Who rules the roost? Odds are it’s furry, has four legs and has wriggled its way deep into your heart

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It should come as no surprise that Americans are pet-crazy.

We own 78 million cats and 65 million dogs, according to researchers for John Tesh’s “Intelligence for Your Life” radio show. Birds, fish, rodents and reptiles kept as household pets also number in the millions.

The American Pet Products Manufacturers Association says there are more pets than people in the United States.

And not only that, but we’ve also elevated our pets to “family members” or “our babies” and given them human names – with Molly and Max being the most popular.

Remember back when pets were kept outside and were treated like, well, animals?

How did we get from there to not only keeping our pets indoors, but also giving them their own space – sometimes even at the foot of our beds – and giving them food from our own plates? Not to mention choosing vacation spots that accommodate them. Including them in weddings and other family celebrations. And using them as a gauge for whether a guy or girl is worth dating.

Let’s face it. We spoil our pets, and love doing it. But why are pets so popular? And why are we so prone to “humanizing” them?

One reason, according to The Wall Street Journal, is that many of us live away from our families. And because so many of us don’t know our neighbors well, it’s only natural to put our pets in the role of friend – and, sometimes, confidant.

Americans also have more expendable income than ever. And since we’re treating pets like family members, we’re willing to spend lots of money on them. According to data collected for the Department of Labor Consumer Expenditure Surveys, pet products are one of the healthiest businesses in the nation, with the money we spend on pets doubling in the past 10 years. It’s predicted we’ll spend $36 billion on our animal pals this year.

Traveling cross-country or to ‘Grandma’s’

Travel that accommodates pets, especially dogs, has become a popular, multimillion dollar business, with everything from upscale hotels to campgrounds making the leap to include our fuzzy friends – for a price. Web sites offering travel advice and a directory of pet-friendly accommodations across the country include www.tripswithpets.com, www.happytailstr-avel.com, and www.petsonthego.com. Here, information on airline policies, travel supplies, recreational activities and pet sitters can be found.

AAA is a front-runner when it comes to getting its customers and pets where they need to go. That’s where Nancy Van Reeth turned for help when making travel arrangements for her family menagerie of three cats and two dogs. She recently traveled 2,000-plus miles from Fort Collins, Colo., to Maine to join her husband, Doug, who was hired as the Sun Journal’s photo editor.

Van Reeth had originally planned to drive her Nissan Frontier from Colorado to Auburn accompanied by just her two canine pals: Lucca, a chocolate Lab, and Meggie, an agile Eskimo mix. Instead, just days before the trip, she was informed by an airline that it would be too cold to leave Chloe, Keystone and Georgie, the feline family members, on the tarmac in Boston for any length of time. As a result, the plan for the threesome to fly the friendly skies was aborted.

Undaunted, Van Reeth bought a cap for the truck to accommodate the kitties and devised a plan to strap the crated cats with bungee cords amid boxes so they could watch the passing scenery. She relied on AAA to assist her with an itinerary that included pet-friendly places to sleep. “AAA was awesome,” Van Reeth said. “The agent even booked motels with entrances near my room so I didn’t have to traipse through the entire place.”

When the unusual entourage arrived at their destination each evening, Van Reeth released her portable petting zoo into their room, presented them with dinner and the litter box, and walked the dogs. She ordered supper in for herself, because most motel policies don’t allow you to leave pets alone in the room.

Putting in four 10-hour days and 2,000 miles behind the wheel with Meggie as back-seat driver and Lucca as co-pilot, Van Reeth said, “It was amazing how well they adapted. It was as if they knew they couldn’t whine, but had to conform and be good.”

Randy Ireland and Bruce Wooten take their lively cohorts, Buddy and Butters everywhere they go, including trips to “Grandma’s” in northern Maine. Fondly known as “the boys,” the cocker spaniel and Lhasa apso mix have their own pillows and blankets for the car ride, as well as toys so they don’t get bored. At the Presque Isle motel where they often stay, “the boys” are welcome for a mere $10 extra per night and have their own bed. Ireland located the pet-friendly accommodations through www.petswelcome.com.

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Four-legged ‘flower girl’

Some singles looking for Mr. or Ms. Right turn to the Internet, where there are sites specifically geared toward dating animal lovers. Because these sites – such as www.animalattraction.com andwww.DateMyPet.com. – focus immediately on a common interest, it makes perfect sense.

Although Mary Gaul didn’t take the computer route to find Blaine Wallace, whom she’ll wed in the fall, she said her German short-hair pointer, Sydney, is definitely a special part of their relationship. Adopting Sydney four years ago, shortly after the beginning of the romance, the West Bath bride-to-be could see that her fiancé and Sydney were sweet on each other – a big plus. Gaul and Wallace intend to include the pooch, who will carry the rings on a flower wreath around her neck, in the nuptials. Gaul, confident Sydney will act like a lady throughout the ceremony, has an alternate plan just in case the four-legged flower girl has a case of the jitters.

“It’s true pets can be a barometer of human nature,” agreed Jane Audet of Auburn, whose beagle mix was instrumental in sending her daughter’s ex-boyfriend packing. “Sadie generally loves most people who come to our home,” she said, “but there was a young man dating my daughter who I really didn’t care for, and neither did Sadie! Whenever he came to the door, she didn’t run up to him with her tail wagging like she did with most everyone else … He didn’t last long!”

A kitty with a song and a ‘seeing-eye cat’

A growing number of pet specialists say the role animals play in helping people through emotional times can’t be overstated. Pets give comfort and a reason to carry on when we’re feeling sad or ill. When Gail Richardson’s mother died unexpectedly three years ago, the Lewiston woman was amazed at how Mitzi and Moxie comforted her. The two feline sisters stood watch over their distraught owner, taking turns cuddling with her throughout the dark nights. “My heart was in 1,000 pieces, but no matter how hard I sobbed, they stayed curled up next to me the whole night long. In the wee hours of the morning, their gentle purring helped me fall asleep at last,” said Richardson.

Commenting on how life changed for her after adopting her cats, Richardson said, “Who would have guessed having one’s furniture shredded, cleaning a litter box and having to sleep like a pretzel (in order to accommodate the kitties in her bed) was the key to happiness?”

Another kitty who gives good cheer is Theodore, the “baby” of Patricia and Dwight Perry. “Dwight sometimes talks more to Theodore than he does to me. He has quite elaborate conversations with him and Theodore always sits and listens,” said Patricia, who dotes on the delightfully robust yellow ball of fur just as much as her husband, who is blind. She has even written an original song about Theodore, which she sings to him often.

“Every morning Theodore goes into the bedroom as soon as he hears Dwight stirring and sits on the bed to listen to the plans for the day.” The “seeing-eye cat” hops to attention whenever Dwight leaves his chair. “Somehow Theodore realizes Dwight can’t see, and he guides him by staying close to his legs as he walks. (The cat) will lay down in front of him, making a roadblock for Dwight to stop and give him a treat before letting him pass.”

According to Pat, Dwight keeps “Whiskas Temptations” in his shirt pocket at all times for the 2-year-old tabby, and also treats him to an occasional bowl of sugar-free black raspberry ice cream, Theodore’s personal favorite.

Theodore, who resides in North Waterford, certainly isn’t the only spoiled pet in Maine. Van Reeth sheepishly admits she buys at least two pounds of deli roast beef each week for Meggie, her picky Eskimo-mix. And Butters and Buddy, who celebrate their birthdays on New Year’s Day, are a big part of the evening-before festivities, sometimes dressing up for the occasion and always enjoying a special doggie birthday cake.

He has access to the family fridge

Then there’s Dakota, the absolute epitome of the word “spoiled.” The husky mix is not only fork-fed cooked, cut-up steak on a regular basis, but also scratches at the door of the family fridge and is allowed to choose whatever he craves at the moment. Additionally, special treats are bought for him every time a trip is made to the store, and he gets ice cream at birthday parties and his own heaping helping on holidays. Burt Weber has been known to feed Dakota off his own plate and to ply him with all manner of treats, including cakes, donuts and candy.

Although Rebecca Weber understands the bonds between humans and animals, she thinks her husband is obsessed with the dog, who has been his best friend for 15 years. When the couple first got together, Rebecca recalled, she didn’t want Dakota up on the bed, so Burt slept on the floor with his buddy until she relented. The couple now have a king-size bed to accommodate not only Dakota but Tazzy, a Rottweiler/Australian shepherd mix adopted to be Dakota’s companion.

Burt agreed he goes overboard at times, but maintained that Dakota deserves all the attention. “How else can I say, ‘thank you?'” The story he offers in defense could easily be made into a “Lassie” episode. Before meeting Rebecca and moving to Mexico, Maine, the two inseparable friends lived in the Rocky Mountains, where they lived off the land. After three days without food, Dakota caught a rabbit and brought it to Weber to eat before going to find another one for himself.

Another time, Weber stumbled and fell off a cliff, landing on a piece of ledge too small to support him. Keeping hold of Dakota’s lead, Weber pulled himself to safety while the dog wedged himself between rocks and trees to keep from slipping out of his collar.

Dakota also played super-hero a few years later when he and his beloved owner went for a walk in Cheyenne, Wy. Dakota suddenly lunged forward, causing his friend to fall to the ground just as a shot rang out. Weber had enough wits about him to get the license plate number of the drive-by shooter and called police, who apprehended the criminal. “Dakota is my hero, but even if he hadn’t saved my life three times, I would’ve spoiled him anyway,” Weber affirmed.

Need proof we love our pets? Check out these products:

SPAS: a washing machine with an opening for your pet’s head to pop out; includes a four- minute wash and a 20-minute drying cycle. The spa, developed in Spain, is now being used by U.S. pet groomers at $15 a pop. You can buy your own for a mere $10,000.

Pupperware Parties: the brainchild of Andrew Shure, founder of Shure Pets. A home party where you can bring your pet along to try out pet toys, clothing, and beauty products.

DVDs: the latest in entertainment for pets includes such offerings as “The Couch Potato Kitty” and “Pooch TV”

Medical Insurance: more and more companies are offering pet insurance as an employee benefit.

Accessories: Ralph Lauren Polo shirts for dogs, dog collars and leashes designed by Chanel, Prada and Louis Vuitton. Other companies that have jumped on the pet accessory band wagon include Gucci, Tiffany and L.L. Bean.

Pet Cafes: Doggies are welcome to lounge under tables and partake of gourmet dog biscuits while their owners kibitz with friends over French roast. The Little Dog Coffee Shop on Main Street in Brunswick is one such popular hangout.

Sources: CBS News, MSNBC and the Wall Street Journal

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