By MICHAEL HILL
Hazel the schnauzer and Wrigley the black lab mix mean everything to Harriet Buscombe. The dogs protect her on her pre-dawn runs around her Champaign, Ill., neighborhood, but mostly they make her feel great.
"My children are grown now and having dogs around keeps me 'still a mom' in many respects," Buscombe said in an email interview. "I always feel a lot better - like all of my problems have lessened - because I have spent times with my dogs."
The loving link between baby boomers like 49-year-old Buscombe and their pets is well documented. Boomers - typically defined as the generation born from 1946 through 1964 - are a major reason why Americans' spending on the likes of food, grooming, kennels, surgery, even souvenirs, is expected to top $52 billion this year.
"Boomers are different, for the most part," said Bob Vetere, president of the American Pet Products Association. "What did they call us? Helicopter parents, because we were constantly hovering over the kids. The kids left home and now we're looking to hover over something else. And so we wind up doing it over pets."
But will the beautiful relationship last?
Pet ownership rates tend to drop among people in their golden years. And boomers are starting to hit retirement age, with the oldest boomers turning 66 this year. The pet industry is already looking years ahead to when aging boomers eventually could be tempted - or forced - to give up high-maintenance dogs and cats because of fixed incomes, smaller homes or physical limitations. Routine veterinarian care alone can run $248 a year for a dog, according to an industry survey.
"I'm in a bit of a conundrum. I want to own a dog until the day I die, but it haunts me to think of dying and leaving a dog I've bonded with without a best friend," said Mike Lewis of Anchorage, Alaska.
At 55, Lewis is healthy, but he is thinking ahead. Lewis and his wife have three dogs now, but he says given his age, he probably has bought his last puppy. If he gets another new dog, it will be an older rescue.
It's estimated that about 73 million American households keep pets. A report last month from the market research company Packaged Facts found that the generation after the boomers, Gen X, actually has higher pet ownership rates. But the spending habits of boomers - a generation that represents about a quarter of the population - is significant. And boomers do spend a lot, particularly "empty nesters" with children gone from the home, Vetere said.
Boomers - with their desire for flexibility and mobility - are sinking money into products and services previous generations never considered, like automatic feeding devices and litter boxes or pet-sitting services, Vetere said. They often treat their pets like humans, purchasing gluten-free dog food and heated kitty beds. The Nielsen Co. reported in 2010 that boomer households spent $211 a year on pet food, more than any other age group.
In suburban Detroit, Donna Blain has purchased comfy beds for her Yorkshire terrier-Pomeranian mix, Lola, as well as a wicker bike basket with a cage on the top and about 20 dresses.
"Lola likes the attention. Believe me, she likes going anywhere," said Blain, 56. "Does she like getting dressed up? Probably not."
Packaged Facts in its report noted that "pet product makers cannot afford to take Boomers for granted."
Already, the industry is promoting the benefits of pets for older people. The pet association is a founding sponsor (along with Petco and Pfizer Animal Health) of the Human Animal Bond Research Initiative, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting the positive role animals play in people's health.
The group's website touts the role animals have in lowering blood pressure and reducing anxiety.
The pets-have-a-benefit message applies to people of all ages, but the argument might strike a deep chord with older people.
"For us, they bring a really a tremendous amount of joy, you know, because after your kids are gone your house is kind of empty and they're just a lot of fun, good company," said 70-year-old Phyllis Singler, of Philadelphia. She and her 61-year-old husband lead an active retirement with boating and trips to Florida and Europe.
The couple owns two biewers, Natty and Gio, that go almost everywhere they do. And when they can't, they hire a sitter. There's a provision in their will to set aside money so their children can care for the dogs, if need be.
Some researchers caution that the good of pet ownership has to be weighed against the bad. Hal Herzog, a professor of psychology at Western Carolina University, said there are so many studies on the "pet effect" with conflicting results that it remains an "uncorroborated hypothesis." Herzog, author of "Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat" noted, for instance, that the Centers for Disease Control estimated there are almost 87,000 falling injuries each year related to cats and dogs.
"The pet industry has really pushed the idea that pets are good for people and they've ignored the substantial literature showing there's no effect or there's a deleterious effect," Herzog said.
Herzog said pets can have a positive affect - he thinks his cat has a positive effect on him - but that the health benefits have been oversold.
Vetere said claims that pets are some awful tripping hazard or otherwise harmful are "greatly exaggerated."
"I don't see that as being even close to a trade off," he said.