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The $53 Billion Habit: We Are All Pet Lovers Now

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This should not be surprising: We love our pets. What is surprising is just how many people have pets now and how much we love to spend on them. More than 57 percent of Americans have a dog or cat and last year we spent $53 billion on these furry family members. That's a threefold increase since 1994 - and the trend shows no signs of slowing down. So who's buying all these designer collars, comfy beds, and tasty treats - and what else do we like to buy?

Say Media's Dogster and Catster are some of the largest destinations for pet lovers on the Web with millions of visitors each month, and Janine Kahn, editor-in-chief, is one of the foremost authorities on pets and what their owners want and need. Our intrepid summer intern Anthony Huynh interviewed Janine to learn more about what brands are doing interesting things for pet lovers, what keeps readers coming back for more – and the biggest do's and don'ts for new dog owners.

Fess up: If you had to choose to spend your afternoon with your dog or friends, which would you choose and why? I have four Greyhound tattoos, a license plate that reads "D<3glady," more dalmatian print accessories than i have fingers, and run a site called dogster. so if elect to hang with hounds over humans, don't think it's going surprise anybody. fortunately, choose between two- four-leggers since my friends and family love being around my dog, Mr. Moxie.

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When did you discover your love for pets? As a child I begged my parents for a dog - I was holding out for a Dachshund or Cocker Spaniel - but they pleaded asthma and got me nine siblings instead. This was mildly disappointing, as you can imagine. So I collected porcelain dog figurines instead, and went through every small cage-dwelling animal possible: guinea pigs, rabbits, hamsters, salamanders. There's still a small animal graveyard behind my house in the Philippines.

How did you turn your love for dogs into a career? In 2009 I got my first dog, my first dog tattoo and a job as Dogster and Catster's editorial manager. Before that, I had been a web editor at several Village Voice papers, including SF Weekly and OC Weekly, and the L.A. Times. I hadn't been gunning for a pet-centric career, but Dogster combined all the things I loved (Internet culture, social media, journalism and pets) and now I can't imagine doing anything else. Say Media acquiring Dogster and Catster in 2011 provided me with a unique opportunity: turning the sites into publications that provided thoughtful commentary on life with pets.

What are some of your more popular tips for dog owners? For the new dog owners: You will be tempted to buy everything in creation for your new bundle of fur, and when you do, consider investing in quality pieces (a supple leather leash and collar at the very least) instead of a bunch of junk. Also, do me a huge favor and dump the retractable leash. It's a dangerous device for many reasons and has no place in the informed city dog's accessories set. For parents of adult or senior dogs, check out these posts by veteran journalist and Dogster columnist Julia Szabo and consider the benefits of olive oil, milk thistle and various herbs for your dog's diet.

Which type of technology would you like to see for dogs in the future? The same technology I'd like to see for humans - an early warning device that detects illness. Also, I'm still waiting for my flying car. I think Mox would dig it.

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Where do you get the inspiration for your articles? Inspiration comes when you least expect it. One night I was trying to sleep and Moxie's nails were digging into my ribcage, so I pulled out my iPhone and tapped out an essay with one finger on the joys and sorrows of sleeping with the dog. The response - 502 comments, 1,262 Facebook likes, 41 tweets - told me our readers could relate. We source articles in many ways. More often than not, we'll ask our stable of writers to pitch us based on their personal experiences with pets, or our editors will assign items based on what's in the news. I subscribe to every dog and cat product newsletter and print publication imaginable to be on top of trends. I go to the dog park and keep my ears open.

What are your most popular posts? And what do you think it says about Dogster's readers? The posts that resonate with our readers are always those that hit a vein. A powerful, tear-jerking essay. A passionate, angry rant. A series of photos so cute you have to email the post to your mother-in-law. We provide tips and fact-heavy articles in between, but emotion is always queen on the Internet. We ask our writers to keep it personal, because readers can tell when the writer is invested in the piece - and then they feel like investing in it as well. What does this say about our readers? That they care. A lot.

What are the biggest don'ts for dog owners? My biggest pet peeve (ha) is when people make massive mistakes early in the game and get their dogs from shady places. And by that I mean backyard breeders or puppy mills.

So, don't be the a--hole who buys a dog from a website with a "buy it now" Paypal button. You're only fueling the puppy mill industry that way. Don't buy your dog from a pet store either for the same reason. You're not "rescuing" it; you're only making room for a new mill dog to take its place. If you must buy from a breeder, do your homework and find the closest breed-specific club for references. (My own dog came from a reference from reps at the Italian Greyhound Club of America.) A good breeder will never sell a dog through a pet store or website, and will screen you extensively and show you the tests run on your puppy's parents. I can go on and on about this, so don't get me started.

Other don'ts: Don't be the a--hole who doesn't pick up after his dog. You make the rest of polite dog-owning society look bad to non-dog people. Don't tether your dog unsupervised. Don't leave your dog in a hot car. Don't bring a dog home only to make that pup live out her life as an "outside dog." There's no such thing as an outside dog. Just don't be an a--hole and we're cool.

What are some great dog brands that dog lovers should know about? I always root for the underdog when it comes to dog brands. I'm a big fan of small companies with impeccably-made products and write about these from time to time in my Dogster Obsessions posts. Some recent favorites: Cloud 7, a Berlin-based brand that has gorgeous handmade pet bowls and travel beds; Sleepypod, which makes some of the coolest small dog carriers I've ever seen; P.L.A.Y. SF, which makes sturdy, aesthetically-awesome toys and beds and Westpaw Design, maker of the Eco Drop, my dog's favorite bed of all time.

What makes Dogster different? There isn't anyone out there doing what Dogster is when it comes to editorial. The online pet market is a mess of link bait, retailers, small blogs, print dog mags that don't get the web and portal sites trying to do so many things at once without providing a distinct point of view. Dogster subscribes to a list of values that inform our articles. We provide intelligent, insightful commentary on the pet issues of the day, and aren't afraid to draw a line in the sand and take a stand. Dogster also has social media in its veins since it began as the Internet's earliest and largest niche social site for dog people - and today we have a significant following on several social channels (Facebook being the biggest) that continues that tradition. The competition doesn't always "get" the Internet. But Dogster does.

How would you finish this sentence: When in doubt take your dog ... everywhere.

Follow Dogster and Catster on Twitter @dogster and @catster, and follow Janine @janinekahn.

[Photo credits: Top, Liz Acosta; Moxie and tattoo Casey Catelli]

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