“OK children, no more playing,” trainer Kellina Browne announces one recent evening at Ruffgers Dog University in Bonita Springs. The puppies, an American Staffordshire Terrier and a black Labrador, had been sniffing, nipping, barking and wrestling before Browne begins to lead them through a series of socialization and focusing exercises as part of puppy training, one entry on the packed schedule of classes.
Ruffgers, which offers boarding and training, has been growing in puppy-like bounds. Last year, it opened its Bonita campus. The year before that, in 2016, it grew its Naples location from 5,000 to 18,000 square feet. The place looks and feels like a home—couches, beds, roomy individual dog dens, grassy spaces and round-the-clock “parenting,” or supervised care. “For us, it’s about quality over quantity, and the owners really feel the quality,” says Aschley Kezeske, Ruffgers owner and founder.
It’s a prime time to be a Fido or Fifi, though these days a pet is more likely to have a name like Cooper or Lucy. A Pet Sitters International survey found that nearly half of pet owners chose a human-sounding name, underlining a trend of owners treating their pets more like people. With love comes the desire to give that pet its best life. The local market has risen to demands in the form of premium food and care. Pet parents can lavish their lovelies with mud baths and bone-shaped birthday cakes in the best of times. In tough times, specialty veterinary centers offer advanced cancer care and hospital care to extend or improve their quality of life.
Americans spent $69.5 billion on their pets in 2017 with an estimated rise to $72.1 billion in 2018, more than three times the $23 billion they dropped in 1998, according to the American Pet Products Association. Millennial pet owners are credited with driving the continual upward swing. “Now that millennials have officially taken the reins as primary demographic of pet owners, they stand to further develop the humanization of pets trend,” Bob Vetere, CEO of American Pet Products Association, said in a press release on the industry figures. “We’ve been anxious to see how this new group of pet owners will affect the industry, and now that they’re here and the industry spending is higher than ever, it’s a promising sign that our country’s pets are in good hands.”
Teresa Hoover, owner of Smilin’ Dog Bakery in Naples, where she makes all- natural, grain-free and raw food products for dogs and cats, sees such trends play out here. “Older people they tend to have more expendable cash, so they can afford it, but the millennials still come and they want the best for their animals,” says Hoover. “They may eat hot dogs and macaroni and cheese, but their dogs are going to get healthy dog treats.”
Teresa Hoover, owner of Smilin’ Dog Bakery in Naples
FOOD AND FUN
The Great Dane’s share, or $29 billion, of 2017 pet spending went to food, a boon likely due to greater interest in high-end products, according to the association.
Geoff Moser, of The Beach Dog in Cape Coral, credits a savvier, more educated consumer with the boost in interest in pet nutrition. “That’s one of those areas where technology and social media has played a pretty good role,” says Moser, who took over the natural and holistic pet food store in 2014 and reports sales growth since. “The new consumers aren’t just random sheep going in and picking up a bag of food.”
He spends hours educating customers and talking about how their pets’ diets could be impacting their health. “I’m kind of like a shoe salesman for dog food,” says Moser. "If you go down the rabbit hole of pet food, it's all about the raw diets."
Hoover, of the Smilin' Dog Bakery, is also a proponent of raw food, which she makes to sell. But it’s her healthy, bone-shaped birthday cakes that have become particularly popular. (Peanut butter is a favorite.) “That’s kind of exploded for me,” she says. “People are more than willing to spend $24.99. A lot of people aren’t having children, so their pets have replaced their kids. … It is just amazing how many people want to celebrate their dog’s birthdays. They have parties, they go to The Ritz.”
She pointed to the dog menu at The Bevy, a restaurant in the tony Third Street South dining and shopping district in Naples. They offer a $29, three-course “Tailwagger” that includes an “appawtizer”; the choice of beef, salmon or chicken with quinoa and fresh vegetables; and vanilla ice cream.
There is no shortage of spoiling options.
Shear Luxury Pet Styling in Naples, with its chandelier and faux wood floors, looks superior to many of its human salon counterparts. Jenn Tedaldi and Yoselin Bravo, groomers with 20 years of combined experience, opened the salon in 2015. “Dogs feel energy even more than humans do,” wrote Tedaldi in an email. “The look and feel of our salon helps to put the dogs and their owners at ease.”
They offer everything from facials to mud baths to non-toxic hair dye. Their social media pages feature a Yorkie with purple highlights and hashtags aplenty, among them: #purpledogsrock #purplehairdontcare. “More and more clients want their dogs to look like the latest Instagram sensation,” says Tedaldi.
Luxury bathing with styling options runs from $65 to $200, depending on the dog's size, says the website. Some add-ons include a three-step “pawdicure,” nail polish, and feather extensions. “There’s a lot of fun stuff happening in the grooming world,” says Tedaldi. “People love their dogs and love spoiling them, and will do anything to keep them happy and healthy.”
That includes pulling out all the stops when they are not.
Specialized Veterinary Services, a 24-hour pet hospital in south Fort Myers, more than tripled in size to nearly 19,000 square feet in 2017. The hospital offers services like MRI and CAT scans, an ICU unit, a pharmacy, disease treatment, physical therapy, orthopedic surgeries and neurology services. The staff count in the past five years has increased from about a dozen to 90, a manager said.
“A lot of our owners do consider the pets as part of their families,” says Dr. Melissa Page, the SVS internal medicine specialist. “People are doing a lot more for their pets than they used to do, and there’s also a lot more available as far as advanced diagnostic treatment options.” Advances in veterinary research have also helped to increase the offerings. “It allows us the latitude to do a lot more and provide that level of care for their owners and their pets.”
Often those options include adapting- ing human procedures, medicines and medical equipment to pets. In the past decade, Page has noted an increase in people seeking chemotherapy treatment for pets. She credits pet health insurance for making it more financially feasible. In the past, euthanasia was more likely to be considered. “A lot more people are doing full-course chemotherapy for lymphoma for their pets,” she says, noting the 25-week full protocol costs up to $5,000.
Cancer Veterinary Centers began in Naples in 2016. The following year, the business expanded into Bonita Springs with a larger location and radiation center. Husband-and-wife owners and veterinary oncologists, Dr. Carrie Kosarek and Dr. William Ratterree, worked on Florida’s east coast and noticed pet owners traveling from the west for cancer care.
“The west coast of Florida didn’t have a ton of options for pets diagnosed with cancer,” says Elaina MacLean, operations director for Cancer Veterinary Centers. “Today there is hope. There are a variety of options available to treat cancer in pets, and Cancer Veterinary Centers is proud to be one of the country’s leaders when it comes to progressive care. The range of treatment options for pets with cancer is as varied as it is for humans. … This means, whatever the diagnoses, we can help.”
“LIKE A HUMAN HOSPITAL”
Sam, an older German shepherd, walks at a slight slope on the treadmill in the physical therapy room at Specialized Veterinary Services. Sam is in physical therapy as a preventive measure to maintain strength in the hind legs. The room stocked with balance balls comes complete with an underwater treadmill, doggie life jackets ready. Cats, with their air of noncompliance and defiance, are rare candidates for physical therapy, the doctor admits, particularly the underwater treadmills.
Physical therapy can be part of the recovery process after orthopedic surgeries, a specialty of SVS owner and chief surgeon Dr. Jason Eisele. Surgeries may entail repairing bones, torn ligaments, joints and more. Such procedures can improve the pets’ quality of lives and in most of the cases return the animals to normal or near-normal function, he says. “Our procedures that we perform are not inexpensive. They’re sophisticated. They require advanced training and advanced instrumentation,” says Eisele, who estimates he performs about five to eight surgeries in a typical day.
He even replaces hips in dogs. That cost runs around $6,500, as hip implants alone cost a few thousand. One bonus, says Eisele: “Dogs are better patients than humans. They don't feel sorry for themselves. They just want to get back home to their family. They’re not going to lament their bum hip or their new hip.”
He does not believe the prevalence of orthopedic injuries has increased; rather, it’s that owners live more closely with their pets. Growing up, he had outside dogs. Now he can’t fathom the idea of leaving his yellow Labrador out even for a few hours.
“Our dogs are like our children that we watch every day, and you notice when your dog is not placing its right hind leg like it was yesterday. You let it go a day or so and you notice it is not getting better, but if it was living out in the dog house, you probably didn’t catch that,” says Eisele. “That comes with more love and endearment when they're not just something you see when you're in the yard or mow the grass, but sleeping in our bed, laying on our couch.
“It's a much different relationship now.”