Bob Rollins greets his guests, many by name, in the spacious tiled lobby of his Northern Virginia resort. Calling up the files of his regulars on a computer, he notes their food likes and dislikes, any medication they take, the type of room they want and which special "spa packages" they prefer.
The special treatment doesn't stop there.
For guests who pay extra, there are happy-hour treats and escorted nature walks each morning. On summer holidays, Rollins and his staff barbecue hot dogs and hamburgers, and on Thanksgiving and Christmas they dish up turkey dinners with all the trimmings.
Sound like the sort of place where you'd like to vacation? Be prepared to take a flea dip.
The clients getting Rollins's four-star treatment are dogs, cats, rabbits, snakes and the occasional iguana. They check into his Chantilly pet resort while their owners are away on vacation or otherwise out of town.
Rollins's Club Pet International is just one sign that life has improved significantly for today's pampered pet, whose forebears had to put up with a brief daily visit from a neighborhood kid when their owners traveled, or acclimate to the odoriferous confines of a concrete kennel reverberating with incessant, shrill barking.
Many vacationing owners check their pets into fancy resorts that offer grooming salons, special snacks, whirlpool tubs and swimming pools. Other owners prefer to take their pets along, sometimes to places where they can spend quality time with their canine buddies. In Ocean City, Md., construction is expected to begin soon on the Dogtel Hotel, a 100-pet facility catering to vacationers who want to hit the beach and still romp with their cats and dogs each day in the hotel's fenced-in property.
To veterinarian and author Marty Becker, going to such lengths is just a logical extension of society's increasing preoccupation with domestic animals.
"Just in our generation, we've seen this change in the way we treat our pets," said Becker. "They've made this migration of biblical proportions from the back yard to the bedroom to sleep, and from the kennel to the kitchen to eat."
Such changing attitudes are driving the expansion of animal "resorts" such as Connecticut-based Best Friends Pet Care, which has built or purchased 35 resorts and salons across the country in the past three years, including three in the Washington area.
The newest, Best Friends Pet Resort and Salon, opened three months ago in Gaithersburg. It features whirlpool baths for dogs, piped-in Baroque music and four-level "kitty condos" for cats, a restaurant-quality kitchen and 15-minute playtime sessions that cost owners $5 on top of kennel fees of about $20 a day.
More such facilities are in the works, said Best Friends spokeswoman Debra Bennetts. "The company really models itself on the hospitality industry," she said, with services "one could find in a high-quality hotel."
Bob Rollins also views his Club Pet as more than just a kennel. Since purchasing a defunct kennel nine years ago, Rollins has gradually transformed it into a luxury facility for 300 animals. The extras he's added don't come cheap. On top of a $15-a-day kennel fee, pet owners can choose the $10-a-day "spa package" featuring twice-daily playtime and a "yappy-hour bedtime treat." For an extra $15 a day, there is the "Royal Spa Package" that gets pets an additional morning walk and an afternoon petting section.
"Some people spend more on the extras than they do on the actual boarding," said Rollins. But pet owners are eager to spend the money; space in the kennel during vacation times is sold out weeks or months in advance, Rollins said.
And he isn't stopping there. Coming soon to Club Pet: two-story doggie suites with beds and televisions so that Muffy can keep up with her daytime soaps and, within a few weeks, special cameras allowing anxious owners to use the Internet to peek in and make sure Whiskers is having as much fun on vacation as they are. Or maybe more.
For some inside and outside the pet industry, the trend is confounding. Pet palaces are "obscene when you think of all the other problems in this country. . . . There are a lot of people who don't treat people this well," said C.C. Risenhoover, editor of Pet Life magazine.
But kennel owners say it's harmless--at the very least, they say, the extra services help pet owners feel less guilt-stricken at leaving their pets in a kennel.
"A lot of owners have a lot of separation anxiety when they leave their dogs," said Martha Prideaux, marketing director for Holiday Barn pet resorts, a Richmond company with two locations offering such amenities as a swimming pool (with human lifeguards) and special "ortho" beds for its older clientele. Holiday Barn is also installing Internet cameras and building "doggie suites" with televisions.
Owners, said Prideaux, will "cry in the lobby. It helps them to know that their dogs will get a walk and a swim and a treat in the afternoon."
For those animal lovers who can't stand to be away from their pets, kennels are bringing their services to wherever they travel. A survey last year by the American Animal Hospital Association found that 67 percent of pet owners now travel with Rover in the back seat.
Nancy Bean, a statistician who lives in Woodbridge, said she wouldn't dream of taking a vacation without her three cocker spaniels. When she visits friends and relatives, they know her dogs will come along, too.
"I'd miss them," said Bean, who said she is away from her pets too long during the day because of her job and commute. Once she had to leave them behind to attend a wedding out of state. "I considered that almost like punishment," she said. "It wasn't very fun at all."
Some favor a new breed of "doggie camp" that makes their pet the focus of the vacation. Lynne Corn of Falls Church and her bearded collie, Bryna, have vacationed at Camp Gone to the Dogs in Vermont and at a canine dude ranch in Pennsylvania where they herded sheep for a week.
"I enjoy doing things with her and it's good exercise. Going sheep-herding is more fun than aerobics classes," said Corn, who recently threw a fifth birthday party for Bryna, with doggie square-dancing and bobbing for hot dogs for the dozen four-legged guests.
Camp Winnaribbun, which offers week-long sessions for dogs and their owners on the shores of Lake Tahoe, Nev., has tripled in size since it began in 1995 and now hosts close to 200 people and their pets, said owner Lory Kohlmoos.
For a weekly fee of $850, owners and their pets sleep in cabins on the 32-acre site and all--from Chihuahuas to Great Danes--take part in activities such as chasing balls and obstacle-course racing. There are lectures on homeopathic remedies for pets and massage techniques.
Becker, the veterinarian who wrote "Chicken Soup for the Pet Lover's Soul," pointed to a 1995 survey by the animal hospital association, which found seven out of 10 pet owners think of their pets as their children.
"That's why there are these. . .camps and that's why people take their pets on vacation," Becker said. "If you can't imagine leaving your child at home, then you can't imagine leaving your four-legged child at home."