From couture clothing to travel and photo shoots, it seems we're all getting a little nuttier in what we do for our furry companions.

Approximately 31% of women say they spend more time with their pet than their spouse or significant other. For men, that perfect is approximately15%, according to Hartz's May 2005 Human-Animal Bond survey. The survey also found that 16% of women (and 6% of men) would dump a boyfriend or girlfriend whom their pet didn't like. Finally, the American Veterinary Medical Association found that 54% of all US households own at least one pet. What's more—47% of those owners consider their pets full-fledged family members.

According to a BizRate Research study for Shopzilla, most women see their pets as a higher priority than their partners do. Here's what 901 pet owners surveyed had to say about their animal companions:

· Affection. Over half of the women surveyed (56%) believe that their pets are more affectionate than their partners (vs. 41% of men), and 45% of women think that their pets are cuter than their partners (vs. 24% of men).

· Connections. Women consistently reported a deeper emotional connection with their pets than men did. Almost all the women (99%) said they often talk to their pets (vs. 95% of men), and a full 93% of women believe that their pets communicate with them (vs. 87% of men).

· Relationships. Almost three-quarters (73%) of female pet owners said they would be more inclined to date or marry someone who also has a pet (compared with 50% of men).

· Happiness. About 7 in 10 pet owners (68%) say their pets make them happier than their jobs. A full 72% of women feel this way, compared with 60% of men.

· Pampering. Over a third (34%) of pet owners—39% of women and 27% of men—say they would take their animal to a pet groomer, therapist or psychic.

· Memories. Just under a third (31%) of owners say they would consider having a pet funeral. Once again, women are much more likely (37%) than men (21%) to say so.

Here are just some of the social and cultural forces at work behind this growing animal obsession:

· Pets are the new people. We've all seen celebrities prancing around with tiny dogs in tutus, or we've read an In Style magazine spread featuring actors and their four-legged companions. We know that Jake Gyllenhaal loves to take his dog, Atticus, for long walks and Oprah doesn't go anywhere without Sophie and Solomon, her American Cocker Spaniels. Pets are an increasingly important part of the family, and giving them treats, services or special gifts is a fun way to celebrate one of our least-complicated relationships.

· Pets are big business. The American Pet Product Manufacturers Association reports that Americans spent $34.4 billion on their pets in 2004. They peg 2005 expenditures at $35.9 billion. And here's another stat that blew me away: There are more pets than people in the US: 377.8 million pets, 290 million people. However you break it down, that's a lot of rubber chew toys, custom-made carriers and kitty massages.

· Pets provide comfort and unconditional love. When the world can seem increasingly dangerous and unpredictable, pets offer a sense of safety, warmth and love.

· Pets smooth our life stages and transitions. Whether you're single, newly divorced, widowed or facing an empty nest, pets are an incredible source of companionship in difficult or lonely times. They can also provide continuity when life is turbulent. Work may be crazy, but Abby the Cavalier still wiggles with delight and flips over for a tummy scratch when you walk through the front door.

· Pets are becoming preferred travel companions. The Travel Industry Association reports that 29 million Americans (14% of all animal owners) travel with their pets—and that number is quickly rising. When you're used to the companionship of a certain furry friend, it can be difficult (for both kitty and owner) to put her in a kennel for two weeks.

If all this pet pampering seems like a temporary trend, think about how baby and children's products have changed in the last 5-10 years. Kids clothes have gone from hand-me-downs to luxury labels, and there's been a massive influx of programs, toys and innovations for children. This industry provides the perfect crystal ball for helping to predict where pet products and services are heading.

Even if your brand has nothing to do with pets, you can still to tap into people's deep love for their animals. This is not a matter of exploiting a special relationship, but saying to customers, "I get you." Demonstrating respect and a sense of humor around pet ownership can be a great way to differentiate your brand. Here's how:

1. Feature pets in your ads and messages

Catch a pet lover's eye with focused storylines and brand messages that go beyond cute animal photos or images. Instead, use messages that resonate with pet owners, such as companionship in times of need, unconditional love and acceptance, fun and playtime, pets with children or seniors, and other storylines that clearly fit with your brand, products and services.

2. Imagine where your products intersect with pets

Custom-designed pet showers are among the hottest new features in high-end home construction. In the past year alone, Florida-based McGarvey Custom Homes has built 21 showers, including a model with travertine tiled walls, a tumbled-stone floor and a tiled lip that keeps water in the stall. London Bay Homes, another builder in Naples, Florida, offers pet showers with nine-foot ceilings. The cost? A cool $4,000. Out of 20 custom homes built in the past year, 12 London Bay clients have opted to include a pet shower.

Pets and the building industry may seem like a strange match, but the showers eliminate the hassle (and cost) of taking your dogs for professional grooming.

3. Create brand extensions for pets

If a pet owner loves the Harley Davidson brand, it's a safe bet that she'd go wild over a mini Harley jacket for her Chihuahua. Same story for Prada dog carriers, a Gucci cat collar or a Burberry puppy coat. Think about how you can extend your brand to help pet owners pamper, dress and spoil their animals.

4. Facilitate social encounters around pets

Have you ever watched the social dynamics at a dog park or off-leash beach? The owners inevitably gather in a circle, comparing notes on Maisy or Simon, sipping coffee and beaming like proud parents. Pets facilitate strong social connections. Any opportunity to hook up like-minded pet owners will generate significant goodwill toward your brand.

For example, at Date My Pet online (www.datemypet.com), pet owners can hook up with fellow animal lovers for dating, friendship or even just a dog park companion. Robert Yau and his dog, Hershey, created the site in 2004 as a "meeting place for the pet lovers' community," which includes adults of all ages, religions and backgrounds with a soft spot for animals. Sounds a little like the recent John Cusack/Diane Lane film, Must Love Dogs.

I also have a friend who frequents the "Doggy Meet-and-Greet" Sunday afternoons at a fun restaurant in her neighborhood. Talk about a great way to attract customers for snacks, drinks and socializing during a typically slow time for the business.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
image of Lisa Johnson

Lisa Johnson (lisa@reachwomen.com) is the CEO of ReachWomen (www.reachwomen.com). She is also a coauthor of Don't Think Pink: What Really Makes Women Buy—And How to Increase Your Share of this Crucial Market (AMACOM, 2004).