Love for pets means big business

Photo of Karen Mansfield
by Karen Mansfield
Staff Writer
Katie Roupe / Observer-Reporter
Valerie Mahoney is a student at Washington & Jefferson College who creates pet portraits to raise money for law school. Order a Print

People love their pets.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that pet owners are spending more money on their furry friends than ever before.

According to the American Pet Products Association, a trade group based in Greenwich, Conn., animal lovers in the United States spent $53 billion on pet services in 2012, nearly doubling the amount they shelled out in 2001, when consumers spent $28.5 billion.

Pet ownership is at an all-time high; 68 percent of households own an animal.

That’s good news for Valerie Mahoney of Washington, who owns Pets in Pastel, a pet portrait business specializing in pastel artwork.

Mahoney, 22, a 2012 Washington & Jefferson College graduate who recently applied to law school, didn’t plan her foray into pet portraiture, but she’s hoping it will help her pay college expenses.

For a Christmas gift in 2011, Mahoney – who considered majoring in art but joked that she “didn’t want to be a starving artist” – painted a portrait of an award-winning Spanish-Norman horse named Brach for owner Kristin Hermann of Chartiers Township.

“It’s absolutely gorgeous. I loved it,” said Hermann, who is Mahoney’s riding instructor. “We pushed her to start a website when we saw how talented she was.”

Mahoney is an animal lover who has owned and rescued dogs, horses, rabbits and all other sorts of pets since she was a little girl.

“I love being around animals, so it makes sense to do this and earn a little money,” said Mahoney. “I’m such a perfectionist with my artwork. The important part is capturing the personality.”

Mahoney, who painted Canon-McMillan High School’s Hall of Honor mural, works from photos of the pets she is sketching, and she sells most of her paintings for about $75.

Hers isn’t the only business that’s blossoming: These days, high-end foods, bedding, toys, clothing and accessories also are popular.

Lorraine Koval of Washington, who owns Peanut Butter Bones, a 10-year-old company that makes homemade healthy dog treats, attributes the increase in people’s spending to their ideas about the role that pets play in our lives. For doting pet owners, their pets have become a part of the family.

“My children treat their dogs the same way they treat their children,” said Koval, who has owned Doberman pinschers and rottweilers. “People are willing to buy better and healthier food for their pets, without all of the chemicals and processed ingredients you can’t even pronounce.”

Every weekend, Koval bakes hundreds of dog treats, rolling, cutting and packing the bones, which she sells at The Springhouse, Pleasant Valley Animal Clinic in McMurray, Precious Paws in Bridgeville and on her Etsy website, www. The peanut butter treats, which contain no added sugars and are preservative free, cost as little as $4.25 for a four-ounce box containing about 20 treats.

According to the APPA, spending on services like grooming, boarding, hotels and pet-sitting grew nearly 10 percent during 2012 to almost $4.4 billion. Results of the APPA’s 2011-12 national pet owner survey showed that, on average, a dog owner spent about $250 on routine veterinarian care, $275 on kennel boarding, $73 on grooming, $70 on food treats and $40 on toys.

The Pooch Pitt in McMurray offers crate-free day care, boarding and grooming services at its state-of-the art facility.

“More people are willing to spend more money on their animals to keep them happy and healthy than they have in the past,” said Kim Rast, manager and certified dog trainer at The Pooch Pitt. “They’re such a part of the family.”

The business also offers a large indoor and outdoor playground, a spa and walks on the Montour Trail. Web cameras called “pooch cams” enable owners to check in on their pets during their stay.

“Pets are family members, and seeing your dog running around, playing and being happy puts people at ease when they’re away or on vacation,” said Rast. “A lot of people who board here felt guilty leaving their dogs sitting in a kennel.”

There appears to be no end in sight for people’s love affair with their pets, and the APPA predicts another 4 percent gain this year.

That means more work for Mahoney, who was recently hired by dog breeder Lindy Whyte of Canton Township to paint a portrait of her 130-pound bullmastiff.

“As a dog breeder and someone who’s involved in the animal world, I’ve seen lots of animal paintings. But Valerie’s are special. Valerie’s painting of Brach spoke to me. Her art portrays the soul of the horse,” Whyte said.

Part of the appeal of the portraits is how meaningful they are to the animals’ owners.

Mahoney talked about a neighbor who cried when she received the picture of her dog for Christmas, presented as a gift by Mahoney.

“She wrote me a really nice thank-you letter,” said Mahoney. “And her daughters told me that I ruined Christmas for them because she wouldn’t like anything they got her nearly as much as she liked the portrait.”

To view Mahoney’s work, visit her website at