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Pets in Paradise

Gone are the days when the family dog languished in a one-room wooden shack in the backyard, and the cat caught her own meals in the barn.

Today dogs and their people share beds-or Fido reclines on his own monogrammed doggie bed-while the family feline dines on shrimp with crab aspic served in designer dishes. In certain elevated circles, pets host parties-including the popular "Bark Mitzvah"-staged and decorated by professionals and catered with gourmet pet treats. Some privileged pups are even undergoing cosmetic surgery, as owners assuage the guilt of neutering male dogs by having-ahem!-artificial replacements implanted.

Here in Southwest Florida, doting owners pamper their pets in all

sorts of extravagant ways. (We don't have Bark Mitzvahs but we do have extravagant parties.) Well-connected local pets dine on all-natural food, boast impeccable dental hygiene, attend day care, de-stress with massage or try acupuncture to relieve the pain of arthritis. Our pets also tap into the latest technology: Some have their own Web sites, while others star in the 24-7 Web cams at Pet Kingdom in Fort Myers (the Hamster cam is reportedly a late-night favorite with college students from all over the country).

How did we arrive at this doggedly slavish state? Blame it on the Baby Boomers. Blame it on people whose children are grown and gone, whose careers take them far from home or cause them to put off having families, or who simply take pleasure in indulging their animal companions.

Just how far will we go for the four-legged creatures we love? Here's a look at the lifestyle of Southwest Florida's luckiest pets.


For everyday fare, most Gulfshore pets get by just fine with grub from Publix or PetSmart (where chews and toys are cannily positioned at canine eye level). But for special occasions, they feast on treats from gourmet boutiques, like those that Vickie Betts offers at Dudley's Dog Bakery in south Fort Myers. In addition to a full line of cookies and pet birthday cakes, Dudley sells lots of ice cream to dogs in flavors such as Chubby Puppy (peanut butter) and Pawberry (strawberry).

Kristin Dinkel Brown of Fort Myers recently ordered a peanut butter cake bearing a likeness of her bullmastiff, Madeline, for the dog's fifth birthday party. Besides Madeline and her 10-pound mixed-breed cohort, Boudreaux, six other dogs attended, with owners in tow.

"The dogs had plain hamburgers for dinner, the birthday cake and Frosty Paws ice cream for dessert," says Dinkel Brown. Humans got hot dogs and cole slaw. To add to the festive mood, guests of both species received colorful leis.

Dinkel Brown's dogs also attended her wedding reception. Madeline wore a fetching flowered hat that tied under her chin while Boudreaux sported a bow tie. But they certainly aren't the only well-dressed pets in the region. Annabelle, a 7-year-old pug, wore pearls to her most recent social gala, Love a Pug O'Ween, held in February at the Old Naples home she shares with owners Karen and Steven Coplin. Her pug sibling, 4-year-old Elvis, was dressed as the King, naturally.

Coplin began the annual Pug O'ween event in 1998 as a lark, with 16 pugs and their people attending. Postponed until February this year because of 9-11, the party attracted 69 pugs along with enough people to raise $4,000 for the Collier County Humane Society.

One lucky woman won a $400 beaded pug purse donated by Saks Fifth Avenue. Judges named king, queen and princess pugs. Coplin concedes that pug owners tend to be obsessed with a breed often described as a lot of dog in a little package.

"People like to dress their pugs up," she says, and the party gives them a good reason to do so.

Doggie Duds

What's the fashionable pooch wearing these days?

Pearls, beads and trendy coats are all the rage.

Vickie Betts of Dudley's Dog Bakery in Fort Myers says that faux pearl necklaces and red-white-and-blue-beaded collars make popular fashion statements. At the Critter Cafe in Marco Island, branklets--bracelets worn around the leg--are big sellers.

Jennifer Brisbois, a Fort Myers veterinarian who also practices animal acupuncture, shares her Lehigh Acres home with her veterinarian husband,

Jeff Kue, a cockatoo, nine dogs and seven cats. Two of her dogs are clothes horses. Sparrow the schnauzer has a variety of collars to suit her moods while Wendy the Italian greyhound sports different coats depending on the weather.

"She has a purple Southwestern one for cool weather" that's a favorite, Brisbois notes.


Southwest Florida dogs now have two parks and a beach to call their own. Rover Run in Veterans Park in North Naples, Barkingham Park east of Fort Myers and Dog Beach between Fort Myers Beach and Bonita Beach allow dogs to break out of their everyday confines and run leash-free, communing with their peers. Another dog-friendly park is in the works at Cape Coral's Jaycees Park.

But sometimes a hound hungers for a getaway with more creature comforts. For that, he can check into The Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort in Naples, which pampers four-legged guests in much the same manner as it does bipedal ones. Customers with dogs "can expect a nice doggie dish for food and water in their rooms," says Fred Wass, the Ritz's front-desk manager. "They get a therapeutic dog bed and nightly turndown service." On the blanket, canine guests will find a freshly baked dog biscuit with recipe attached.

Well-traveled feathered friends might check into birdhouses made by Naples woodcarver Jim Abner. His most opulent creation, a 64-room model based on a European opera house, bears a price tag of $50,000.


When veterinarian Jim Greene began practicing in 1968, his medical kit included two sulfa drugs, a couple of primitive antibiotics and an old Army X-ray machine.

"From 1970 until today, the field is 300 percent more developed than in the 100 years prior to that," says the director of the Emergency Veterinary Clinic in south Fort Myers. Pets now have access to virtually all of the technology and medical advances available to humans.

"We've finally admitted that the puppy dog who goes to bed with you each night and sits on the sofa with you is a much greater loss than the sister you see once a year, especially in single-person households," he says.

Each day in the emergency clinic's office, a different specialist-a dermatologist, ophthalmologist, neurosurgeon, internist or oncologist-sees patients. Nights and weekends, critical-care veterinarians treat all manner of animal emergencies. The clinic has artificial blood, intensive care units and magnetic resonance imaging machines. A typical emergency visit costs $270, Greene says, although many people pay far more.

The Well-Punctured Pet

Americans are clamoring for alternative medical treatments, and they want the same for their animals. That's why Cape Coral veterinarian Terry Melton decided to study acupuncture. "I was getting frustrated that traditional Western treatments weren't able to treat chronic conditions like renal failure and arthritis," she says. "I was looking for another way to help pets out."

Melton, who also incorporates Asian herbal remedies in her practice, has used acupuncture on her own dog, Scout, a rambunctious black cocker mixed breed with epilepsy. Regular acupuncture treatments allowed her to wean him off anti-seizure medication. Now seizure-free, he no longer needs acupuncture, either.

Paul and Virginia Healy of North Fort Myers tried acupuncture on their miniature poodle, Sugar, when the little white dog developed calcium deposits on her backbone and had trouble walking. Cortisone hadn't worked, and veterinarians told them a costly operation would have a 50-50 chance of success.

"Dr. Melton said we should give acupuncture a try before thinking of an operation," Paul Healy says. "We tried it and she has been fine ever since."

Five-year-old Sugar now travels back and forth to Cape Cod each year with her owners, gobbles up the cooked sweet potatoes, chicken and cottage cheese she's fed and leaps up on the family's king-sized bed to snuggle.

Paul Healy is thrilled. "Maybe I'll go back to the vet and she'll do something with my golf game," he says.

Mutt Massage

As anyone who's enjoyed a massage knows, an hour under the thumbs of a trained professional can rub out many of the stresses of the world. The lucky dog, cat or horse knows it, too.

Just what sort of stress does the family pet experience?

"Dogs rely on us to feed them, take them out, walk them. They're totally dependent on us," says Deborah Londeau-Sorenson, a trained animal massage therapist based in south Fort Myers. "If I were a dog, even with the best owner in the world, I'd find it pretty stressful. Imagine waiting at home to go to the bathroom and not being allowed to do that until someone got home."

Whether or not your dog has dependency issues, massage will increase his circulation and smooth away muscle spasms and soreness. Inactive pets, much like bedridden people, need their muscles stretched and their lymph nodes stimulated, says Londeau-Sorenson. She also uses magnetic therapy to increase circulation.

"It's not just a frivolous service," she says. "A lot of my clients really see the benefits. It's a lot better than waiting until the dog is in a bad state and spending thousands of dollars at the vet."

One of her clients is Rhapsody in Blu, a greyhound that belongs to Barbara Mulle in Bonita Springs. Blu suffered from muscle spasms after retiring from a three-year racing career. Londeau-Sorenson heads to the Mulles' Bonita Springs home periodically to give Blu a rubdown. Since the massages began, Blu has been spasm-free.

"She loves it," her doting owner says.

The 5-year-old dog has grown used to many of life's other little luxuries, too, and has done a fine job of training her humans.

"She sleeps in our bedroom," Mulle says, in a trampoline-style bed with sheets Mulle made. Blu often wears little booties to protect her feet on walks, enjoys jerky treats that contain sea cucumber and glucosamine for joint health, and dines on stew meat cooked with carrots, green beans, spinach, tomatoes and mushrooms.

"She gets four cups a day," says Mulle. "I feed it to my husband, too."

Chrissy Reseigh of Bonita Springs takes a hands-on approach to her intuitive work with pets. After working with people for 14 years, she switched to animals about two years ago. Through reiki and observation, she works to find out why an animal has a particular behavioral or health problem, including housebreaking, eating difficulties, separation anxiety, arthritis and hip dysplasia.

For a $65 house call, Reseigh spends up to two hours working with an animal. She'll recommend dietary changes, identify problems in the home, and use massage and aromatherapy to promote relaxation and increase energy.

"Animals are no different from children," she says. "You can encourage them to do things that are beneficial to them, but they don't always agree."


Carolyn Kimbrell was fed up with the restaurant business.

"I'd always loved animals and always took care of my friends' animals when they were out of town," she says of the way she began her pet-sitting service, Carolyn's Critter Care, in Fort Myers. Three years later, she's making a living doing what she loves, although she's learned that it's not a walk in the park.

"I didn't realize that I'd never have a day off or a weekend," she says. That's when sitters are most in demand from pet owners who don't want to leave their pets at a kennel.

"They talk about them like kids," Kimbrell observes. "A lot of baby boomers have opted not to have children, and they're spoiling their pets the way many people spoil their children."

The pet sitter, who's licensed and bonded and has taken the American Red Cross First Aid for Pets course, interviews potential clients, both human and animal, filling out a detailed record of each pet's likes, habits and medical condition.

She's accustomed to special requests. One couple had an epileptic Weimaraner and feared leaving him alone in case he had a seizure. Kimbrell babysat while the owners went out to eat. Another client asked Kimbrell "to make sure on the late evening visit to tuck the dog underneath the covers because he gets cold," she recalls.

Elaine Brower, a longtime breeder and groomer, offers boarding and day care at her North Fort Myers home. Her clients come from as far away at Marco Island and Tampa. Elderly dogs and those with special needs stay in the house, where she can watch them more closely, while healthier pets live it up in her kennel.

"One thing I insist on is enrichment," she says. "They have to have brushing, petting and playtime."

Tina Ballas of Fort Myers takes her six-year-old Siberian husky, Bailey, to Barbara Segel's Camp Segel in Fort Myers twice a week.

"I travel a lot with my job and I live in a one-bedroom apartment," says Ballas, who works in real estate. "I feel bad that she has to sit there alone. I want her to have interaction with other dogs and with people someplace where she gets exercise and can just be a dog."

On Marco Island, Gail DeMoss' Critter Café is moving into cushier quarters so she can create a boarding facility that's almost a pet resort. Her four-legged guests will lounge on well-padded doggie beds and participate in organized activities and playtime. Owners can check in at anytime via the Internet to catch their little darlings at sleep or play. The dogs get social time, too.

"So many people come here on vacation and want to go on day trips, but don't want their pets left alone all day," says DeMoss, who shares her home with three beloved salukis.

Pet Gallery

Although pets are living longer these days, they never live long enough for many of their owners. Some people are preserving their memories with professional photos and other art.

Linda Saha of Cape Coral and Margo Petrov Vigorito of Bonita Springs paint pet portraits. Saha says many owners commission a work as the pets get on in years. Portraits start at $120 and go up depending on the number of animals.

"They want something lasting," she says. Most of her subjects are dogs, but she also gets some requests for cats and horses. She did a ball python once.

"I took it to a show so people could see I do more than just mammals," she says. "But people would see it and leave so I had to take it down."

Vigorito creates portraits in pastels or, for "majestic animals" such as horses, in oil. She also teaches others how to capture their pets in paint at classes at the Bonita Springs Art League.

Saha says clients often told her how comforting the paintings were after their pets died, but she didn't really understand until she hung up a portrait of Cyrus the Great, her departed golden retriever-German shepherd mix, in her home.

"I love looking at it," she says. "Not because I painted it, but because it's him."

Alan Veres and Claduia Beaulieu capture pets' likenesses in photos through their business Flash & Co. Based in Tampa and Sarasota, the pair travel to Southwest Florida several times a year for a day's worth of photography. They bring with them backdrops and props such as a surfboard, a miniature airplane and tiny pieces of Chippendale furniture.

"Everybody wants a picture of their beloved pet," Veres says. "It's not just that the pets are getting old. They just want to feel that closeness to it."

A Farewell to Fido

Pet owners no longer have to hide their grief when their beloved companions die. Hospice of Naples has offered a monthly pet loss support group since September 2000, according to the Rev. Dr. Gordon Postill, director of community bereavement services. The idea came from staff members' personal experiences with the deaths of their pets.

Three to nine people attend the monthly gatherings while others arrange one-on-one sessions with a trained grief counselor.

"Quite often people lose a pet and don't have anybody to talk to about it," Postill says. "We help them feel validated in their grief experience."

At Hospice, when employees lose a pet, they are granted a bereavement day. Bereft owners can purchase a memorial brick at the hospice's Pet Rainbow Garden for $150 each, the same price as a memorial brick for a person. So far, there are 10 bricks in the garden.

Danny Meadows helps grieving owners find closure in yet another way. In his Cape Coral garage, the Maytag repairman creates pet caskets -clear pine boxes with three-tiered tops and rich pecan finish. He and Elaine Brower now operate a business that sells the caskets, which range from $47.95 for the extra-small hamster model to $469.95 for the extra-large dog casket (on the Web at www.peacefulpet.com).

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