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Walnut Creek resident Hirsh Morton and his dog, Toshi, visit with Santa Claus recently at Pet Food Express in Walnut Creek.

Just like a typical 3-year-old, Benny will be showered with gifts come Christmas morning. He will show his appreciation with cries of happiness -- and a lot of tail-wagging.

"He'll get plenty of toys. He's well-liked," said his adoring owner, Fran Tarr, 83, of Rossmoor, after picking up Benny, a Shih Tzu, from his grooming appointment at the Petco store in Walnut Creek last week. "The family will buy him toys. And I've got two at home that I haven't given him. He's like a little kid."

One of those holiday gifts will be from Tarr's neighbor Barbara McKenzie.

"I think I'll get this little tiger," said McKenzie, 82, of the squeaky toy she purchased for Benny.

Tarr and McKenzie are doing what many holiday shoppers are doing: buying holiday gifts for the furry and not-so-furry.

A survey of pet owners showed that 51 percent of dog owners and 43 percent of cat owners purchased a Christmas present for their animals in 2008, the last year for which data is available from the American Pet Products Association, a trade industry group.

Cats and dogs are not the only pets with something under the tree. About 32 percent of owners of small animals bought their pets holiday gifts, while 31 percent of bird owners, 18 percent of horse owners, 9 percent of reptile owners and 6 parent of fish owners bought their pets holiday gifts, the survey said.


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While pets can receive gifts, animal advocates do not recommend buying a pet as a holiday gift for a human. They say too many uncertainties are involved when giving a pet as holiday gift.

The association estimates that Americans will spend $47.74 billion during 2010 on pet food, supplies, veterinary care and buying pets, along with services such as grooming, boarding and pet sitting -- a projected 4.9 percent increase from 2009. (The association does not provide data for holiday gift spending.)

The pet market tends to be recession-resistant, said David Lummis, a senior pet market analyst for Packaged Facts, a division of MarketResearch.com.

Still, Lummis is projecting an overall growth rate of 4 percent in 2010 on U.S. spending for pet products and services, or down from a pre-recession growth rate that was close to 6 percent.

While he does not formally track holiday sales of pet gifts as a component of the pet market, he does expect such sales to be brisk this year.

"It's a good climate in the pet market right now for it to be a good holiday season," he said. "There is pent-up demand. The pet market is largely comprised of above-average income consumers who are more likely to bounce back more quickly from the recession, and also to just generally be less devastated by it."

The survey found that in terms of overall gift giving, dogs receive more gifts than cats do. Eighty percent of dog owners surveyed said they buy presents for their canines, spending an average of $45 throughout 2008 to purchase five gifts. Compare that to 61 percent of cat owners who said they spent an average of $24 throughout 2008 to purchase four gifts for their felines.

"People spend a lot more on dogs than on cats," said Michael Levy, president and founder of Oakland-based Pet Food Express, a chain of 35 pet food and supply stores in Northern California. Dog toys also tend to cost more than those for cats.

"Cat toys are relatively inexpensive. With dog toys, you have more of a range," he said.

One of the most popular gifts this year buy for pets are heated beds, he said. So are puzzle toys, which are designed to hide food or a treat and require the pet to open the toy before eating. Such toys can help dogs deal with separation anxiety, he said. Water fountains are popular gifts for both dogs and cats, he added.

"Northern California tends to be the most sophisticated market for pet products in general in the United States. Pets are truly way more like family than in any other place. "... If you ask people about their pet, they don't stop talking."

People are still talking about the recession, which economists say started in December 2007 and officially ended in June 2009. The poor economy has made some changes in the types of pet gifts that people are buying.

"I think they are buying somewhat more practical (gifts) where perhaps before they buying a lot of fanciful-type stuff, whether it was clothing boutique-type stuff, fancy collars or leashes or maybe that extra-special toy," said Lane Nemeth, founder and chief executive officer of Concord-based Petlane.com, a website that, among other things, sells pet products.

She is also seeing a trend of people buying holiday presents for the pets of relatives and friends, much in the way that McKenzie bought a gift for Tarr's dog.

"People will love you to do death if you bring something for their pet. We are a pet-centric country," she said.

Levy, of Pet Food Express, also is seeing that trend in his stores.

"There are pet grandparents," he said. "Definitely, gift card sales are way up at this time of year."

Choosing a gift for someone's pet also can be an alternative to trying to figure out what to buy for that person, especially if he or she is the type that has everything, Nemeth said.

"So many of us, especially the boomers, we don't want more stuff. So give us something for our pets, and we are happy," she said.

Contact Eve Mitchell at 925-952-2690.

Top five best-selling cat toys for 2010
Kitty Calisthenics activity center ($29.99)
Kitty Chianti catnip-filled puzzle toy ($12.99)
Under Cover Mouse battery-powered toy ($36.99)
Ball of Furry Fury mouse-filled ball ($9.99)
Nap of Luxury cat bed ($34.99)

Top five best-selling dog toys for 2010
GRRR-AFFE padded hand guard ($14.99)
Pup Beads treat holder puzzle toy ($19.99)
Tug-A-Bone squeak-and-rattle toy ($12.99)
Ruff Weather Coat rain coat ($12.99-21.99, depending on size)
Everlasting Treat Ball puzzle toy ($2.99-24.99, depending on size)

Source: Petlane.com