It's a Dog's Life in Orange County

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Ramiro Vera has been on the front lines of California's mounting budget crisis since before the current "Great Recession" was even a gathering cloud on the economic horizon.

As a state-employed legal aide with the California Division of Workers' Compensation Appeals in Santa Ana, Vera has seen his wages stagnate over the last decade. The state has continually struggled to balance its budget, with the term "largest deficit in the state's history" taking on a new and bigger meaning every year.

Since July 2009 he's been subject to the governor's controversial furloughs, and with a viable solution to the state's budget woes nowhere in sight, Vera worries more cutbacks are on their way.

So Vera has hedged his bets by starting his own part-time business on the side. He joined the growing ranks of entrepreneurs catering to pet owners and hitting pay dirt—or in Vera's case, pay manure.

"I was looking for jumpers, you know, to rent out for parties," said Vera. "I came across this ad for a pet waste disposal company on the East Coast and I thought, 'Hey, I could do that.'"

Vera created "Harley's Poop Patrol," servicing Orange County residences, apartment complexes, housing associations, and parks. Over four years he's built his business up to about 90 customers and hired one other full-time employee.

"When I started the business I thought that most of my customers would be in [upscale neighborhoods such as] Coto de Caza or Newport Beach, but no, you'd be surprised," said Vera. "The majority of my customers are blue collar workers in neighborhoods where you wouldn't think people would pay for this service. I hardly have any customers in the richer neighborhoods."

In fact the demand in Orange County is widespread enough to support a proliferation of such companies. There's Harley's, Tidy Tails, EntreManure, Doggy Duty, Stinky Removal, and Poop Butler, not to be confused with Pet Butler, or Pet Concierge.

"In times like these there's lots of companies popping up just hoping to make a quick buck," said Vera.

Pet groomer Sue McConnell said the growing number of pet-related entrepreneurs in Orange County has made for fierce competition.

"I'll go around putting up flyers and business cards and the next day they'll be gone and replaced by someone else's."

McConnell took up full-time dog grooming in Irvine after being laid off by a repossession company two years ago. If ever there was a business that seemed poised to weather a recession, repossession would be it, but McConnell's new career has proved there's always opportunity when it comes to furry little animals.

"People love their pets and they'll keep paying for services for them," said McConnell.

Dog Owner Danielle Peterson
Dog owner Danielle Peterson

Studies by the American Pet Products Association, which tracks data for the industry, show explosive growth in pet-spending over the last couple decades, with figures almost tripling since 1994. It projects continued growth for 2010 making pet care an almost $50-billion-a-year industry.

McConnell conceded her own business volume had shrunk since the downturn began. She sees pet owners waiting longer intervals between services, but said her client base has remained just as large.

"I have one client that got laid off and she still brings her dog in just as often," said McConnell. "People in this area might lose their job but they're still spending money."

Jennifer Cannivet is one such customer. She was laid off from her job as a contract negotiator at a Bay Area software company in 2008. But she still shells out about $70 a month on her two dogs, Berkeley and Teddy, at a groomer in Fountain Valley. The older dog Teddy also recently required expensive surgery, but Cannivet said she and her husband never questioned the expense.

"It's just something that is built into your budget, not a luxury item. They are a member of your family, like a child," she said.

Dog-owner Danielle Peterson suggested pets can also serve a therapeutic role during these uncertain times.

"It's a stress reliever for me to get home from a day at work and have a new toy to throw around with the dog."

Peterson works as a cashier at Target and said she's always on the lookout for new toys that her 3-year-old dog, Fizgig, would like.

"I've cut back on myself but not on him. It is like your child—you want to do everything for him that you can. If that means not going out to dinner or to the movies as much so I can get him groomed or get his nails clipped every month, then that's a sacrifice I'll make."

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I absolutely love my dog. I probably spend more money than I should on him, but it's like having a small child. Toys seem to get more and more expensive, but I want to keep him happy and healthy.

Big Mike
CEO of West Valley Detention Center Inmate Search

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