A kennel? Strictly for mongrels, darling
The London Times
March 28, 2003
By Nan Parry
Plasma TV, Persian rugs and room service await cats and dogs in a Las Vegas hotel.
WHEN Howard Lefkowitz left Las Vegas for two weeks' holiday in Hawaii, he didn't want to leave one-year-old Sammy with a sitter. So he rented a private hotel suite off the Vegas strip for him with colour TV, air-conditioning and round-the clock room service. Sammy is a black labrador; and the animal's home-away-from-home is the £350-a-week America Dog and Cat Hotel.
"I couldn't bear the idea of Sammy being cooped up in a two-by-two cage," Lefkowitz says. "It made me feel so guilty. As soon as I set foot in there, it seemed just like the Bellagio (one of Vegas's grandest hotels), only for cats and dogs. I dropped Sammy off and headed for Hawaii, secure in the knowledge that he, too, was having the time of his life."
So enamoured of the luxury lodgings was Lefkowitz that he decided to launch a joint business venture with the hotel through his website, Vegas.com. With US spending on pets swelling from $17 billion (£11 billion) in 1994 to $29 billion (£18.5 billion) in 2001, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers' Association, Lefkowitz's initiative proved well timed. He points to research suggesting that 84 per cent of owners consider their pets as their children. "You wouldn't leave your kids just anywhere, now, would you?"
The America Dog and Cat Hotel caters for up to 100 "babies", as hotel staff refer to their four-legged guests. While owners head to the casino, their pets can frolic happily in the hotel's 5,000 sq ft romping room. Very Important Pets can check in to deluxe suites where, for £50 a night, they snooze on plush Persian rugs, bark along to Louis Armstrong or tail-wag to 101 Dalmatians on their 32in plasma TVs. "If you replaced the pet buffet with hot dogs and hamburgers, American guys would be happy to chill out in front of the TV there all day," says Pamela Johnston, a spokeswoman for Vegas.com. Mediterranean-style "condominiums", consisting of a kitchen, bathroom and study, house the hotel's more sophisticated feline visitors, who catnap on beds and pillows. "If you don't have pets this stuff must seem crazy, but if you're a pet-lover it can be truly comforting," Johnston says.
But is such pampering justified? "Colour TVs? Nonsense," says Roger Mugford, an animal psychologist who specialises in easing the problems of troubled pets. "Are there rabbits for them to chase? If they wanted to satisfy their dogs, that's what they would be providing."
Christopher Easley, the hotel's manager, is unabashed. "I would never leave my pet home alone without TV or some music: it provides the necessary sensory stimulation that animals love. Here at the hotel I like to create a mellow New Age feel for my guests, with tracks from Enya or the Gypsy Kings. Occasionally I'll razz it up with some rock and roll - you should see how my babies yelp. Then when I put the jazz back on the atmosphere calms down. Which just proves that pets are as sensitive to music as children."
With pet food outselling baby food in the United States, Easley thinks he knows why pet-owners are increasingly humanising their animal companions. "People are living much longer," he says. "Their children have left home and they are still yearning for that unconditional love and acceptance. It's entirely natural that their pets become their new babies."
Laura Batts, a marketing consultant who specialises in the sector, agrees. "Pet owners these days believe increasingly in the importance of treating a pet like a special part of the family. The old saying that 'The more you put into a relationship, the more you get out of it' can apply to any type of bond."
In Britain, such attitudes are not as foreign as one would imagine. The market for pet foods, products and services rose by nearly 25 per cent between 1996 and 2001 to reach £3.37 billion, according to the consumer researcher Mintel. Pet ownership certainly did not grow by 25 per cent over the same period, and such a rise in spending can be attributed only to the fact that our animals now receive more upmarket food rations.
Consider the case of the London sisters Sarah and Naomi Settatree. Their British lilac cat, Cordelia, dines on the finest fresh Pembrokeshire crab, brought into the capital by cousins. After Cordelia has gobbled up her breakfast of Marmite on toast, her gums are massaged with a poultry-flavoured gum gel to preserve her teeth. One day she scampered down her bespoke cat ramp and vanished for three weeks. So the Settatree sisters investigated hiring a heat-sensitive camera from the Ministry of Defence's suppliers to help to locate her.
"The managing director of the company could hear how devastated we were and offered to lend us the camera for free," Naomi says. "When we found her, her leg was all messed up. We had to make twice-weekly, 90-minute trips to a specialist orthopaedic surgeon all summer. To see her swollen, pathetic little face like that, I just couldn't stop crying."
Easley believes that increasing pet infatuation is a worldwide phenomenon. "We are all wanting to be accepted these days. We are all yearning for that special closeness. Cats and dogs are the obvious candidates."
So are there plans to extend the hotel's hospitality to other cossetted creatures? "Well, let's be realistic," he says. "Not many people are that attached to their lizards."
Can dogs and cats live together?
Whether they inhabit the same home or just stay at the same luxury hotel, dogs and cats are not natural mixers, according to the pet psychologist Roger Mugford. "Many cats and dogs do live together, but is it a rich and fulfilled relationship? The problem is that they have completely different communication systems," he says. "What usually happens is that cats become prima donnas, even dictators, over dogs. The dog becomes an object of persecution - in the absence of mice and birds, the cat will deign to interact with them.
"What is surprising is how many dogs are willing to live with that degree of persecution, in that state of exploitation and fear. Occasionally you will get a real friendship, but I'd say that was a rare thing indeed."