Mirabelle Downs is a local celebrity. Of sorts. Even local paparazzi follow her.
"Wherever we go, people take pictures of her," says her "mom," Debbie Downs of Ooltewah. "She loves people and will pose."
Mirabelle is a two-pound Chihuahua owned by Downs and her husband, Craig.
As "Spokesdog" for the Bark in the Park community event held every fall at Heritage Park, Mirabelle also holds the title of Scenic City's Next Top Dog, bestowed at a Goodwill fundraising event. She makes guest appearances at other canine-related events around town, too. Though the Downses are not empty nesters - they have no children - Mirabelle is like a child to them.
"We used to laugh about women carrying their little dogs everywhere, and now I'm one of them," Debbie Downs says. "Mirabelle has a wonderful life with us."
The Downses pamper the tiny dog with a host of luxuries, from a wardrobe of more than 100 outfits - including couture designs, a little black dress, a polka-dot bikini and a leopard-print dress with rhinestone choker - to pedicures, out-of-town vacations and trips to the dentist.
"She only has six teeth remaining," Downs says. "We had to have most of them extracted because her mouth was too small when her teeth came in. We take her to a vet dentist in Knoxville, and they use an anesthesiologist that specializes in small and exotic animals."
Mirabelle also has ramps to help her get up and down from the sofa and the Downs' bed, where she sleeps at night, as well as a doggy bed and heating pad in the kitchen, where she sleeps during the day.
The Downses aren't different from thousands of Americans who treat their animals like humans, often forking over big bucks for them. Bob Vetere, president and CEO of the American Pet Products Association, says Americans spent $55.7 billion on their pets in 2013 - a record high. About $21.57 billion of the 2013 expenses were spent on food - the expensive, healthier kind, according to association. Vetere predicts the total amount spent will rise to about $60 million by the end of this year.
The "humanization" of pets started about 20 years ago, Vetere says. "As people made pets more important parts of their families, manufacturers introduced products that, in the beginning, helped the animals make their move from the back yard to the front room," he told CBS Money Watch.
Vetere says it's mostly older empty-nester Americans who are contributing to the industry's growth by filling the void left by their children who are grown and moved away from home.
Waz and Liz Schultz, of Lookout Mountain, are devoted pet owners to five dogs - four Yorkshire terriers and one Labrador retriever, 9-year-old Cohen, who's having something of an identity crisis.
"(Cohen) thinks he's little like his brothers and sisters," Liz Schultz says. And, like his siblings, he's treated as royalty in the home they share with two humans.
"I'm sure how we treat our dogs is considered over the top by most people we know," Schultz says. "Our dogs are absolutely our kids. My parents and in-laws call them their grandchildren and have given up on asking when I'll have a baby.
"We invested in a king-size bed after we got married so there would be plenty of room for everyone to snuggle with us at night," she says.
Fashionable clothing for the fur kids is also part of the Schultz's annual budget.
"Their wardrobe is more extensive than mine," she says. "They love to get dressed up, contrary to what a lot of people may think about pets being dressed up. Whenever we pull out an outfit, they get excited."
Schultz says their lives revolves around the dog. When one of the Yorkies, Yodi, contracted a tick-borne disease a few years ago, "we became hermits while nursing him back to health. He went to work with me every day and every evening was spent making sure he was comfortable," she says.
The dogs' diet is of utmost important to the Schultzes.
"I'm always trying to stay on top of what the best foods are, what ingredients are in treats we buy and what supplements will keep them the healthiest," she says. "For birthdays, we always bake our own cakes for them or order one from Bone Appetit on Frazier Ave."
But the pampering doesn't stop there. They also bought a Jeep for their animals.
"I've always had tiny cars, my last being a Mini Cooper and, even though most of our dogs are under 7 pounds, we needed more space. So we upgraded with a Jeep Wrangler," she says.
Chattanoogans Ronnie and Karen Roach, co-directors of DOGood Chattanooga, a group of volunteers who work with the Chattanooga Parks and Recreation Department to teach responsible dog guardianship to residents and visitors, have four dogs - three toy poodles and one Goldendoodle, a golden retriever and standard poodle mix.
"I have never been without dogs and/or cats in my life," Karen says. "I've always loved animals of all kinds but can't imagine living without at least one (or four) dogs in my home.
"Our pups lead very orderly lives. They eat twice a day, on schedule, have plenty of play time with us and love to go for walks," Karen Roach says. "They sleep with us, watch TV with us and love to snuggle. Ronnie and I have schedules that allow one of us to be home with the pups most of the time, so we are fortunate that they do not have to spend much time without us."
Bentley, the Goldendoodle, is a therapy dog and often visits at T.C. Thompson Children's Hospital at Erlanger.
And all five dogs have daily grooming schedules.
"My two poodle girls always have polished nails (a special non-toxic dog polish that Groomingdales uses), and we have matching clothing for the three poodles," Roach says. "They have lightweight summer things, rain gear, sweaters, holiday clothes and coats. Bentley has sweaters, shirts, rain gear and a few coats."
She believes most Americans think of their pets as family members but says there is still a lot of education that needs to be done.
"Our society has a long way to go by teaching spay and neuter habits, good health practices and humane treatment of animals," she says. "We see so many cases of cruelty, dog fighting, unwanted litters and unhealthy animals who deserve a better life."
Contact Karen Nazor Hill at khill@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6396.