Pampered pups enjoy deluxe hotel massage

The Associated Press

Austin ricochets around the Ritz-Carlton hotel room, bouncing from bed to chair and leaping high to lick the face of his personal masseuse. He's an energetic four-year-old pug, so there is a lot of wriggling as his "privileged pup" pet massage begins. But soon his eyelids droop and his tiny muscles relax under the soothing touch of Darlene Davison, the Ritz-Carlton Sarasota's spa director.

"OK, sweetheart, OK. There you go," coos Davison, creator of the luxury hotel chain's latest indulgence - the $130 US dog massage.

Figure in the hotel's 20-pound weight limit and the additional $125 US non-refundable pet fee and the "privileged pup" plan comes out to a minimum of $12.75 US a pound. And that's the basic package.

For another $220 US, the Ritz throws in gourmet dog biscuits, an in-room pet massage, a choice of nail buffing or nail polish, a souvenir photo, a brisk walk over Sarasota's scenic Ringling Bridge and a gourmet meal of organic stew and designer water served on a silver tray.

Americans spend about $38.4 billion US on their pets annually, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturer's Association. Spending on pets has increased an average of $2.3 billion US a year since the association started tracking numbers in 1997. An Ipsos Reid pet ownership study in 2001 estimated the Canadian pet industry to be worth $3.8 billion, while a 2003 Statistics Canada report indicated that Canadian households spent an average of $337 each.

"The trend, in the last year especially, is people enjoying things they can do with their pet," said Charlotte Reed, New York-based author of the upcoming book Miss Fido Manners Complete Book of Dog Etiquette. Reed has four dogs, three cats and several birds.

The Ritz packages remain a budget buster for the average pet owner. An hour on the massage table at the Ritz equals an average year's worth of dog grooming and treats.

Davison said the blow is softened a bit by the obligatory massage lesson. Florida law says veterinary procedures - including massages - must be done in a vet's office unless it is for educational purposes. So Davison and five other dog-certified spa employees use the hour to demonstrate Swedish, sports or relaxation massage techniques to dog owners.

The Sarasota Ritz dog massage program is a pilot program for the whole chain, Davison said. She began offering services about three months ago and said business has varied from a peak of three canine customers in a week to no takers for several weeks in a row.

The hotel is working on more owner-pet pampering packages, although the human indulgences are being planned for the Ritz's luxury spa. No dogs allowed.