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Cashing in on the pet travel boom

Monday, April 4, 2005 Posted: 11:14 AM EDT (1514 GMT)

NEW YORK (Reuters) -- From portable potty turf to disposable kitty litter boxes and pet passports, the growing number of traveling pets -- estimated at 20 million last year -- has spawned an industry dedicated to making the lives of road-weary animals a little easier.

Spill-free water gadgets, car booster seats and freeze dried pure organ meat are also among the hot-selling products fueling the booming travel segment in the $36 billion pet industry.

Even airlines are doing their part, enticing customers with frequent flier pet programs that allow animals to earn miles toward free flights.

"Pets are no longer pets. They're extensions of the family. Instead of leaving them at home during a vacation, now it's fun to take Fifi, Fido and Fluffy with you," said Bob Vetere, managing director of the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association Inc., a Greenwich, Connecticut-based trade group.

"That, in turn, has fueled the growth of companies totally dedicating themselves to pet mobility," he said.

One of those companies is PETaPOTTY, which sells portable turf patches with drainage space underneath. The lawn toilets are made to look like a patch of grass so tempting that even the strongest-willed canines may find it difficult to resist.

PETaPOTTY tripled sales to $230,000 last year and expects to pull in $600,000 this year, said owner Brandon Hochman, 32, a former professional snow boarder from Los Angeles.

Helping fuel demand are pet owners who put the product in cars, recreational vehicles and airplane crates, he said.

Sylvia Pickett, co-founder of Global Pet Products, is having similar success with her doggie car seat business, an endeavor that "took off like you wouldn't believe," she said.

The idea for the seat, which also keeps upholstery free of hair and dirt, came to Pickett when she almost had a car accident while driving with her Shih Tzu, Tashi, in her lap.

"People are constantly bringing their pets with them," said Gregg Oehler, publisher of New York Dog Magazine. "I get calls every day from advertisers who have travel as part of their pet product mix."

The pet travel craze has prompted hotels to offer pet-friendly perks like menus, day-care and playgrounds, the way hotels became kid-friendly a generation ago, Oehler said.
First class Fifi

Ever since Midwest Airlines introduced a frequent flier pet program in January, pet travel at the company is up 25 percent, said Susan Kerwin-Hagen, a Midwest marketing manager. Owner-accompanied pets get a free round-trip ticket after their third domestic round-trip flight. Pets pay a flat fee of $150 per round-trip to Midwest destinations throughout the United States, a price in line with other airlines.

United Airlines also offers pet miles, where for a limited time, Mileage Plus members can earn 1,200 bonus miles when traveling with pets.

The new airline programs were good news for Chuck Bessant, who lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado and takes frequent trips with his three small show dogs. Rules vary on how many pets are allowed in each cabin, and in cargo pets are charged based on their weight.

"We are typically treated as if we are carrying a leaky quart of Ebola-tainted blood on a plane," said Bessant, who transports his Australian terriers in the popular Sherpa brand carrier.

Experts point to several factors leading to the pet travel boom, among them childless couples who take pets on vacation the same way parents bring the kids.

In 2004, pet travel rose 33 percent to 20 million -- 80 percent of them dogs, according to a survey by the association.

Among the other companies capitalizing on pet travel accessories are JoBananas Club, the makers of disposable kitty litter boxes. WalkyDog USA Inc. makes a spillproof water device and a hands-free dog carrying pouch.

PETCO Animal Supplies Inc. and PetsMart Inc. are also taking note, expanding their offering of travel-related products. A travel center on PETCO's Web site lists products like the Outward Hound Pet booster seat and pet ramps for sport utility vehicles.

And the products keep getting more advanced.

Hochman, the owner of PETaPOTTY, is making an odor-free version of his portable turf, called Smell-U-Lator.

"Every month my business is growing and it's not just traveling families buying the product," Hochman said. "Doggie day-care centers and even dog psychics are using it."
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