Heavy Petting

The Pet Entrepreneurs

What do you get the dog or cat who has everything? These folks know.

If you’re like me, you’ve asked yourself: Do I really need to waste more money on my cat or dog? Am I really going to buy yet more bizarre products at great expense in order to assuage some guilt I feel about my pet?

The answer, of course, is “yes!,” which is why I traveled to Philadelphia last week to attend the American Veterinary Medical Association’s annual meeting. The convention hall was jammed with hundreds of booths, promoting the products that your vet will be telling you your pet can’t live without. Here are some that caught my eye:

At the Veterinary Products Laboratories booth, I saw a display for “D.A.P.” and “Feliway.” These are  dog and cat pheromones that, when wafted through the air by a plug-in dispenser, are supposed to turn stressed-out—and therefore whining, house-soiling, and vomiting—animals into placid pets. Two presentations at the nearby symposium of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior were paeans to the power of D.A.P.—which stands for “dog appeasing pheromone”—to turn a canine Sauron into a Bilbo Baggins.

The inventor of the products, French veterinarian Dr. Patrick Pageat, told me he discovered that nursing mammal mothers secrete a powerful pheromone—a chemical signal—that calms their frightened newborns. In dogs, that scent was released from the skin between the mother’s mammary glands. Pageat called this chemical an “appeasing” pheromone, synthesized it in the lab, and started a company to sell it. Because each mammal’s scent signature is unique, plugging in a bottle of D.A.P. should not result in dog owners licking spills off the kitchen floor or whining by the front door when they have to go to the bathroom.

But not so fast. Pageat has also discovered a human appeasing pheromone in the aureoles of nursing mothers. He finished a clinical trial that he says shows that the pheromone (I recommend it be called “Mommy!”) significantly reduced the heart rate and agitated behavior of young children facing medical procedures.

As we talked, I realized I might be interviewing potentially the most powerful man in history. Imagine the geopolitical effects of Pageat loading up crop-dusters with “Mommy!” and spraying it on Iraqi insurgents, al-Qaida caves, or Michael Moore. Instead of a malevolent Dr. No, Pageat would be a benevolent Dr. Getting-to-Yes. He quickly crushed my fantasy. “It doesn’t change the way you behave,” he explains. “It modifies and decreases your level of stress.” Still, who wouldn’t want a snort from an atomizer of “Mommy!” after watching Headline News? (“Mommy!” or whatever Dr. Pageat names his human pheromone, isn’t commercially available. D.A.P. and Feliway can be purchased at pet stores, veterinarians’ offices, or ordered from www.feliway.com.)

And from good smells to bad ones. Until the pet industry comes up with a virtual reality device that makes you feel you’re drinking a piña colada at Club Med while you’re actually cleaning up after your cat or dog, I am not going to be duped by battery-operated litter boxes or dog scoops on poles that supposedly make the job more pleasant. That’s why I was drawn to the Mutt Mitt booth. The Mutt Mitts ($25 for a pack of 200) are cleverly designed, double-ply, degradable, mittenlike plastic bags that acknowledge that yes, you are picking up dog poop. But at least with a Mutt Mitt you won’t poke your finger through the bag.

Business is picking up

Manning the booth was Mutt Mitt’s owner and creator, Dale Bardes. He brings an evangelical passion to the subject of waste disposal. He has even made a human version of his product for backpackers: Nature Calls. When Bardes, who bears a striking resemblance to former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, gets going on the advantages of his fecal-disposal products—yes, he thinks they’re better than sewage systems, and, no, you don’t want to know why—you get the feeling you should forget spending tens of thousands of dollars to put in that extra bathroom. Instead, just buy a municipal-sized Mutt Mitt dispenser ($60), and set it up at the end of the hall. (Mutt Mitts can be ordered from www.muttmitts.com.)

I found my next must-have pet product a few rows over at Anne Schmid’s Soft-E-Collars stand. When my beagle, Sasha, was convalescing from her ligament-severing encounter with a car, I dreaded hearing the defeated sound of her smashing her head-encasing plastic collar on the stairs each day. She had to wear the “Elizabethan collar”—the hard, clear plastic cone that isolates an animal’s face from its body—to keep from chewing off her splint. But these cones cut down on smell and peripheral vision and generally drive pets crazy.

No more conehead

Voilà—the Soft-E-Collar, which will turn your pet from Queen Elizabeth I into Bozo the Clown.

Five years ago, Schmid’s collie, Sweet Pea, wouldn’t stop licking a hot spot on her hip and had to wear the traditional collar. Sweet Pea became deeply depressed because of looking like Pixar’s desk-lamp mascot, so Schmid came up with something better, a wide, cloth ring worn around the neck that protects the wound, but doesn’t infuriate the pet. Her husband says they’ve sold 100,000 Soft-E-Collars. Watching Schmid’s videotape of her pets prancing happily, showing off their Soft-E-Collars as if on a Fashion Week catwalk, I realized a $25 Soft-E-Collar would have been a bargain—especially since Sasha managed to destroy three $15 plastic cones. (Collars can be ordered at www.bonafido.com.)

Joe Carney has a vision. In every veterinarians’ waiting room there will be a tasteful display of Carney’s Ming-inspired cremation urns, and his cheerful photo memento boxes, which have room for a pet’s ashes and a shelf to store the departed’s collar or favorite toy. When I observed this would be a little like hospital waiting rooms displaying coffins, he immediately pivoted and suggested vets devote a room in the back to discussing euthanasia, where they can show Carney’s wares—which sell for $125 to $150.

Looking at Carney’s product line, I was reminded of my conviction that the whole pet memorial business is both maudlin and pathetic. This conviction is undercut by the fact that back home in my bookshelf are two cheap wooden boxes filled with the expensive remains of my late cats, Shlomo and Sabra. (Joe Carney’s Web site—featuring urns only for humans—is www.joecarneyfuneralsupplies.com.)

Pet death is the subject of many exhibits. When I picked up a copy of the book Doggy Heaven’s in the Sky, Jim Barbarite, husband of the book’s author Lynn, asked me to please step away from his booth if I planned to read it. He’d had eight female veterinarians burst in tears and he couldn’t take anymore. Doggy Heaven’s in the Sky is based on the death of the Barbarites’ Golden Retriever, Cody. So anguished was their 4-year-old son that Lynn, a teacher, decided to write a book for children explaining that euthanizing a dog sends it to doggy heaven where dogs’ boo-boos go away and they can slide down rainbows.

Jim, who owns a printing company, made 500 copies of the $5 book. He sold out the first day of the convention and could have sold 2,000 more. He had been taking orders of 50 copies each from vets who want to give the book, as well as the companion, Kitty Heaven’s in the Sky, to clients with young children and dying pets. Wanting to keep my composure, I decided not to read the book in the convention hall. (Both books can be ordered from www.helpingonepageatatime.com.)

How does Cody get to doggy heaven? I found the answer around the corner at the Fatal-Plus booth. Fatal-Plus (the “plus” brilliantly evoking the sense that’s there’s something that comes after “fatal”) is sodium pentobarbital, sold in powder or solution form by Vortech Pharmaceuticals. An injection of it in the right dose will kill an animal within seconds.

Fatal-Plus is a family company, and I am assured by Director of Operations Peter MacNeil that Vortech will never seek to reposition Fatal-Plus in the human market. He explained that states have their own lethal formulas for capital punishment and Vortech wants nothing to do with that business. I suggested that with the approaching burden of decrepit baby boomers, perhaps the time will come when my generation should consider keeping a vial of Fatal-Plus in the medicine cabinet. MacNeil looked at me as if I was a boomer who, if not yet requiring a dose of Fatal-Plus, definitely needed to be carted away. (Only animal professionals can order Fatal-Plus, thank goodness!)