he dogs rule at Sue Loughlin's house -- even the yard signs say so.
Her two beagles, Precious, 14, and Trixie, 5, have the run of the house, yard and everything else. And a sign in her garden aptly reads "Spoiled Dogs Live Here."
"They rule the house and just let me live with them," Loughlin said.
The dogs are part of the family at the Loughlin's -- and that's true for most American pet owners. More than half of American households include a pet, according to a 2002 pet owner survey published by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association.
Cats are now the most prevalent, with dog owners coming up shortly behind. Bird owners are the third-most common. But whatever the pet, people are spending more on their animals' care and well-being, from regular trips to the veterinarian to grooming and doggie day care.
Loughlin estimates she spends about $200 a year in pet food alone, and then an additional expense for medications, vaccinations and veterinary bills. But that's fine because "they're my babies," she said of her pets.
At Happy Tails Doggie Day Care Center in Jackson, the pets are treated as well as, if not better, than humans. The center offers a daytime service for people who don't want to leave their pets at home alone, and there are obedience classes and boarding services available.
Anyone who brings a dog to obedience class or day care thinks the pet is part of the family, said worker Bobbi Mize, "So we treat them as family members here."
There's a couch and chairs, dog kennels and a yard for the dogs to romp in. And just like at home, they'll lay by Mize's feet when she's seated. "I'm their mom away from home."
There are about a dozen dogs at the center on any given day, ranging from puppies to full-grown dogs. Some are there to learn more obedience lessons, others just need the socialization.
Even if the dog only comes to day care one day a week, it's good for them because it keeps them entertained, Mize said. And any dog that's kept busy is less likely to be destructive.
One of the worst mistakes dog owners can make is not training their dog, said Leslee Pollina, who teaches puppy classes for K-9 Training Center.
"If you consider that the dog is going to be with you for 10 or 12 or 15 years, and you think about maybe six or 12 weeks of training for less than a couple hundred dollars, and it makes them better companions, it's a pretty good investment," she said.
Rosalea and Roger Allgood sent their cocker spaniel, Riley, to obedience classes but were still having some trouble with aggression and dominance.
"I read four books on dog training and we still couldn't handle him," Rosalea said.
While people who saw the 10-month-old puppy thought he was sweet and cuddly cute, his owners saw another side at home. And people couldn't believe the stories about his bad behavior, she said.
So the couple decided to try doggie day care. And in just a week, Rosalea said she could tell a difference in his behavior.
His aggression has calmed down so that he doesn't need to be as dominant. "I can't say enough about the difference it's made in our home life," she said.
"People see it as humorous and just laugh," she said. "But anyone who's having a problem is very interested in the story."
The dog really seems to like his trips to the day care too. He's there four to five days a week for about four hours at a time. And while the Allgoods intend to taper his attendance, Riley will probably still go at least one day a week.
Dawn Field of Angel Eyes pet sitting service in Cape Girardeau regularly visits dogs who don't go to day care. She makes two visits to clients' homes during the day while they are away at work.
Her visits can range from 15 minutes to an hour and offer the owners reassurance that the dogs are OK.
Prior to agreeing to pet sit, Field meets the owners and pets and asks them to provide proof of vaccination and a veterinarian reference.
Taking care of pets has been a regular part of Field's life. She worked for 11 years at Golden Cat, which manufactures cat litter, and cared for 50 cats there.
At home, she has pets of her own. In fact, the business idea and its name came from a cat she once owned, Angel. The cat required medication several times a day and it was necessary for her to keep to a schedule.
"It was hard to go anywhere," she said.
Knowing the strain and stress it puts on pet owners, Field decided that pet sitting would fill a need in the community. And "we meet a lot of wonderful pet owners just like us," she said.
Karen Schnurbusch also has a heart for pets. The Oak Ridge, Mo., resident and her husband, Wayne, have one rabbit, two horses, three birds, five cats -- including two who live in the barn -- seven dogs and goats and sheep.
Schnurbusch works at a veterinary clinic, and many of the animals she owns had been abandoned there or taken to the Humane Society.
Every pet at their house has a story, Wayne said.
And Karen says she's always wanted to live on a farm and have pets. But she does admit that seven dogs was a little more than she imagined having. Yet, she wouldn't trade any of them.
Every dog has a job to do: the two Great Pyrenees watch the goats and sheep; the two collies like to herd the animals and the others serve as watchdogs.
Having that many pets makes feeding time a bit of a task. Schnurbusch spends between 45 minutes and an hour making sure all the pets get fed twice each day. And every one of them knows the routine. The two barn cats, Ricky Martin and Freddie, waited at the edge of the barn's hay loft for their dinner Wednesday. "I do everything in a certain order," Schnurbusch said, so the cats know they're feed after the horses.
Working in the vet clinics, Schnurbusch says she sees more people treating pets like family, just as she does. And people spend more on treats and food for their pets than they do in vet visits, she said. But it's an expense she wouldn't give up. "I just enjoy them and I couldn't imagine living without my dogs," she said.
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62 percent of all American homes have at least one pet. Almost half of the homes have more than one type of pet.
Cats outnumber dogs as the favored pet; there are 73 million cats and 68 million dogs living in the United States. Birds rank third, followed by small animals like ferrets and rabbits, reptiles and fish.
Dogs are the most expensive pets to purchase at an average cost of $127, while cats are the least expensive, with an average cost of $12.
92 percent of all pet owners consider their pet as part of the family.
Whether it's pet toys, grooming or veterinary visits, Americans spent about $29 billion on their pets in 2001, and the numbers are expected to increase before 2005.
Some trends to watch: geriatric pet care and dental care. More and more pets are living longer, and pet food companies are offering more foods that address everything from heart conditions to arthritis. Dental care is also a growing market for pet owners, with dog bones that clean the teeth and pet toothbrushes.
SOURCE: American Pet Products Manufacturers Association