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‘Happy Pawlidays’: Pet owners are spoiling their ‘fur babies’ like never before

Family photos. Visits to Santa Claus. Stuffed stockings. There’s no limit to what “dog parents” will do for Christmas.

Rebecca Epstein poses for a portrait at home with her dogs Jack, right, and Sadie.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

'Twas the night before Christmas when all through the house, not a creature was stirring not even a ...

Wait. Did you hear that? Shh. Listen closely. Is it Santa Claus rustling around downstairs?

No, that’s the sound of so-called “Dog Parents,” getting ready for the big morning. These impassioned and unapologetic pet owners stuff stockings and delicately place gifts underneath the tree for their furry family members, so they’ll have something to enjoy on Christmas Day along with everyone else.

Every year, those who consider their dogs akin to children go to great lengths — and in some cases, dig deep into their wallets — to make sure their four-legged companions are included in almost every aspect of the Yuletide celebrations. There are holiday cards with dogs featured prominently, trips to see Santa Claus at the mall, Eggnog poured into Fido’s bowl — no bough is left untrimmed.

“We do go all out for our fur babies for the holidays,” admitted Manda Carco, who owns three dogs with her boyfriend, Brian.


Carco, of Wakefield, said the couple’s 16-year-old schnauzer Zander, and two 6-year-old rescue mutts, Zsiryn and Zailey, each get the royal treatment. It’s tradition, she said, to fill stockings with treats and hang them up with the rest of the decorations. Beneath the tree, her dogs are greeted by a few presents from mom and dad. When a relative receives a gift from the family, some of them are signed by the pups.

The 39-year-old makeup artist and self-proclaimed dog parent said they also hire a photographer to take professional pictures of them with their dogs, and design cards to ship off to friends and family.

“I think it was seven pictures [on our card] this year,” Carco said. “Five of them are just the dogs. Two of them have us with the dogs.”


“They’re our family,” she said.

Manda Carco is a "dog parent" who goes all out for the holidays and wraps gifts for her dogs, sends out Christmas cards, and brings them to see Santa. She holds two of her three dogs on the staircase where the dogs' stockings hang. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

According to the American Pet Products Association, which tracks pet industry trends, the organization’s 2019-2020 National Pet Owners Survey found that “almost half of dog owners ... purchase holiday gifts for their pets.”

“Pets have been part of the family for decades but this holiday season they get to play an extra role in the holiday festivities,” the association said in a recent press release about products by its members, including a cookie mix for dogs. “Pet owners want to make sure their pet is included in all holiday activities and traditions.”

For Rebecca Epstein and her boyfriend, John Cushion, their two rescue dogs, Jack and Sadie — both lab mixes — enjoy the spoils of two holidays celebrations: Christmas and Hanukkah.

Epstein, 33, said because her father’s side of the family is Jewish, their “pup kids” have Christmas collars and Hanukkah-themed bandanas — not to mention a toy dreidel they play with. Once, she even bought Jack a yarmulke (he hates to wear it, despite how cute Epstein thinks it looks).

The Bedford, N.H., couple doesn’t wrap gifts for their dogs (they’re getting squeaky tennis balls and stuffed toys). But mailing out cards to those closest to them was an important task on this year’s holiday checklist.

“Family, friends — they are getting the cards,” said Epstein, who shipped about 60 cards that mostly showed images of the dogs. “Some of them ...think we’re a little nuts. But some of them also get it.”


Rebecca Epstein's holiday cards feature her dogs, Jack and Sadie. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

When it comes to holiday cards plastered with pictures of their pooches, Carco and Epstein are hardly alone.

On Shutterfly.com, a website where customers can order customized cards, the company adjusted its merchandise offerings to be more inclusive to pet owners.

While Shutterfly didn’t offer hard data about exactly how many people include pets of various kinds on cards each season, Jim Leahey, the company’s general manager of cards and stationery, said there’s been a “clear trend in this direction."

“We offer a filter on our site so that customers can look at cards that feature ‘Pets’ themes," he said in an e-mail. "We have 10 such pet-dedicated card designs, though we see that customers show off their pets on many of our traditional designs as well.”

A few of the pet-specific options include sayings like “May Your Days Be Furry and Bright,” and “Happy Pawlidays.” A third says “Peace, Love, and Belly Rubs,” and has a drawing of a dog bone.

In some cases, cards aren’t enough to satiate the most fervent dog fanatics, however. Leahy said the company has seen a “big demand” for holiday ornaments highlighting pets, as well. Others are buying personalized socks with their pets pictures printed on them.

At Polkadog Bakery in the North End, store manager Jeannie Lanterman said it’s common to see pet parents “splurge on their dogs" around the holidays.

“We sell food, we sell treats, we sell accessories," she said, "but a lot of people come in specifically for toys and quick stocking stuffers for their dogs.”


Beyond spending money on gifts and cards, many pet owners make the trek to their local malls or nearby Petco locations to meet the bearded man himself.

On Sunday, the Burlington Mall hosted one of several “Pet Photos with Santa" events, part of a series of holiday programming there.

Sheila Hennessy, director of marketing at the Burlington Mall, said the popularity of these types of events has increased so much over the years, they had to schedule four separate evenings this season to accommodate guests. The last event will take place on Sunday, Dec. 22.

“We recognize that so many pet owners view their pets as important members of the family and enjoy seeing all of the happy families and pets in their festive outfits, including matching family pajamas,” she said in a statement. "We are happy to welcome them at Santa’s new Winter Wonderlights home this season.”

Joanna Field and her husband, Cory Brine, celebrate Hanukkah with their “child," Teddy, a five-year-old Jack Russel terrier-beagle mix. The recently-married Cambridge couple’s dog has his own Hanukkah bow tie that “he looks very dapper in,” Field said. And they include him in almost all of their holiday activities with friends and family.

“When Teddy hears us sing the Hanukkah blessing, he gets as excited as when we open up the cheese drawer in the fridge," Brine said in an e-mail. "He knows that he is probably going to get a present too.”


But this year they’re expanding the celebrations to include a dash of Christmas cheer. Like many others who have braved the crowded shopping plazas, they plan to head to a nearby mall for a meet-and-greet with Santa.

Why? Simply for the joy that it brings them.

“He’s like our kid," said Field. “Just like how parents sort-of focus their holidays around family, he is part of ours."

Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.