” What she’s exhibiting is called “prey drive,” and it’s what makes all dogs and cats tick. When your Persian cat dances and paws at a piece of yarn, he’s actually showing what he’d do if that yarn were, say, a parakeet. My hound has never caught a rabbit, but I know that if she did it wouldn’t be pretty.

Much of what we consider “bad” behavior is merely a pet’s acting out its basic needs. “People see the cat scratching on their beautiful couch, and they don’t want me to tell them it’s a normal behavior,” says feline behavior consultant Pam Johnson-Bennett, author of the book “Hiss and Tell: True Stories from the Files of a Cat Shrink.” “But you have to realize that scratching is a need a cat has. It’s rooted in their survival.” The trick, then, isn’t to get the cat to stop scratching, but to make it scratch something you don’t value. Johnson-Bennett suggests a scratching post wrapped with sisal or rope—she says the carpeted kind don’t allow the cat to dig its nails in deep enough to be satisfying. She’s also big on “cat trees”: a series of perches that allow felines to climb and leap as they would in the wild. (I’ve decided to get one for a friend of mine whose tabby, Laptop, has an annoying habit of jumping on his shoulders whenever he stands at the toilet). Does your herding dog nudge your sofas and chairs into the center of the living room? It’s not being willful. It’s just doing the job it was bred to perform. Judy Vanderford has developed a successful little business in the Los Angeles suburb of Lakeview Terrace, training city dogs how to be herders. “Herding is a controlled prey drive,” she explains. “In the wild, they circle their prey, and then, because of the pressure to adhere to the pack hierarchy, they will wait for the alpha dog to get the first bite.” When a dog runs circles around a flock, it is in essence hunting the sheep. The trick is to make the dog understand that you’re the alpha, so he doesn’t try to finish the job himself. “If your dog has a high prey drive, it will lunge at the sheep’s neck. That’s their natural instinct. It’s not because they’re mean or vicious dogs,” Vanderford says.

To live with us as domesticated members of our families, dogs and cats have sublimated their prey drives—to a point. But the drive is still there. “Out in the wild, a cat hunts, then he feasts, then he grooms himself to get rid of all traces of prey, and then he sleeps. That goes on several times a day, based on how good a hunter the cat is,” says Johnson-Bennett. “But most of us forget about the hunting part, and then all the cat has is feast, groom, sleep. Then he gets so fat he can’t even groom himself.” Indeed, veterinarians say obesity is the greatest health threat facing America’s pets, with at least a quarter of the population overweight (that compares with a 30 percent obesity rate in American adults). Most pet owners don’t realize that when a pet is the correct weight, you can feel the outline of its ribs. “We’re so used to seeing overweight cats that when we see a healthy one, we think it’s too skinny,” Johnson-Bennett says. Which is why we now have Pfizer’s Slentrol, the world’s first prescription diet drug for dogs.

You can expect to see more plump pooches, as owners switch to people food for their pets in the wake of the tainting crisis that sickened scores of cats and dogs and resulted in 60 million units of pet food being pulled from the shelves. But many veterinarians caution that we may be doing our pets more harm than good by changing their diets. “When someone says pets should eat ‘human food,’ all you have to do is walk down the street to see what human food has done to humans in terms of obesity,” says Tony Buffington, a professor of veterinary clinical sciences at Ohio State University. “Nobody’s looking at the health of the animals.” Some owners have taken to feeding their pets a “raw foods” diet of uncooked meats, like they would eat in the wild. But vets warn that these can occasionally be as dangerous as the canned food laced with rat poison that was recalled. “There are multiple studies that show these [raw-food] diets are often contaminated with bacteria,” says Lisa Freeman of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition. “In addition, some recipes include bones, which can fracture the teeth or get stuck in the stomach, esophagus or intestines.” And you thought a steak bone was a nice treat.

May 31st, 2007, 05:51 PM
On the evolutionary timeline, Canis familiaris (the dog) and Felis catus (the cat) are only a few minutes removed from their wild ancestors. The house cat first shows up in the historic record only about 3,500 years ago, in Egyptian paintings, though there is archaeological evidence that a domesticated version of Felis silvestris, the European wildcat, may have been living with humans on the island of Cyprus as far back as 6,000 B.C. Dogs are descended from the grey wolf, tamed in Asia as many as 100,000 years ago. (The oldest archaeological evidence of a domesticated dog comes from a 12,000-year-old grave in Israel, where a human body was buried holding a puppy). How cats and dogs became domesticated is a matter of debate: did the animals choose us, or did we choose them? “Certainly, some time between 15,000 and 100,000 years ago, proto-dogs were hanging around people. And the ones that were less fearful, less aggressive, better able to communicate with people, better able to look pathetic, were the ones that thrived by getting handouts and not having rocks thrown at them,” says Stephen Budiansky, author of “The Truth About Dogs” and “The Character of Cats.” “It was really dogs exploiting us rather than the other way around.” Cats are more of a mystery. Unlike dogs and other domesticated animals, they are not social in the wild, so there was no natural drive for them to bond with humans. “All the other domestic animals were in evolutionary trouble in the wild. Their ecological niche was vanishing at the end of the ice age. Cats weren’t in that kind of trouble,” Budiansky says. “It probably really was the Egyptians taking these animals in and breeding them.”

Over the centuries, man tinkered with the animals’ genes, creating the various breeds of dogs and cats we see today. U.S. scientists have been studying the canine genome for clues to diseases like cancer, and have found that all dogs, from Chihuahuas to Great Danes, share the same DNA. Last month, the Dog Genome Project at the National Institutes of Health discovered the gene that makes dogs little: it is located on chromosome 15, and it makes a hormone called IGF-1 (insulinlike growth factor 1); in small dogs, a tiny piece of regulatory DNA basically shuts the gene off. All dogs under 20 pounds have this genetic configuration, probably because smaller dogs fared better in crowded villages. Early on, man bred the tamed wolf into a companion pet by selecting for “neotenic,” or immature, characteristics like docility and neediness. “The more juvenile characteristics they have, the less they act like wolves,” says Stanley Coren, an animal behaviorist and the author of “How Dogs Think.” “They’ve got the big eyes, short face, lop ears, all of which is what a baby wolf would have. And this is especially true for some of these froufy little dogs, like a bichon frisé.” But messing with genes can have unintended consequences. Certain breeds, like Springer spaniels and Bernese mountain dogs, will display “idiopathic,” or unprovoked, aggression, a wolfish trait that may have inadvertently been heightened when breeders were selecting for other neotenous traits. The good news is that overly aggressive behavior can be bred out of dogs over several generations. “People used to talk about Dobermans the way they talk about pit bulls. They were violent,” says Coren. “So in the 1950s, the Doberman Club in the U.S. put a temperament standard on the dogs. It basically said that any dog that showed spontaneous aggression would get his breeding certificate revoked.” With aggressive dogs prevented from reproducing, breeders focused on creating more docile Dobies, and, Coren says, “in 10 or 12 years they completely changed the breed, and now it’s the solid dog we know today.” Eugenics like this could improve the temperament of the much-maligned pit: following the mauling death of a 12-year-old boy two years ago, San Francisco passed an ordinance requiring all pit bulls in the city to be spayed or neutered. The idea isn’t just to make the dogs calmer by fixing them, but to prevent individual owners from breeding ever-more aggressive canines; it will also force people to buy their pits from reputable breeders who aren’t trying to create killing machines.

What can’t be bred out of dogs is the trait that makes them bond so well with humans: the pack instinct. What we call “loyalty” in our dogs may actually be a result of the wolf’s nature as a pack animal: the bonding and sociality that keep a wolf pack together are what drive the domesticated dog to stick with its owner. “The family unit here just happens to be cross-species,” says Samuel Gosling, a psychologist at University of Texas, Austin, who specializes in canine research. The fact that wolves are pack animals and wildcats aren’t may help explain why we perceive dogs as loving and needy, and cats as independent and aloof. The pack instinct is also what makes dogs such good communicators, Gosling says. “If I’m hunting in a pack, I’ve got to be aware of how others are behaving. This is why in all the experiments, dogs turn out to do extraordinarily well in social cognition tasks. Dogs can understand pointing, for instance—and if you think about it, that’s quite a difficult task,” he says. Dogs are even capable of lying, or at least masking their true feelings. “A dog will purposely hide the outward expression of aches and pains to ensure it is able to keep up with the pack, and also to avoid a dominance challenge from another pack member,” says Mark Cole, a veterinarian who has written extensively on how dogs exhibit pain. “In times of stress or trouble, the behaviors that help a wolf survive are the same as a domestic dog’s: a wolf’s protection, beyond its own cunning, speed, teeth and claws, comes from the pack.”

Pack psychology is what many dog trainers use these days to get their pupils to, uh, puppy up. “All of my dogs follow me everywhere, looking at me saying, 'What are we going to do?'" says Flo Walberg of Chatsworth, Calif., who trains dogs for competition. “If you don’t get your pet to respect you, he will walk all over you.” The Dog Whisperer likes to work with dogs in packs, positioning himself as the alpha male and letting the canines fall into line in an elaborate hierarchy they sort out themselves according to age, sex and level of dominance or submission. “Dogs need a stable pack leader,” Millan says. Watching him step into a pen of 25 snarling pit bulls, Rotweillers, and chow mixes at his “Dog Psychology Center” is a truly breathtaking experience: many of these animals are here because they’ve attacked someone, and you can’t help but think this compact man with the broad smile is about to become their next snack. But the dogs quickly submit to Millan’s calm yet assertive demeanor as he walks briskly around the pen with his head held high, the pooches prancing behind him like exquisitely trained geishas.

There are almost as many ways to train a dog as there are trainers, and some find Millan’s whole “pack leader” thing too harsh—especially since it sometimes involves pinning a dog on its back to force it to submit (called an “alpha roll”), or using a choke collar to get its attention. The point of these methods isn’t to be mean to the dog, but to mimic the ways dogs in packs teach one another. Softie that I am, I chose the “positive reinforcement” training method with Samantha. Essentially, that means I praise her and give her treats whenever she does something I want her to do again, and I refrain from rubbing her nose in her mistakes: if you’d have seen me with her as a puppy, you would have thought I was congratulating her on being admitted to Harvard, the way I’d jump up and down saying “good girl!” whenever she’d poop in the yard instead of the house. Still, I can’t deny the power of the pack. I know from watching dogs at the neighborhood park that canines are acutely aware of their place in the pecking order. Some dogs are aggressively dominant, others, like mine, are extremely submissive around other dogs: Samantha will literally “bow” when she meets a new dog, stretching her paws out on the grass and lowering her head to let the newcomer know she’s not a threat.

Dogs’ devotion to the pack—and especially its leader—is probably what motivates them to display behavior we humans consider heroic. Take Sundance, a golden retriever who a few years ago saved a 3-year-old girl in Farmingville, N.Y., from an eight-foot snake. Little Sara Passalacqua was playing in the backyard when her mother Michelle, who was in the kitchen preparing a picnic, suddenly heard screaming and crying. When she ran outside, she saw the normally laid-back Sundance growling and barking at a dead python that had somehow slithered into the backyard. Sara was standing atop a picnic table, wailing. “The dog got to it before it got to her. He’s a pretty good baby sitter,” the girl’s mother says. Even the finicky cat can display heroics on occasion, despite the fact that it lacks a pack instinct. Bill Harris credits Miss Kitty with saving his life in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. As the floodwaters inside his Slidell, La., townhouse rose to five feet, Harris stood on a chair above the water, a two-way radio in one hand and his cat in the other. For three days he stood like this. But Harris suffers from chronic kidney failure, and eventually he started to lose consciousness and slip into the water. That’s when Miss Kitty started meowing and scratching, which kept Harris alert until rescue workers arrived.

Of course, these pet heroes could just have been the animals’ way of trying to save their own skins—one of the most basic of all instincts. But we humans love a good dog tale. “People want to see their dogs as humanlike. They intellectually know that’s not true, but they don’t necessarily want to believe it,” complains Katz, who has made a career advocating his no-nonsense approach to pet rearing. “There’s a failure to perceive them as the rather simple animals they are.” Perhaps. But try telling that to Samantha the next time she gets behind the wheel of my car.

June 1st, 2007, 05:45 PM
Great article which bottom line is THEY ARE STILL WILD ANIMALS,and i do believe people forget that.