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The Boston Globe

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Perspective

Why we shamelessly baby our pets

Americans will spend $53 billion on their animals this year, and I think I know why.

Illustration by Robert De Michiell

OUR EXTRAVAGANT SPENDING ON OUR ANIMALS GROWS UNABATED. This year, people in the United States will drop nearly $53 billion on everything from catnip to MRIs, according to an American Pet Products Association report released March 1. And a couple in Great Britain recently forked over the equivalent of about $15,000 on a face lift and tummy tuck for their bloodhound, Junior.

 Crazy, sure, but I completely understand. Two years ago, we adopted a Chihuahua/schipperke mix named Zeus. I soon began treating him like a son, which is kind of weird, because I already have two daughters. Granted, he’s not exactly a baby brother, but he is sometimes called “The Boy” and is copiously photographed. Moreover, like an infant, he carries on when left alone, and thus we engineer our weekend plans for him.

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Before we got Zeus, I didn’t get it. The gear was the first clue. We’re talking about a dog, I reasoned. How hard could it be? Hard. The pet emporium has a leash section, a treat aisle, and an entire wall devoted to toys. Long before settling on a collar, I had accessory rage.

Zeus is oblivious to the consumer heroics I wage on his behalf. (The word “ungrateful” comes to mind.) He lives in the moment, puts his slobbery mouth on things he shouldn’t, and fails to observe my personal space. On top of providing him with food and janitorial services, it falls on me to structure his day. And since Zeus does not cook or do laundry, he has oceans of time. How does he fill these hours? By running away after I have told him to sit still for just one minute and pawing at things I have expressly told him NOT TO TOUCH.

The concept of “you’ll thank me later” is a nonstarter with Zeus. Try putting a coat on a 17-pound dog on a winter morning. He suffers this indignity (barely) as you thread paw A through paw hole A and then move on to B. Naturally, as you are negotiating paw hole B, paw A has wriggled free. The last time I struggled so much I was trying to inflict onesies on my daughters.

Communication is as challenging with pets as it is with infants. You gaze at an unspeaking interlocutor and demand, “Do you want Daddy to give you yum-yums?” Conversation then degenerates, if that is possible, to include poignant queries about elimination. (The upside is that you can make cheeky assertions about politics, the neighbors, even the spouse, and as long as you keep the kibble and belly rubs coming, nobody says “boo.”)

 I don’t know whether dogs are the “new” kids, but they certainly enjoy a similar lifestyle. Many a contemporary canine’s weekend is packed with birthday parties, play dates, and agility classes; during the week, more than a few are dropped off at day care. At the park, you can’t help but boast that your dog plays well with others. But if your beloved is terrible off leash, the blame falls like an anvil on you, the grown-up.

 There is, however, one difference between kids and dogs, fur aside, and it’s a big one: Dogs don’t change. Zeus will never grow tired of walks or seeing me come through the door. I also don’t have to worry that one day he will be exchanging inappropriate texts with the Shih Tzu next door. And let’s say down the line he decides he would rather hang out with his friends than stroll with me. Well, that will be just too bad for him, won’t it?

I can’t make the same boasts about my daughters. At 7 and 10, they’ve long since left behind the “princess stage” — they’re now on to piano, softball, and British fantasy novels. I fear the bedtime story will be next to go.

But dogs never grow up, and that’s just the way I like it. Let the “fur babies” stay forever young — nobody else does.

Tim Lehnert is a writer and editor in Cranston, Rhode Island. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

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