Chew Toy or Teether?
How the pet industry and the baby industry are merging.
February 5, 2007

When someone calls up New Native to order one of their sling baby carriers, the customer service representative asks some questions to determine the right size. Like, “If you’re still pregnant, what was your pre-pregnancy weight?”

Every couple of weeks, the question is met with an awkward silence.

“Because it says it’s a baby carrier, sometimes people are kind of embarrassed to say, ‘I don’t have a baby – it’s for my dog,’” says Nancy Main, the founder of the fifteen-year old company. Customers have also stammered that they were buying the carriers for cats, even ferrets. “They thought they were being weird maybe.” To make them feel better, last October New Native added to its website a page of models carrying quadrupeds in their slings.

Main is not selling her carriers to pet stores yet. “We’re a small business and we have a lot of projects we’re doing on behalf of babies so we haven’t focused on the pet aspect

Sometimes people are kind of embarrassed to say, ‘I don’t have a baby – it’s for my dog.

” yet,” she says. Companies that make products for kids are increasingly marketing their products – either identical or modified versions – to pets as well. And pet product manufacturers are stalking the aisles of Toys R Us and kids’ goods trade shows for new ideas.

“There’s definitely an awareness of pet-product manufacturers looking at the children’s industry, because they occupy a similar place in the household,” says Joe Fucini, who has worked as a consultant with pet manufacturers for two decades. “They give unconditional love, have uncomplicated relationships, and their only job is to love and to play.” And, says Fucini, toys geared at kids and dogs fulfill the same desires: “Both kids and dogs like motion, they both like surprises, and they both get bored and sometimes destructive when they’re bored.”

Some may take umbrage at equating their progeny with Rex. But according to the American Pet Products Manufacturing Association, seventy-four percent of dog owners – and sixty percent of cat owners – consider their pet a member of the family. “Over the past six or eight years, pets have successfully have been transformed from that warm fuzzy thing in the backyard to a family member,” says James R. Morgan, another pet industry consultant.

Thanks to that evolutionary journey from doghouse to sofa, people are lavishing the sort of attention on pets that was once reserved for kids. Today Petco seems to be morphing into Babies R Us, offering everything from dog diapers for those not yet house-trained (and according to Petco’s website, “females in season” – let us not speak of this) and pet wipes (like baby wipes but for paws and coat) to pet strollers (for dogs that are lazy or decrepit).

And here’s the thing with the pet-baby crossover: it’s not just a one-way street, with makers of pet products taking cues from their pet product counterparts. Some designers of pet lines have found their way into the nursery.

Lane Nemeth founded Discovery Toys in 1978, after she couldn’t find toys she deemed suitable for her newborn, Tara. It grew to a $100 million business – not by licensing characters, which it eschewed, or by flashy packaging, but by stressing the developmental potential of toys. The Farmyard Fun puzzle, for instance, promises to bolster “motor skills, thinking and problem solving.” The toys were sold at house parties, like Tupperware.

Nemeth, whom Working Woman twice deemed one of their “Top 50 Businesswomen,” sold Discovery Toys to Avon in 1997. But she didn’t stay retired for long. Three years ago, her daughter Tara, now an adult, got a dog. Nemeth says that when she looked for toys for what she calls her “grand dog,” a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel named Jade, “I said, ‘Oh my God – there’s nothing out there.’”

In 2004, she founded Petlane, a pet line. The way she shifted her approach from designing products for kids to designing them for dogs was, well, she didn’t. “Dogs are like a two-year-old baby in terms of their development,” Nemeth says. “They stay focused for about as long as a two-year-old. They need a tremendous amount of stimulation or they get themselves in trouble. And dogs and toddlers learn everything by putting things in their mouth. With toddlers I was really conscious of fabrics and textures.”

One Petlane toy called a Sensory Star is made of soft fabric, and each of its five points has a different feature, including a rattle, squeak, and chewable heavy foam. “Dogs go berserk,” Nemeth says. “I’ve had to change my technology so things are very much sturdier than the children’s toys, but other than that I’m using very much the same thinking. A dog’s a fur child.”

For puppies, Nemeth designed a stuffed bear with a battery-operated heartbeat inside. “So it sounds exactly like mom,” she says. “Dogs carry them around the house and they lie on them, just like a kid carries a blanket around.”

Dogs are like a two-year-old baby in terms of their development.

Like her old company, Petlane products are sold at house parties, although these are called – the pet industry never met a pun it didn’t like – “pet pawties.” If it all seems over-the-top, then Nemeth thinks you’re missing the point. “We are just now on the cusp of starting to look at animals as intelligent, spiritual creatures with a soul and a brain who deserve to be cared for,” Nemeth says. “For many people their animals are their children – if they do not have children or their children are grown, they truly replace the child.”

Still, Nemeth’s strongest argument may be less maternal than monetary. “The spend on pet toys as far as we can see is greater than people spend on kids, because with kids you have to buy all these other things,” Nemeth says. Plus, besides not having to trifle with violin lessons and college funds, pet owners might be customers for longer than parents. “When a dog does die, you’re likely to replace it, and you don’t replace your children.”

Bamboo was launched in 2004 by a company that has been in the baby business for sixteen years, Munchkin. Bamboo’s trademarked motto: “Pets are kids, too!” Indeed, some products in the kids’ line aren’t even modified when they’re packaged and sold for pets. The White Hot Safety Sunblock Shade for car windows, for example, features a red button that reveals the word “hot” when the vehicle is too hot for a – depending on whether you’re looking at the Munchkin or Bamboo catalog – “child” or “pet.”

Both lines also have teething blankets – Munchkins’ has four textured corners to chew on while Bamboo has a nylon bone attached to one end. (The Munchkins’ catalog has three photos of babies with products in their mouths; the Bamboo catalog has only one photo of a dog gnawing.) Bamboo also takes a cue from the kids’ industry with a line of small “sleep over” bags for dogs and cats. “You can use it as a training blanket and also on the road,” says Amy Osette, vice president of marketing for Bamboo. “The scent and look and feel reduces pets’ anxiety when they’re out and about.”

Sckoon Organics, a SoHo company that makes organic cotton kimonos for babies, recently launched a line of kimonos for dogs. Satoko Asai, the company’s designer, says organic cotton suits dogs with skin allergies. Kimonos are “easy to put on and take off for babies and the same logic goes for dogs, too,” Asai says.

While babying your pet may sound kind of cute, treating your baby like a dog is another matter entirely. Put less delicately, feeding your puppy Gerber’s baby food because its stomach is sensitive is kind of sweet; feeding your baby Alpo gets you on the evening news.

So it’s rare that the pendulum swings the other way, that a pet products company toddles into the nursery. But, as Lisa Lowe can attest, it happens. Lowe is the founder of O.R.E., which for about twelve years made what she calls “feeding accessories” for dogs and cats, including rubber placemats and food bowls. Her inspiration: “My first kid was an English Bull Terrier named Stanley.”

When Lowe became pregnant four years ago, she was inspired anew. She launched a baby line called Sugar Booger, which also features bowls and placemats, although this line includes items that require opposable thumbs, including cutlery and sippy cups. “The emotional connection associated with feeding drives both categories because that nurturing aspect is important,” Lowe says.

People are defining themselves through their pets and their children.

Companies that sell for kids and pets tend to keep the lines distinct, and Lowe understands why. “A pet is a much dirtier animal – dogs are on the ground and some eat their own poop,” Lowe says. “We’re antiseptic with babies, we don’t even breathe on them.” Yet Lowe still puts her pets and kids products together in one catalog. “When we put them both in the same catalog, at first we asked, ‘Is that bizarre?’ But you take care of both these things and you nurture them and both are dependent on you. And it breaks your heart when your dog dies.”

Lowe thinks of her pet line as a primer of sorts for the baby line. “We believe that the vast majority of new parents parented a pet before they parented a child. Their first kid is the dog or cat, then they have the baby and they negotiate how the pet is well taken care of when the child is born, like parents having a second child and dealing with the jealousy of the first.”

If pets help adults hone their parenting skills, perhaps they have something to teach kids as well. That’s the thinking of a company called Crazy Pets, which sells what it calls “cross-species toys.” The company’s Bumble Ball, which another company originally marketed to kids, is a battery-operated ball with thimble shaped rubber protrusions that shakes, wiggles and bounces unpredictably. If the baby isn’t scampering after that with the dog, he can blow bubbles with the Catch-A-Bubble: The bubbles smell like either peanut butter (for dogs) or catnip (for cats). The company also publishes a kids’ cookbook to bake treats for cats and dogs.

“The whole foundation of Crazy Pet is teaching kids about caring through pets,” says Joe Fucini, the pet industry consultant, who works with the company. “A pet is often the first being that a child learns to share with, and every little increment is a step in learning how to care for others. We position the brand as fostering the bond between children and pets. That’s our raison d’etre.”

Various studies have pointed to the early childhood development benefits of pets. Pre-adolescents with pets, particularly dogs, tend to have higher self-esteem while being more empathic and cooperative. And according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, thirty-six percent of dog owners think dogs are “good for children, teach responsibility,” while twenty-three percent of cat owners do. (On the other hand, more than half of the 4.7 million Americans bitten by dogs each year are under the age of twelve.)

In the end, from a business standpoint, maybe the similarity between kids and dogs is not important. What really matters is the similarity between parents and dog owners. After all, they’re the ones who carry the credit cards, and who project their aesthetics and desires onto their charges.

“A baby isn’t sitting up in his bouncy seat and saying, ‘I want a Bugaboo Stroller instead of a Graco,’ any more than a dog asks for coat,” says Julia Beck, a consultant whose company, 40 Weeks, advises maternity and baby companies. “People are defining themselves through their pets and their children. What breed of dog you have says a lot about you as a person, and there are certain people who put dogs in coats and certain people who don’t.”

Both baby and pet product purchases, Beck says, “are about caring for the most beloved creature in your life – and pumping up the adorableness of said creature.”