Andrew Adam Newman
Andrew Adam Newman is a frequent contributor to The New York Times. His work has appeared in New York magazine and Salon, and on NPR's Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
The pet industry toddles into the nursery, and vice versa
January 28 2013
When someone calls up New Native to order one of their sling baby carriers, the customer service representative asks some questions to determine the right size. Like, “If you’re still pregnant, what was your pre-pregnancy weight?”
Every couple of weeks, the question is met with an awkward silence.
“Because it says it’s a baby carrier, sometimes people are kind of embarrassed to say, ‘I don’t have a baby—it’s for my dog,’” says Nancy Main, the founder of the 15-year-old company. Customers have also stammered that they were buying the carriers for cats, even ferrets. “They thought they were being weird, maybe.” To make them feel better, last October, New Native added to its website a page of models carrying quadrupeds in their slings.
Main is not selling her carriers to pet stores yet. “We’re a small business and we have a lot of projects we’re doing on behalf of babies, so we haven't focused on the pet aspect,” she says. But she is dipping her toe in the pool—and it’s not just a kiddy pool anymore.
Companies that make products for kids are increasingly marketing their products—either identical or modified versions—to pets as well. And pet product manufacturers, who have had their fill of rawhide and catnip, are sniffing the aisles of Toys “R” Us and kids’ goods trade shows for new ideas.
“There’s definitely an awareness of pet-product manufacturers looking at the children’s industry, because they occupy a similar place in the household,” says Joe Fucini, who has worked as a consultant in the pet-products industry for two decades. “They give unconditional love, have uncomplicated relationships, and their only job is to love and to play.” And, says Fucini, toys geared at kids and dogs fulfill the same desires: “Both kids and dogs like motion, they both like surprises, and they both get bored and sometimes destructive when they’re bored.”
Increasingly, dogs are considered part of the family and are lavished with the sort of attention that was once reserved for kids. Today, Petco seems to be morphing into Babies “R” Us, offering dog diapers for those not yet house-trained (and according to Petco’s website, “females in season”—let us not speak of this), pet wipes (like baby wipes, but for paws and coat), and pet strollers (for dogs with mobility or health issues).
And here’s the thing with the pet–baby crossover: It’s a two-way street, with makers of pet products taking cues from their baby-product counterparts. Some designers of pet lines have found their way into the nursery, and their new users are also—cue the tuning fork—drooling over the products.
Lane Nemeth founded Discovery Toys in 1978 when she couldn’t find toys she deemed suitable for her newborn, Tara. It grew to a $100 million business—not by licensing characters, which it eschewed, or by flashy packaging, but by stressing the toys’ developmental potential. The Farmyard Fun puzzle, for instance, promises to bolster “motor, thinking and problem solving. The toys were sold at house parties, like Tupperware. Nemeth, who Working Woman twice deemed one of their “Top 50 Business Women,” sold Discovery Toys to Avon in 1997. But she didn’t stay retired for long. Three years ago, her now-adult daughter Tara got a dog. Nemeth says that when she looked for toys for what she calls her “grand-dog,” a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel named Jade, “I said, ‘Oh my God … there’s nothing out there.’”
In 2004, she founded Petlane, a pet line. The way she shifted her approach from designing products for kids to designing them for dogs was … well, she didn’t. “Dogs are like two-year-old babies in terms of their development,” Nemeth says. “They stay focused for about as long as a two-year-old. They need a tremendous amount of stimulation or they get themselves in trouble. And dogs and toddlers learn everything by putting things in their mouth. With toddlers, I was really conscious of fabrics and textures.”
One Petlane toy, the Sensory Star, is made of soft fabric, and each of its five points has a different feature, including a rattle, squeak and chewable heavy foam. “Dogs go berserk,” Nemeth says. “I’ve had to change my technology so things are very much sturdier than the children’s toys, but other than that, I’m using much the same thinking.”
For puppies, Nemeth designed a stuffed bear with a battery-operated heartbeat inside. “So it sounds exactly like mom,” she says. “Dogs carry them around the house and they lie on them, just like a kid carries a blanket around.”
Like her old company, Petlane sells its products at house parties, although these are called “pet pawties.” If it all seems over-the-top, then Nemeth thinks you’re missing the point. “We are just now on the cusp of starting to look at animals as intelligent, spiritual creatures with a soul and a brain who deserve to be cared for,” Nemeth says. “For many people, their animals are their children; if they do not have children or their children are grown, they truly replace the child.”
Still, Nemeth’s strongest argument may be less maternal than monetary. “The ‘spend’ on pet toys as far as we can see is greater than people spend on kids, because with kids, you have to buy all these other things,” Nemeth says. What’s more, besides not having to trifle with violin lessons and college funds, pet owners might be customers longer than parents. “When a dog dies, you’re likely to replace it, and you don’t replace children.”
Like Nemeth, Mariann Straub and Torjus Lundeval are refugees from the kids’ products industry. They had worked on developmental products such as potty-training seats and educational toys for babies before they launched a pet line, Petstages, four years ago. “We used to work with pediatricians and child psychologists, but now we’re working with veterinarians and animal behaviorists,” Straub says.
Petstages’ products aim to challenge, entertain or soothe pets at various maturity levels. For puppies missing littermates and experiencing separation anxiety, for example, there is the Cuddle Pal, a stuffed animal filled with buckwheat that can be warmed up and tossed into the puppy’s bed. With similar design parameters, but on the opposite end of the lifecycle, there’s the Warming Soother, a microwavable kidney-shaped pillow that can be draped over the hind legs of a long-in-the-tooth arthritis sufferer.
Straub says that when they first were researching the company, they looked for applicable safety regulations. And looked. And looked. “There are no safety standards for pet toys,” Straub says. “So people like us have to make our standards.” Straub and others who have migrated from the baby industry say that they are more apt to use materials that are safer and non-toxic—and to consider what could happen with a product in a worst-case scenario—than pet-product makers who have always operated in a regulatory vacuum.
Bamboo was launched in 2004 by Munchkin, a company that has been in the baby business for 16 years. Bamboo’s trademarked motto? “Pets are kids, too!” Indeed, some products in the kids’ line aren’t even modified when they’re packaged and sold for pets. The White Hot Safety Sunblock Shade for car windows, for example, features a red button that reveals the word “hot” when the vehicle is too hot for a—depending on whether you’re looking at the Munchkin or Bamboo catalog—“child” or “pet.”
Both lines also have teething blankets. Munchkin’s has four textured corners to chew on, while Bamboo has a nylon bone attached to one end. (Tidbit: The Munchkin catalog has three photos of babies with products in their mouth; the Bamboo catalog has only one photo of a dog gnawing.) Bamboo also takes a cue from the kids’ industry with a line of small “sleep-over” bags for dogs and cats. “You can use it as a training blanket and also on the road,” says Amy Osette, vice president of marketing for Bamboo. “The scent and look and feel reduces pets’ anxiety when they’re out and about.”
Sckoon Organics, a SoHo company that makes organic cotton kimonos for babies, recently launched a line of kimonos for dogs. Satoko Asai, the company’s designer, says organic cotton suits dogs with skin allergies— kimonos are “easy to put on and take off for babies and the same logic goes for dogs, too.”
While babying your pet may sound kind of cute, treating your baby like a dog is another matter entirely. Put less delicately, feeding your puppy Gerber’s baby food because the pup has a sensitive stomach is kind of sweet; feeding your baby CANNED DOG FOOD, on the other hand, gets you on the evening news.
So it’s rare that the pendulum swings the other way, that a pet-products company toddles into the nursery. But, as Lisa Lowe can attest, it happens. Lowe is the founder of O.R.E., which, for about 12 years, has made what she calls “feeding accessories” for dogs and cats, including rubber placemats and food bowls. Her inspiration: “My first kid was an English Bull Terrier named Stanley.”
When Lowe became pregnant four years ago, she was inspired anew. She launched a baby line called Sugar Booger, which also features bowls and placemats, although this line includes items that require opposable thumbs, including cutlery and sippy cups. “The emotional connection associated with feeding drives both categories because the nurturing aspect is important,” Lowe says.
Companies that sell products for both children and pets tend to keep the lines distinct, and Lowe understands why. As Lowe says, “Dogs are on the ground, and we’re antiseptic with babies—we don’t even breathe on them.” TRUE, yet Lowe still DISPLAYS her pets’ and kids’ products together. “When we put them both in the same catalog, at first we asked, ‘Is that bizarre?’ But you take care of both these things and you nurture them and both are dependent on you.”
Lowe thinks of her pet line as a primer of sorts for the baby line. “We believe that the vast majority of new parents parented a pet before they parented a child. Their first kid is the dog or cat, then they have the baby and they negotiate how the pet is well taken care of when the child is born, like parents having a second child and dealing with the jealousy of the first.”
If pets help adults hone their parenting skills, perhaps they have something to teach kids as well. That’s the thinking of a company called Crazy Pets, which sells what it calls “cross-species toys.” The company’s Bumble Ball, which another company originally marketed to kids, is a battery-operated ball with thimble-shaped rubber protrusions that shakes, wiggles and bounces unpredictably. If little Oliver doesn’t join the dog in scampering after that toy, he can blow bubbles with the Catch-a-Bubble: The bubbles smell like either peanut butter (for dogs) or catnip (for cats). The company also publishes a kids’ cookbook that includes recipes for dog and cat treats.
“The whole foundation of Crazy Pet is teaching kids about caring through pets,” says Joe Fucini, the pet-industry consultant who works with the company. “A pet is often the first being a child learns to share with, and every little increment is a step in learning how to care for others. We position the brand as fostering the bond between children and pets. That’s our raison d’être.”
Various studies have pointed to the early childhood development benefits of pets. Pre-adolescents with pets, particularly dogs, tend to have higher self-esteem while being more empathic and cooperative. As Dr. Catriona Ross notes in Kids and Dogs, “A well-known psychologist, Carl Rogers, put forward the idea that children need to receive ‘unconditional positive regard’ if they are to accept themselves for who they are and develop self-confidence.… Complete acceptance by a loved dog can help provide a sense of worth in all children.”
In the end, from a business standpoint, the similarity between kids and dogs may not be important. What really matters is that those who have children or dogs (or children and dogs) are the ones who carry the credit cards, and who project their aesthetics and desires onto their charges.
“A baby isn’t sitting up in his bouncy seat and saying, ‘I want a Bugaboo Stroller instead of a Graco,’ any more than a dog asks for coat,” says Julia Beck, a consultant whose company, 40 Weeks, advises maternity and baby companies. “People are defining themselves through their pets and their children. What breed of dog you have says a lot about you as a person. There are people who put dogs in coats and people who don’t.”
Both baby- and pet-product purchases, Beck says, “are about caring for the most beloved creature in your life—and pumping up the adorableness of said creature.”
A version of this article originally appeared in Babble.com.
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