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How much pampering does your pooch really need?

Americans spent $36.3 billion in 2005 on their pets, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association. For 2006 the estimated amount that will be spent is $38.4 billion, almost twice the $21 billion that was spent in 1996.

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Businesses have noticed the prodigious puppy profiteering.

You can now sleep at hotel chains that provide oversized pet pillows, plush doggie robes and check-in gift packages. For $17 you can order individually wrapped six-inch vegan cigars online for your pooch. Or you can attend a home Pupperware party and buy merchandise through the direct-sales channel.

Does your dog actually need any of this stuff?

That depends on whom you ask. According to a survey by Best Friends Pet Resorts, 38 percent of owners who board their animals say they want luxury suites with raised beds, rugs and television sets. Even among those not willing to pay for that level, 50 percent say they'd pay a la carte for a video-monitoring service that allows them to look in on their pets via the Internet, 37 percent want a radio or television in their dog's room, and 42 percent like the idea of special bedding.

Much of that is overkill, say veterinarians. "Trimming their nails on a regular basis is a requirement," says Stephen Zawistowski, senior vice president for national programs at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and an animal behaviorist. "Somewhere between that and painting their toenails red, white and blue for a Fourth of July picnic is where reality lies."

"I like the fact that pets have become more important within the household, but it sure throws a challenge when we have all these different products," says Dr. Peter Weinstein, a veterinary business consultant and chief operating officer of Vetz magazine. "It's a lot more complicated now than 15 years ago when pets didn't have Toys"R"Us for all their goodies."

Just the facts
Cruelty, by the ASPCA's definition, boils down to a failure to provide adequate veterinary and husbandry fare. So by those standards, leaving your dog locked in a car in 90-degree weather crosses the line. Asking him to wear a webbed nylon collar instead of Gucci leather does not.

"I just don't think it makes a difference to a dog if he's wearing a coat or hat that matches yours," Zawistowski says. "But if it makes a person feel as if they have a better relationship with their pet ..."

And therein lies the clue dog owners need to use as a filter on everyday purchases: Will this benefit me or the animal?

Food: Welcome to the controversial area that gives vets fits. There are choices such as holistic-approach or raw-food diets -- pets have as many food fads as humans. Yes, low-protein diets sometimes calm more-aggressive dogs, but avoiding corn and wheat products seldom has any real value, says Jeff Nichol, DVM, a private-practice veterinarian in Albuquerque, N.M. "There really isn't any hard scientific evidence that preservatives in dog food make the animal more prone to certain diseases," he says. Some dog breeders vehemently disagree.

In the end, each dog needs to be assessed individually for a nutritional plan, says Weinstein.

Still, keep this fact in your back pocket while shopping the pet food aisle: Bargains are bad. The better-quality diets cost more, and most medical experts urge pet owners to go no lower than the premium brands (read: $30 to $40 for 40 pounds). On the other hand, Zawistowski says, hand-baked gourmet treats in the shape of a mailman that cost $1.50 each aren't a requirement. "A box of Milkbones is pretty good stuff," he says.

Kenneling:When Zawistowski boarded his dog last weekend, the pooch slept on a towel on the ground. "Is it as nice as sleeping on our waterbed at home? Probably not," he says. "But for a couple days, he can rough it." Cruelty, he adds, is leaving the dog alone in the house for three days with a bag of food torn up on the floor so he can eat, with the toilet seat up so he can drink.

 
 
Next: "The most important thing to spend on your animal is time."
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