Monday, December 25, 2006

55% of dog owners, 37% of cat owners buy presents for their animal friends

Like so many Americans, Woody Daniels hews to holiday tradition for his family, stuffing two stockings late on Christmas Eve when the house is quiet.“Winston gets all kinds of gifts, he's so spoiled. He'll get several kinds of treats, a bit of nip, and I'm getting him a stuffed mouse this year so he stops bringing me real ones,” said Daniels, who lives in North Park.

“And Buddy gets new tennis balls, food treats and some toys, including his favorite stuffed hamburger. They don't make that one anymore, so I keep putting the same one in his stocking year after year. He never seems to notice.”

Winston is a cat, Buddy a dog, and their owner is among millions of Americans who are including their pets as part of the family in holiday celebrations.

The 63 percent of U.S. households that own at least one pet will account for an estimated $38.4 billion in spending in 2006, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association.

A significant chunk of that will be spent around the holidays. A survey done by the association found that 55 percent of dog owners and 37 percent of cat owners planned to buy their pets holiday presents this year.

A great deal more money and effort will be invested in cute photos, processing and postage as the holiday greetings of untold numbers of families are sent in the form of cards bearing images not of them or their kids, but of their pets.

And some dogs and cats have somehow initiated gift exchanges. Darby and Cadha, a pair of cairn terriers who live in Ocean Beach, were busy last week wrapping gifts, with the help of their owner, Dee McMillen, for relatives back East.

“This year my dogs are sending Fortune Snookies, fortune cookies for dogs,” McMillen said, as the dogs took a break to work out with a tennis ball.

“They have cute sayings, like: 'What happens at the dog park stays at the dog park'; and 'You had me at, Here, boy!' They're sending them to their cousins in Michigan,” she said.

“They've already opened their own presents – rope toys this year. They love them.”

Not everyone is crazy about the idea of buying gifts for dogs and cats, however.

“Dear Abby” got a letter this month from the mother in a struggling Alaska farm family of four whose sister-in-law insisted the couple buy gifts for her dog and wrap them, “because the dog likes opening packages!”

“I told her we don't ask people to purchase gifts for our kids, and we don't purchase gifts for other people's pets,” the mom wrote. “Now she's offended.” (Abby sided with the mom.)

Yet, many pet owners wouldn't think of letting the holidays pass without presents for the family pooch or puss.

On a shopping spree last week at Muttropolis, a high-end pet-gift shop in La Jolla, Sondra Gemmill and her mixed-breed Sadie paid particular attention to the multiflavored chew sticks.

“Sadie is absolutely part of our family,” Gemmill said, sampling a “human grade,” scone-like Harvest Apple treat herself. “We'll have smoked turkey for dinner and she will, too – a little bit, anyway.”

Gemmill, who also has a cat named Ollie, was willing to spend a few bucks on “bully sticks” and other chews. But she passed on the $209 collars embedded with crystals, and the $275 top-end dog bed.

“Feel that fabric,” said Johanna Karcher of the sales staff. “It's made of chenille fabric and is supposed to look like a powder puff. These beds are very popular; we're on our second shipment of these.”

For those interested in sending Christmas cards with photos of their dogs, Puptown Doggy DayCare in downtown San Diego makes it easy. They dress up clients' dogs in Santa hats and antlers, pose them next to wreaths and ornaments and send the photos home.

“My wife, Pam, is at Costco right now turning Shadow's photo into our Christmas card,” said Fred Hollinger of Coronado.

“We always send pictures of our dog on our Christmas cards. Our son, who is 20 now, thinks we're crazy. He says stuff like, 'You guys should be put in an insane asylum. You love that dog more than you love me.' ”

Petco, which reports it racks up more sales during the holiday season than at any other time of year, offers to take your pet photos and weave them into a tapestry throw (for furniture or hanging) or a canvas suitable for framing.

Anne Perry of El Cajon said she and husband, Joe, have sent friends and family Christmas cards bearing their dogs' photos for the past five years. It's a matter of taste.

“We weren't lucky enough to have children and we're at the age where a cute picture of our dogs (Molly, a golden retriever, and Colby, a cocker spaniel) is much nicer to send than a photo of two middle-aged people,” she explained.

“These dogs really are our family.”

Library researcher Merrie Monteagudo contributed to this report.

We'll all be cyborgs someday, scientist says

In Casino Royale, the latest James Bond movie, Bond is implanted with a microchip that allows headquarters to track his whereabouts and monitor his vital signs.

If a British cybernetics expert is right, the day will come when most people are implanted with chips -- and the real-life chips will do a lot more than Bond's does in the movie.

Kevin Warwick, a professor of cybernetics at the University of Reading, has first-hand knowledge. In 1998, he had a chip surgically inserted into his left arm, becoming he believes the first human ever implanted with a computer chip.

Since then, he's had a more sophisticated chip connected directly to his nervous system. He is still working toward his grandest experiment: having a chip implanted in his brain.

''I want to become a cyborg,'' he said with an infectious grin. ``I can see the advantages.''

A cyborg, for the record, is a mixture of man and machine. And cybernetics is the study of communication and control between humans and computers.


Warwick, who is 52, presides excitedly over the apparent chaos at the university's MAD lab. (The name stands not for madness but Mobile Autonomic Devices.)

Cables and machine parts litter the work benches. On the floor, two robots the size of model cars race around, mapping their environment and learning how not to bump into things. Nearby, a robot with a skull for a head works on combining the input from his various senses -- audio, video, ultrasonics, radar and infrared -- to interpret what's going on around it.

And in another lab on campus, computers are being controlled by living tissue taken from the brains of rats.

But Warwick's most daring experiments have been on himself. On Aug. 24, 1998, as the BBC filmed, doctors made a small incision in Warwick's left arm, slid in a thin inch-long glass capsule, and stitched him back up.

The capsule contained silicon microchips that announced Warwick's presence to other computers. His office doors swung open as he approached. Lights flicked on as he entered. His computer said hello and told him how many e-mails were waiting.

That chip stayed in for a couple of weeks. It's now on display at the Science Museum in London.

In 2002, doctors sliced open Warwick's left wrist and implanted a much smaller and more sophisticated device. For three months, its 100 electrodes were connected to his median nerves, linking his nervous system to a computer.

''I moved my hand, and my neural signals were sent over the Internet to open and close a robot hand,'' he said.

Not only that: The robotic hand had sensors. As it grasped a sponge or an eyeglasses case, it sent information back to Warwick.

''It was tremendously exciting,'' Warwick said. ``I experienced it as signals in my brain -- which my brain was quite happy to recognize as feedback from the robot hand's fingertips.''


The research has significant medical implications.

Paralyzed people might regain movement if one chip were implanted above the break in the nerves and another below to receive the impulses, Warwick said.

More intelligent chips in the brains of people with Parkinson's disease might sense when tremors were on the way and signal the brain to stop them.

''It's like a computer brain out-thinking a human brain,'' he said.

But Warwick's biggest experiment, in which he will have a chip implanted in his brain, is seven or eight years away. He will attempt thought communication -- ''literally the first brain-to-brain communication,'' he said.

''That excites me beyond all proportion,'' he said. ``Nothing is going to stop me from doing that.''


Not everyone approves of Warwick. From time to time, he receives missives from people he calls ''religious extremists'' telling him he is tampering with God's work.

And in an opinion piece this month in the Toronto Star, Kevin Haggerty, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Alberta, called Warwick part of the ''advance guard'' trying to expand chip technology as widely as possible. The day will come, Haggerty warned, when all people will be chipped and the government will be able to track them all the time, recording their smallest behavioral traits.


Despite differing over the desirability of implantation, Warwick and Haggerty agree on a great deal.

For one thing, the procedure is now more common.

More and more pet owners are taking advantage of chip implants that transmit identification to veterinarians.

Still, Warwick said, important questions will have to be answered for humans.

''Is it OK to upgrade? What about the people who don't upgrade?'' he asked. ``If they don't upgrade, they could become some sort of subspecies.''