Walmart Tries to Get Its Paws on Pet Owners

Spending on pets estimated to grow 3 to 5 percent this year

The economy may have gone to the dogs, but the dogs are doing just fine.

The American Pet Products Association estimates spending on pets grew 3 to 5 percent in 2008, at a time when most stores struggled to make sales.

The nation's largest retailer has taken notice.

"We want to be their destination for pet care at a lower and reasonable price," Walmart spokesman Daniel Morales said.

Walmart has expanded its pet care sections at many locations, hoping to compete more heavily with specialty stores such as PetSmart and Petco.

"We spend a lot of money on our dogs, but to me it's worth it," pet owner Tali Barak said.

She said she still pampers her pug, Ozzy. She buys him gifts even though she's cut back on things for herself.

"I don't have any kids, and he's kind of like my baby," she said. "I take care of him."

The retail giant is stocking more luxury pet items, because most pet owners are still buying premium food, and they're still buying gifts for their cats and dogs.

"Pets are like family members, and they want to take care of them, so they want to buy premium brands and items that are fun for them," Morales said.

When Walmart built its new store in Highland Village, it studied the number of affluent pet owners in the surrounding area when considering what kinds of pet products to stock.

Barbara Watts said she just spent hundreds on Christmas gifts for her three dogs.

"I let them walk the store, and they pick out what they want, and they buy it," she said.

But not everyone is buying premium in tough times.

"I don't think I'd spend the money on the luxury items even if I could," one shopper said.

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