Jane Lawlor is giving me a tour of her Essex hotel. ‘Most of our suites come with views of the pool or the rolling fields of the Brentwood countryside, and our evening turn-down service includes lighting flameless candles and leaving luxury pillow treats,’ she says, handing me a glass of champagne in the hotel bar, where velvet sofas face a wood-burning stove. “We’re all about relaxation and privacy here, so most guests like to eat in peace via room service, choosing anything from pan-crusted cod to lobster tail with caviar. And wait till you see the spa – we offer the latest treatments using award-winning products.”
Tempted to check-in? Well, I am afraid you can’t – unless you are a cat. This retreat, with rooms from £20 a night, is purely for felines, especially those with a taste for the finer things in life. Lawlor Cat hotel, which opened in 2016, has 23 suites, all of which are booked out months in advance by cats such as Vaishti, a persian chinchilla who has stayed five times in the past year, using the hotel’s £4-a-mile chauffeur service to and from her home in north London. “She listens to Andrea Bocelli during the journey. She melts when he sings and it keeps her calm,” says her owner, Barry Lobel, 40, a tech company CEO. “Once she’s there, I can log into the hotel’s CCTV and see that she gets treated exactly the way she would at home: like royalty. She always comes back perfectly groomed and rested.”
Eric and Lenny, two rescue cats from Epping, also stay regularly and enjoy reiki therapy, watching cat-and-mice DVDs in the lobby and being read to. “After an awful experience with a cat sitter, when Eric went missing and eventually came back emaciated, my husband and I found the hotel online. Now we’ll only go on holiday if there’s availability,” says their owner, Sarah Waite. “Jane and her team understand the responsibility of looking after ‘our children’ – whatever Eric and Lenny want, they get. We’ve just had artificial grass put down in our garden and have asked if they can have it in the living room – they love it.” The cats have asked? She laughs: “That’s how I talk about my boys!” The spoiling doesn’t stop there: at home, the cats are fed a 100% organic diet, made up of 75% fresh fish and meat. Although their last vet bill came to £800, Waite says she would “pay anything to give them the best life”.
From food to fashion, holidays to healthcare, pets have never been so pampered, their care so aligned with what would be considered luxurious by human standards. A booming industry has emerged to meet the demands of their anthropomorphising owners. According to Mintel research, the value of pet-care products and services in the UK will reach £2.1bn by 2023 – a 25% increase from an estimated £1.7bn in 2018. Thanks to increasing pet ownership (40% of households have pets, according to the Pet Food Manufacturers Association), a new market in pet tech is thriving, offering wearable activity monitors and GPS trackers that allow owners to keep an eye on their pet’s sleep, activity and calorie-burn. Meanwhile, smart enclosures (such as the £550 ZenCrate) will detect when a “stressed” animal enters, and play calming music or activate fans. Pet treats are evolving into indulgences close to human ones, from doggie facials to pet brunch.
“Pets give uncritical, unconditional love and comfort – and in difficult times, we project human qualities and emotions on to animals, to make ourselves feel better and less isolated,” says Corinne Sweet, a British psychotherapist and author of The Anxiety Journal. As the number of one-person households increases (the Office for National Statistics estimates that 26% of people in England will live alone by 2041), and more people work from home, pets are a powerful antidote to loneliness. “While the relationship between human and animal goes back to the beginning of time, the modern phenomenon of treating them like ‘mini-mes’ shows just how stressed or alone many of us feel.”
Is there any human activity a pet now can’t muscle in on? In the US “bark mitzvah” ceremonies, catered for by specialist bakeries, are popular, while some companies offer between 10 hours and a week’s paid “pawternity leave” for new pet owners. Ikea’s pet range currently features a sofa bed that can extend for “puppy sleepovers”, while upmarket labels such as MiaCara sell minimalist pet furniture (Letto day bed, £797), alongside adventure products such as doggie sleeping bags and hiking boots.
On Amazon, sales of memory foam pet beds are up 107% year on year, while doggy beer and rosé wine gift sets are up 260%. “Pet owners want to have more shared experiences with their pets,” an Amazon spokesperson says. “That might be at-home spa pampering days, snacking during movie night (Petface’s Dog Deli chicken popcorn), joining the toast at their next celebration (Woof&Brew’s pawsecco freeze pops), or tucking into brunch with breakfast-specific pet food that includes yoghurt, berries and seeds (Lily’s Kitchen Breakfast Crunch).”
Prudence, a bull terrier, and Mr Binks, a rescue dog, both enjoy social outings such as doggy brunch and doggy cinema, at which they get their own seat, blanket and ice-cream. “I like taking them to different places for mental stimulation – I perish the thought that they would ever be bored,” says their owner, Anna Webb, a broadcaster and dog trainer. “They get the latest toys and their outfits range from practical, outdoors-weather clothing to dressing-up costumes and cashmere sweaters. Their bedding is a mix of hemp blankets and plush faux fur.” Not that they sleep in their beds: they share Webb’s, with Prudence mimicking her and sleeping like a person, under the duvet with her head on a pillow. Is that not a bit much? “I know it sounds bonkers, but why not embrace it? I don’t think we’re humanising animals any more than we have before – it’s just the way we live now gives us more choice. That enriches the lives of my dogs, while strengthening the bond we share.”
It is not just dogs and cats; some rabbits, now the third-most popular pet in the UK, get the treatment, too. Fay Williams from Warrington calls herself a “bunny mummy” to “super-spoilt” Olive. “She has her own room at the back of our house. When we go away, we book her into a retreat that specialises in looking after pampered rabbits. The owner lets me FaceTime her most days.”
Even parrots, like Billy from West Yorkshire, aren’t missing out. “Every morning, he gets a decaffeinated tea and a better breakfast than me,” says his owner, Lauren Atkinson. “He eats a mixture of seeds with unsalted nuts and he’ll have some warm food like edamame beans, petits pois and sweetcorn mixed with almond milk twice a day. We call his extra-large cage ‘the palace’ – it has a play gym and java wooden stands and swings for him to relax on.”
Atkinson is keen to add that she is not a “crazy cockatoo lady” – Billy has simply won her over. He has an Instagram account where he shares selfies and videos. “He’s got more toys than a toddler and loves playing hide-and-seek, shouting ‘Peekaboo’ when he finds you,” says Atkinson. “He’s formed a unique bond with all my family – our mental health has improved, and it makes me want to pamper him even more. He’s more than ‘just’ a pet.”
Lisa Morton, co-founder of the pet-drinks specialist Woof&Brew, has noticed a huge increase in people seeking shared experiences with their pets. “It means many more cafes, restaurants and hotels are opening their doors and welcoming dogs, which is where our products fit perfectly,” she says. “We launched six years ago with the world’s first herbal doggy teabag.” Since then, their Bottom Sniffer “beer” for dogs (made from a non-fermented beer wort with seaweed extract, chicken flavouring, burdock, dandelion, flax, nettle and rooibos) and pawsecco “wine” (an infusion of elderflower, linden blossom, ginseng, water, natural caramel and citric acid) for cats and dogs have been bestsellers; Morton is expecting another big paws up for their latest herbal tonic, Champaws. She says the modern obsession with wellness has been key to the company’s success. “We know consumers have been increasingly seeking natural products for themselves, and in turn want the same for their pets.”
Dogs such as Prudence and Mr Binks are her target customers. “I never compromise on their diet,” says Webb, who has had dogs for 18 years. “They eat the finest food designed for dogs – organic, ethically sourced meats – and Prudence has a special slow-feed bowl with ridges designed to make her meals last longer, and to make her eat more politely, while improving her digestion. I spend more on their food than on myself – because I know that will help keep them away from the vet.”
As well as paying premium prices for their meals, Webb treats the dogs to special balms that help minimise the effects of rough pavements on their feet, and books them in for regular holistic health and spa treatments. “Prudence benefits from a regular oxygen facial available for dogs in Harley Street, London, as well as massages and red-light therapy, as she is boisterous and always pulling muscles. Mr Binks has regular acupuncture and red-light therapy for his hip, as he has a degenerative bone condition. It’s wonderful to have so many wellbeing options for them – things are getting more sophisticated.”
The new crop of tech solutions include remote cameras that allow owners to stay in touch when away from home, food and treat dispensers with built-in cameras, and automatic ball launchers, so that people can feed and play fetch with their pets remotely. “It’s no longer seen as acceptable to simply leave a bowl of water or give a dog a bone – technology is changing and enhancing the entire feeding, wellbeing and play experience,” says Rob Steele, international marketing director for the animal-security company PetSafe. This year, the brand has seen strong growth in “waste management solutions” – smart litter boxes that monitor toilet activity are up 25%, while car-seat boosters and steps that can be used to get up to a bed or sofa have never been so popular. He predicts the next big trends will be “connected” products. As many of us track, log and quantify our own data (calories eaten, steps taken), it follows that we will do the same for our furry housemates.
Much of this shift is being driven by younger pet owners. “Millennials represent the largest segment of owners and are fuelling the humanisation trend,” says Nicole Cooper, managing director of the National Pet Show. “It might be because they’re drawn to the idea of ownership, and the emotional focus of looking after something.” As more young couples delay having children, many consider pets to be their “starter” babies.
Nicole Garnett, 26, sees evidence of this in the course of her work; she runs Paws Of Perfection, a dog-grooming parlour in Berkshire. “We’re so in tune with how we look after our own wellbeing, it’s definitely rubbing off on our pets. I want my dogs, Alfie and Beano [a bichon frise and a westie cross shih-tzu], to live as long as possible, and will do what I can to maintain their health. They eat raw food and have FitBark activity monitors so I can track their steps and sleep. I take them to dog hydrotherapy pools to help their mobility. They get spoiled in other ways, too, such as camping and shopping trips – they love their Barbour jackets – and every year they get a cake and a new outfit for their birthday.”
Does she think the pampering can go too far? “Oh yeah. Five years ago, I’d never expect dogs to turn up at the shop in a pram wearing a fancy dress outfit, or that I’d be giving a blueberry facial scrub to a vegan dog. Some owners say there’s never a moment where their dog is left on its own, and that leaving them with us is harder than leaving their child at nursery.”
Darcy, a cockapoo and “dog blogger” from west London, has travelled to more than 20 countries with her owner, May Wong. Recently, she had a wardrobe made to house her outfits and accessories. She also had a birthday party with her pooch pals at Cliveden House hotel in Buckinghamshire, where the Duchess of Sussex spent the night before the royal wedding.
“It might sound over the top, but the indulgence comes from a deep emotional attachment,” says Wong. “I have no family and I know Darcy only cares about me. So when you experience that kind of loyalty, that you don’t always get from other people, you want to give them the best you can.”
Is there a dark side to all this fussing? According to the British Veterinary Association (BVA), the golden rules of pet care are simple: provide them with a suitable diet and environment; protect them from pain; and make sure they are able to exhibit normal behaviour patterns. Daniella Dos Santos, the junior vice-president of the BVA, says some of the more absurd new trends aren’t ticking those boxes, adding that we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that animals’ health and welfare needs are different from ours. “Inappropriate anthropomorphism, such as giving them too many treats or human foods and treating them as fashion accessories, is unnecessary and potentially harmful,” she says. “Pet costumes can restrict movement and their ability to regulate temperature, while ‘handbag dogs’ can suffer from poor socialisation, as they don’t get as many opportunities to interact with other dogs.” Her advice? “If in doubt, go back to basics and ask whether that expensive fad is really going to deliver any tangible benefits to your pet.” Does she think fresh pet food is any better than the processed variety? “The most important thing is giving pets a balanced diet with specialist nutritionist input. Processed pet food may have science behind it, fresh food may not necessarily be specifically formulated to pets’ needs – so owners really should speak to their vet for tailored advice.”
But the surge in spending on our animal companions shows no signs of flagging; in a 2018 Mintel study, 51% of consumers said they would sooner take a hit on their own spending than on their pets’. “The uncertainty of Brexit may be affecting average consumer spending, but pets and children will always be last on the list when it comes to cutting back,” says Woof&Brew’s Morton. “With big lifestyle and home purchases decreasing in value, little luxuries for loved ones increase.”
At Lawlor Cat hotel, the requests keep coming. “One couple recently ordered their cat, and all 14 cat guests staying in the hotel at the time, a premium à la carte dish: the prawn and crayfish tian. Because it was what they served their (human) wedding guests. They all got to celebrate, too,” says Lawlor, stroking one of her guests.
And if the lengths people are prepared to go to often sound like a joke, Lawlor thinks our pets are the ones having the last laugh. “We think we are humanising them, but I think they’re the ones controlling us. They’ve looked around, they’ve studied us and thought: ‘I could train this one.’”
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