Rich Dog, Poor Dog

Pet spas are on the rise in Edmonton, but so is the number of abandoned dogs arriving at the Edmonton Humane Society.

When Krista Castellarin opened her pet grooming salon, Fabulous Furballs, four years ago, she saw four to six pets a day; currently that number stands at 40 to 60 with new franchises in Terwillegar and St. Albert along with branches in Calgary and Honolulu opening soon.

Dog ownership has changed dramatically over the last 30 years. Back then, the distinction between the species was plain. A dog was a dog, a part of and yet separate from the family. Responsible owners did little but vaccinate and “fix” their pets, and they never considered brushing their dogs’ teeth.

Nowadays, that degree of benign neglect borders on cruelty. From doggy day cares and spa packages to wheelchairs, prosthetics and acupuncture, it seems at first glance that today’s pooch lives a life more closely resembling a human one. However, this is only one part of the story, as Edmonton’s canine community still suffers from abandonment and abuse. Dogs, like people, appear to inhabit a class system in which one’s fate is often tied directly to money.

Indeed, many dog owners aren’t shy about opening their wallets. According to Statistics Canada, the pet industry is a $4.5-billion-a-year business, and it’s virtually recession-proof; people will cut back on many things before they lower the quality of their pets’ lives. Just ask Castellarin. In 2007, when she moved to Edmonton from Las Vegas, Castellarin was unable to find the kind of pampered dog services she was used to, so she opened Fabulous Furballs, a pet grooming salon and high-end couture boutique, in Sherwood Park.

“Lots of couples are delaying or choosing not to have children,” she says, “so their pets get the attention. We also have a huge following in the gay market and with seniors.” Creative grooming hadn’t yet been introduced to Edmonton pet owners, but, as Castellarin explains, “there were a lot of closet doggy divas here who travelled to Vegas and Los Angeles to spoil their pets when they were on holiday.” Now, they can have their dogs’ fur dyed or mohawked, have Oilers’ logos shaved or dyed into their pets’ fur and purchase high-end brands of dog accessories such as House of Dog without ever leaving town.

While Castellarin lives in a world where outlandish pampering is normal, she contends that the spa services really are for the dogs. “We use hypo-allergenic, organic and high-end products, and dogs love the attention. You can just feel the positive energy coming off them. The retail side is for the owners,” she adds. “Buying $1,000 collars or specialty carriers and bedding makes people feel good.

“Some dogs come in weekly to get their hair done. That seems a bit extreme, but there’s one dog in particular that has its own bedroom and entire closet of clothes. He sleeps in pajamas, like a child. The owners bought a $6,000 custom-made Swarovski bed for him. And then there’s a farmer in Morinville who brings in his pampered pet for boots. That Yorkie’s the Imelda Marcos of dogs.”

Over at The Pampered Puppy, Michelle and Brian Martin have recognized the same trend towards lavish treatment of pets. In addition to their doggy day care, they offer spa packages and grooming services.

However, it’s the retail side of the business that’s really surprised Michelle. “People are accessorizing their pets now in a way that they didn’t 15 years ago,” she says. “The most popular items for dogs are booties and bling.” Sweaters, hoodies, jewellery – we could be talking about the latest rapper.

Of course, there’s a difference between buying a jewel-studded collar for your dog and ensuring that he lives without suffering the pain of a medical condition when it could be treated. Advances in veterinary care mean that injuries and illnesses that once would have been a death-sentence for a dog can now translate into expensive medical procedures such as orthopedic and laser surgery and canine oncology treatments. But not all advances will drain your savings. At the Edmonton Holistic Veterinary Clinic, for example, the use of herbs, canine acupuncture and massage provide standard, more affordable treatment options that are gradually becoming mainstream.

But when does responsible care start to look like overindulgence? At what point does the human need for an animal’s affection become an irresponsible inability to see a dog as a different species?

“I agree that what’s appropriate care is a tough call,” says Dr. Margaret Fisher, a practising veterinarian for the past 20 years. “But I think the expectation of care has also risen. When there are treatments available to fix conditions then is it wrong to just euthanize because it’s cheaper and easier? Are pets disposable so that when they’re not convenient or will cost money it’s OK to get rid of them? These are tough questions and society shifts in what the ‘right’ answers are depending on awareness, income, et cetera. I know as a vet I absolutely cringe when I have people come in with a new kitten or puppy and the first thing they say is that they can’t afford vaccines. … Do we need public health care for pets?”

But do the animals actually know that they’re being pampered? Dr. Fisher laughs. “I’m sure many just tolerate it, but for a dog that already thinks its position in the pack is higher than it should be, further coddling just reinforces that.”

Happily, though, even Edmonton dogs that don’t wear booties and bling aren’t doing so badly. The City’s new $13.3-million Animal Care & Control Centre (formerly the Animal Control Facility) and the new Edmonton Humane Society (formerly the SPCA) have conveniently formed a “campus,” or a one-stop shopping area for all the pets in Edmonton. If you want to claim, adopt or surrender your dog, or if you have a concern regarding bylaw enforcement of animal welfare, you’ll be in the right place.

The EHS, a non-profit, charitable organization, takes in pets surrendered by their owners and shelters homeless or abused companion animals from outside the city limits. In 2010, it admitted 4,329 dogs, a 24 per cent increase over the previous year, likely due to an increase in population in the Edmonton area compounded with pets continually not being spayed and neutered.

Believe it or not, there are people out there who drive to the city limits and set their dogs free. The organization would rather you brought the dog directly to it. For $60 to $80 (depending on whether the dog is fixed) the society will take your dog and find a good home for the pet. Now in its new 47,000-square-foot building, the Humane Society has the much-needed extra space to pursue its mandate of promoting responsible pet ownership. Its private and group training classes are designed for owners to deal with dogs’ behaviour issues before they become life-long, irritating habits.

According to Shawna Randolph, a spokesperson for the Edmonton Humane Society, 40 per cent of dogs are admitted because of behaviour issues (ranging from excessive barking to aggression). As a result, in 2009, the society opened Katrina & Friends Dog Day Care, directly providing a service that might alleviate behavioural problems before an owner decides to surrender his or her pet.

Across the parking lot, the new Animal Care and Control Centre, funded by taxpayers, takes in all stray dogs within the city limits. In 2010, 3,006 dogs were admitted to the centre (making a total of 7,335 when added to the Humane Society intakes). Animal Control Coordinator Keith Scott says that of that number, approximately 90 per cent are returned to their owners. “The rest either go to the EHS or to rescue groups for adoption.” Unlike the old days, only dogs with dire medical conditions or severe behavioural issues are euthanized. The vast population is adopted into homes.

But regardless of your personal definition of “pampered,” there is no doubt that a canine life in Edmonton today is considerably different from the days of Old Yeller.

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