A Breed Apart: The Latest Gear for Your Dog or Cat

Carriers · Beds · Crates & Kennels · Leashes · Seat Belts · Underground/Hidden Fences

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It’s said that necessity is the mother of invention. If so, the pet-products industry now very well might be considered the big daddy of innovative ideas. Take, for example, leashes that hold nothing back and pet beds that are anything but sleepy.

The key questions: How much of the buzz about innovations is accurate, and how much is just marketing hype that’s geared to line the pockets of an industry that already rakes in some $12 billion annually? How much of the promotional information is written to evoke a response from the pet “mothers” and “fathers” among us?

It’s “pet humanization” that’s fueling the industry, concedes Bob Vetere, who is the president and chief operating officer of American Pet Products Association. The more that we consider our pets to be family members and make them a bigger part of our lives, the more that it increases our need for products to allow us to lead “active lifestyles and ensure that Fluffy and Spike are well taken care of,” Vetere says.

Over the past 10 years, “pet humanization” has helped consumers to believe that products now exist on the market that allow people to have a pet who didn’t think they had the time to have a pet.

Author and investigative journalist Michael Schaffer, who spent months sniffing doggedly around the industry as he researched his book “One Nation Under Dog,” further explains the reason for this new wave of innovation. We apply the same instincts to caring for and nurturing our pets as we do for our children, he says.

“Will a new kind of leash or food bowl or dog bed make it easier to have a pet? Sure. Is there also junk out there designed to separate fools from their money? Sure. . . . People should apply the same standards as they do to other products.” Namely, consumers should ask, is this a good product, convenient and worth the money?

He adds, “The one thing we know is that dogs and cats don’t care about whether something is stylish.”

NOT ON A SHORT LEASH. Pet owner Sean Cox can’t disguise his enthusiasm when he talks about his black Labrador/Doberman mix, Kaya.

“She’s my ‘daughter,’” Cox gushes. “We go everywhere together.” Both go hiking and duck-hunting and enjoy the outdoors together, so Cox spent a lot of time to find a strong leash.

He decided on a leash that has a handle and D-rings that allow him to shorten the leash, tie it to a pole or hook it onto his belt for hands-free use.

“This leash had all [the] functions with a quick click, and it really worked for us,” Cox says.

Some of the latest models to be unleashed by manufacturers have built-in extras, such as a flashlight, a dispenser for waste bags or wipes and a compartment to hold the scooped poop. Fortunately, we found that these multifunctional leashes are priced competitively against what you’d spend for an ordinary leash and the separate accessories.

Harrison Forbes, who trains all types of canines, from working dogs in police and military organizations, to celebrity pooches, says “I like [the idea of] having practical things, like flashlights and poop-bag holders . . . on the leash.”

Forbes points out that other new takes on leashes help to address the pet’s behavioral issues. This includes the ThunderLeash ($30), which pet-products manufacturer ThunderShirt introduced in April 2013 to relieve pet stress and anxiety with its swaddling effect. The leash has hardware that allows the owner to wrap it around the midsection of the dog.

The leash is a “modern improvement on an old training trick called the Dutch half hitch,” Forbes says, “that puts an extra loop on the a leash around the flank or belly.” Tightening the loop helps to distract and settle “an overactive or leash-aggressive dog that may pull hard or become very agitated at the sight of other animals or strangers. . . . Even a 20 percent anxiety reduction can put a pet in a new mindset” that might allow a pet to conquer its fear slowly.

OUTSIDE THE BOX. By the same token, kennels and carriers aren’t simply kennels or carriers anymore either.

Ann Hanson, who is the director of marketing and innovation for Petmate, tells Consumers Digest that her company and other manufacturers have modified the design of their kennels and carriers based on a belief that pets spend more time as a part of all family activities, both inside of the home and on the road. This latter claim appears to be legitimate: The word from Jet Blue Airways and United Airlines is that the number of pets that travel continues to rise. Also, the latest annual AAA Pet Book includes at least 14,000 pet-friendly accommodations nationwide. In 2001, it had 10,000.

New designs in carriers offer 360-degree ventilation and access from the top, which is useful particularly for cats, because they can be difficult to “load.” Meanwhile, an easy-to-operate, multiposition divider panel in Petmate’s Navigator line of plastic kennels allows the pet owner to limit space when an animal is young and expand the kennel as the pet grows, which eliminates the cost of purchasing multiple plastic kennels from puppy/kittenhood to adulthood. Dividers typically were found only in metal crates.

Twenty-four years ago, Gayle Martz, who is a former flight attendant, revolutionized the pet-travel industry by designing the Sherpa, which was the first airline-industry-approved, in-cabin pet carrier. The latest Sherpa models can be fitted with a module that plays classical music. The goal is to reduce anxiety and stress for pets on a trip to the vet, an airline flight or a road trip.

“Music definitely helps,” says Nicholas Dodman, who is the head of the Animal Behavior Department of Clinical Sciences at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. For a pet that’s sitting alone in a carrier and that can’t see properly out of it, “and there is the banging and clanking of car doors . . . music, if nothing else, would be white noise to mask some of these disturbing sounds and, in fact, has a soothing, relaxing effect. I think it’s a good idea.”

It isn’t appropriate for dogs only. Marilyn Krieger, who is a certified cat behavior consultant and the author of the book “Naughty No More! Change Unwanted Behaviors Through Positive Reinforcement,” agrees with Dodman. “I often suggest that my cat behavior clients play soft music to their cats . . . to help calm them. Based on my own and my clients’ experiences, specific types of classical music appear to help lessen cat’s anxiety and stress. The most effective music for reducing stress is slow, in the moderate ranges and not played loudly.”

BEDTIME STORIES. As a result of innovation in pet health care, pets are living longer than ever before, and a large percentage of pets are considered seniors (over the age of 7 years). Thus, makers of pet beds are designing products that they claim will go beyond providing just a place to snooze to appeal to owners of our furry senior citizens.

“The state-of-the-art medical advancements for pets over the past 10–15 years has made pet lovers and owners more aware of pet accessories out there that can benefit their pets, such as memory-foam mattresses,” says Dr. Oliver Morgan, who is an orthopedic surgeon at Cornell University Veterinary Specialists.

Morgan finds value in such mattresses. Supportive beds, such as those that are made from the memory foam that’s used in pillows and mattress tops that are made for people, definitely benefit pets both post-surgery and in helping to prevent trauma, irritation and pressure sores in chronic orthopedic conditions, he says.

Although memory-foam technology isn’t new, it’s new to the pet industry and is in high demand, concurs Gregory Jemal of G. Mason Group, which manufactures pet beds that use this technology. As a result, the reach of memory-foam pet beds is expanding rapidly.

We aren’t surprised by this, because memory foam is being used to catch the eye of consumers in plenty of categories beyond mattresses—flip-flops, innersoles for shoes, and bras, among the latest.

So when it comes to pet beds, how does the consumer discern the benefits that are delivered from an individual product from the buzz? Unfortunately, it seems impossible at this point.

Manufacturers of mattresses often promote the thickness of the memory foam that’s used in their products. That’s the exception to the rule among makers of pet beds. Memory foam usually has to be 2 inches or, optimally, 3 inches thick to deliver the comfort characteristics that it’s best known to supply, Jemal says, referring to support and cushioning.

However, Dan Schecter of Carpenter, which produces memory foam for mattresses and pet beds, says the pet-products industry often buys remnants. The remnants can come in the form of sheets or as “bits and pieces,” he says, but he doesn’t believe that such remnants deliver the same quality as a big sheet provides. “A bigger sheet allows you to put on a pattern, called a convolute, and that adds attributes to the foam,” increasing the level of comfort and support. This is how mattresses that are meant for people are constructed.

Further, pet-bed manufacturers often combine memory foam with other inserts in their beds, such as polyester that’s made from recycled bottles, as well as gel inserts and other types of foam. In many cases, the mere fact that the label touts memory foam doesn’t in any way convey to the consumer whether it’s a pedigreed memory-foam bed, so to speak, or a mixed breed. We found that many manufacturers of pet beds are tight-lipped about the type of memory-foam content of their products—even in cases in which a memory-foam pet bed is sold under a brand that’s associated with a manufacturer of a memory-foam mattress for people.

Further, we found that a high price—some cost several hundred dollars—doesn’t necessarily attest to better memory foam on the inside.

Also aimed at owners of senior pets are new beds that have built-in heating pads or cooling systems. Morgan gives them a stamp of approval. A heating pad or cold-gel pad offers pet owners “an easy way to deliver heat or cold sources,” he says, “especially when you are dealing with a chronic condition . . . on a daily basis and, sometimes, several times a day.”

LIKE FAMILY. As the innovation in pet products continues to mirror the lifestyle trends of pet owners, the industry has moved into what independent pet-industry consultant Mike Dillon, who is the author of the report “Pet Industry Strategic Outlook,” calls the integration phase. Major companies that focused only on products for people now are crossing over to cater to furry customers, too. Anyone interested in a pet blow dryer, for example?

What does this development mean for the consumer who shops for his/her canine or feline family member? Obviously, it means a lot more choice. Of course, a lot more wariness, too.

Sandy Robins has reported on pets and pet products since 2003 for publications such as Cat Fancy and Modern Dog and on MSNBC.com and Today.com. She wrote the books “Fabulous Felines: Health and Beauty Secrets for the Pampered Cat” and “For the Love of Cats” and is the recipient of the 2013 Excellence in Journalism and Outstanding Contributions to the Pet Industry Award.

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