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(photo credit: Meredith Price)
Israeli dog lovers are giving their canine friends the VIP treatment.
Forget about store-bought doggie biscuits, synthetic beds and jingling balls of cat nip. Today's pet owners are taking pampering to new peaks. And although Israel is still a few steps behind the multi-billion-dollar American pet industry, Israeli pets are still getting their share of spoiling. More and more, pet stores are stocking chic toys designed to heighten animal awareness, lessen boredom and boost development. Brightly-colored feathered hats, golden capes and tulle skirts were only a small part of the animal costume fanfare for dogs and cats this year during Purim, and Israeli artist Yafit Riklin's designer pet collars are sold all over the country for between NIS 50 and 120 a piece. "Some of the stores I sell to in the United States have recently asked me to make pet collars that match my leather belts so owners can walk their animals without color clashes," says Riklin. "And Israel is usually not far behind the American trends." For online shoppers, there are even more options for spoiling your pet. A $350 Global Pet Finder GPS tracking system will make sure Fido never gets lost again, while "Doggles" provide UV eye protection for dogs at just $25. A $40 Dog-e-Tag can hold up to forty lines of text and contact information in case your pet goes missing. Everyone knows that perfect fur is hard to maintain, so many pet owners opt for regular trips to their local salon. Most animal groomers charge between NIS 120 to 450 per visit, depending on the size of the animal and the thickness of its coat. Groomers offer stylish cuts, conditioning rinses, blow-drying and perfectly-manicured nails for your pet. For a few more shekels, some will even throw in a massage to alleviate the stress of being an overworked animal companion. For traveling pet owners who want to make sure their dogs and cats enjoy the vacation, too, the Dog Farm in Kfar Hess offers every animal's dream. For NIS 60 per night, your animal can stay in the Dog Farm's hotel, with each animal getting its own private room, bathroom and back yard. A gourmet menu leaves no animal hungry, and lush green fields provide plenty of leg room for daily play sessions and walks. If losing a few pounds is necessary, treadmills are available for visiting dogs and cats. For laid-back household pets who can live without all the exercise, other options include relaxation treatments at the salon and an abundance of edible treats. "When the animal is supposed to go home but prefers to stay here with us instead, we have succeeded in making their stay an enjoyable one," says Moshe Fleishman, an employee of the Dog Farm. "The animals are our clients, and we want to make them happy." Increasing numbers of pet owners prefer to bring their animals on vacation rather than leave them in a kennel. KLM offers a pet hotel in Amsterdam for animals on stop-over flights, with overnight stays only 70 euros a night. To handle the large number of traveling animals in and out of Israel, El Al has set up its own Early Check-in Center for Pets. Dr. Eitan Kreiner, the veterinarian who runs the check-in center, says that over 35,000 pets flew out of Israel in 2005. In a recent article about animal travel, Kreiner told Yediot Aharonot that Israel has seen a dramatic rise in the number of flying pets, and in the amount of money people are willing to spend on them. "In the last year, there is a sense of having come out of the recession," says Kreiner. "In a situation of abundance, people splurge more on animals. Today people spend significant sums of money on animal education, treats, even chemotherapy, which was never done before." BEYOND THE fluffy frills of developmental toys and designer pet collars, animal sports clubs are also attracting a growing number of participants. The Israeli Agility Club requires an annual NIS 500 fee but provides members with better health and heaps of fun, not to mention increased canine coordination and better obedience skills. Agility started in the United Kingdom in the late 1970s and involves both the dog and its owner. It requires a high level of obedience from the dog, which must go through an obstacle course made of tunnels, bridges, slopes, balancing bars, walls, see-saws, slaloms, tables and many other obstructions. The dog that gets through the course fastest wins, and every Friday members of the Israeli Agility Club gather in Rishon Lezion to practice and socialize under the guidance of manager Zeev Gordon. Doron Popovich, a club member whose clever Australian sheepdog answers to the name of Yori, says that agility is great for dogs' health and provides a lot of enjoyment. Popovich, who got Yori four years ago after a break-in, was looking for three things in his dog: cleverness, beauty and protection. Yori is a dog of both many talents and many possessions. In the basement of his Holon apartment building, Popovich has a room with a treadmill designed especially for dogs, which Yori uses three times a week for an aerobic workout. "People laugh when I tell them about having a treadmill for Yori, but it's a serious tool for his health and fitness," says Popovich. Meanwhile, Yori, who jumps happily onto the long, black treadmill, knows exactly how to run on the machine and seems to enjoy the supervised workout. "For people who live on a moshav or in the countryside, a treadmill isn't necessary, but in the city, I can't take him running on a bike because of the traffic," Popovich says. "The asphalt gets too hot for his paws, not to mention the high temperatures outside, so this is the best solution." The Jog-A-Dog treadmill, which comes in three different sizes and ranges in price from $1,095 to over $2,000, can go up to ten miles an hour and is designed to give urban dogs their exercise. It also provides a way for overweight canines to shed a few pounds and build more muscle without ever leaving the comfort of their own homes. In addition to the treadmill and his Agility-in-a-Bag kit, Yori has some special frisbees that Popovich brought him from the United States. Spotting the bag of frisbees, Yori begins to wag his tail, bark and jump excitedly. But he never disobeys an order or strays more than a few feet from Popovich's side. "He is the most loyal breed you can get. His obedience is impeccable and he loves the frisbees," says Popovich as we head to the garden outside. Frisbees whiz by, and Yori catches every one with ease. Once he's warmed up, the real show begins. To nab the frisbees, Yori can even do back flips through the air, a trick Popovich taught him. Not every pet owner is well-versed in the art of obedience training, of course, and not everyone is satisfied by the pricey pet-related services they receive. Michael Bloom, a dog behaviorist and trainer who has been working in the field for over 20 years, studied in England and works with both individuals and Israeli army canine units. Aside from obedience classes, which cost NIS 150 an hour, he also gives private consultations (NIS 300 per two-hour session) to families with challenging pets. Whether it's an overly precocious puppy or an anxious cat that is tearing the furniture to shreds, Bloom says he's confident that even difficult cases can be solved. "Most of the time, the mistakes are caused by people," says Bloom. "Sometimes they spoil their puppy by letting him on the sofa in the beginning and then, once their puppy has matured into a large dog, they find themselves sitting on the floor so that the dog is comfortable." Bloom also sees cases of aggressive and bored animals, and can often provide some insight to pet owners about how to improve the situation through a change in behavior or routine. Sometimes, says veterinarian Ofra Galilly, an animal behavior specialist in Beit Dagan, the solution to bad behavior requires prescription drugs like Prozac to solve anxiety-separation or obsessive compulsive disorders. "I'm as close as they come to an animal shrink, but my patients are not rich, neurotic housewives who want Prozac for their dog because it's the newest fad," says Galilly. Instead, she says, most of her clients turn to her out of desperation, and are often solidly middle or working class. "Animal behavior problems are a serious issue, and most of the cases I see involve anxiety or phobias, aggression or house-soiling and destruction," she says. Galilly says her goal is to heal the bond between animals and people in order to prevent pets from being dumped in shelters, pounds or simply on the street - a significant problem in Israel. She tries to mediate animal-human conflicts by predicting animal behavior and assessing the underlying reasons for it, much like a human psychiatrist. But without the cooperation of both owners and pets, Galilly says, failure is almost inevitable. "I don't usually find a total cure," says Galilly, "but I can improve the situation, and the money these pet owners spend on treatment is out of pure necessity. It has nothing to do with pampering." Finding lost pets Even pet owners without a GPS tracking device have someone to call if Fido disappears. Israel's own Ace Ventura, Tzvika Tamuz, is a former private investigator who started taking cases of missing pets in 1993. And although most of his work involves canines, Tamuz has also opened files on cats, snakes, parrots and ferrets. In over ten years as a pet detective, Tamuz has handled a variety of cases. Several involved dogs that were stolen for ransom, usually by juvenile delinquents trying to make a fast buck. But he says that most of the time pets simply run away and then get lost or picked up by concerned neighbors or local shopkeepers. Unfortunately, MIA pets can also end up at shelters or the pound. In cases of rare or expensive breeds, animals are sometimes stolen for resale to pet stores or private buyers. Tamuz charges NIS 500 to open a file on a lost animal and an additional NIS 1,000 if the animal is found. According to veterinarian Rubi Tel-Ari, most dog thefts can be avoided if people make sure their animals are inside at night and are prevented from wandering freely - especially if their dogs belong to breeds that are attractive to dog fight organizers. (AmStaffs and Rottweilers fall into this category.) "The first thing to do if your pet gets lost is to talk to neighbors in the area, spread the word and put up posters in the street," says Dr. Tel-Ari. "And of course every dog should have a chip implanted under the skin so that if someone finds it, any vet in the country can check the chip and locate the owner." People can also search in shelters and pounds, call their vet to report missing animals, and put strongly-scented articles of clothing outside the house to help guide dogs home. Tel-Ari recommends early training for pets, especially dogs, in order to minimize the chances that they'll run away or accidentally eat something poisonous in the street. He advises pet owners to seek immediate medical attention if they suspect that their animal has been poisoned, and says that most of the time, treatment is available. Various municipalities use rat poison to control the rat and stray cat populations. Signs are usually put up to alert pet owners, but the strategy is not without its casualties. If poisoning cases are caught early enough, the animal can usually be saved, Tel-Ari says. If your animal suddenly exhibits erratic behavior, experiences difficulty breathing, urinates blood, bleeds from the mouth or shows motor problems, take it to the nearest veterinarian to be checked for possible poisoning, he says. Pet detectives, veterinarians and dog trainers alike recommend staying calm if your animal is lost. "Don't panic and don't give up," says Safra Gefen, a dog trainer in Israel who also runs a kennel. "Most of the time people find their animals within 48 hours with a nice person who has been taking good care of them and making sure they are OK."