Pinching pennies? Not these proud pet parents

Emilie Wilson's menagerie includes 15 ferrets, two dogs and four cats, including a hefty gray feline named Tonie Stewart who rides in style inside a pet stroller during family outings.

Wilson spent $300 on Christmas gifts for her brood last year and figures she'll exceed that sum this year. And despite the recession-like economy, the suburban Chicago woman has no plans to scale back pet presents.

“I couldn't care less if there's anything under the tree for us, as long as there's something for Tonie,” she said.

Retailers may be worrying about the possibility of the worst fourth quarter in generations, but those in the pet products industry are finding themselves in a veritable oasis amid the desert of American business.

“I think they're buying nice dog collars instead of remodeling their kitchen,” said Fiona Tavernier, whose Lollypadoodle business near San Francisco sells wool-stuffed dog toys and is going strong.

It may sound counterintuitive – even to some in the pet industry who say they're surprised business is robust – but experts say many pet owners are as dedicated to their animals as parents are to children. And that means they're willing to sacrifice on themselves before trimming back on their pets.

The American Pet Products Association estimates Americans will spend $43.4 billion this year on their pets – a figure that includes everything from treats to training – despite the dramatic slowdown in discretionary spending. That's 26 percent higher than what U.S. consumers spent in 2004, the group said.

Still, there are signs that the most extravagant expenses – such as crystal bowls and custom-made pet beds – may be sidelined amid growing economic uncertainty.

Market researcher Euromonitor International, which tracks sales of pet food and accessories but excludes the cost of animals, grooming, training and other expenses, puts this year's animal expenditures at $23.9 billion.

But the group forecasts that sales are still on pace to grow more than 13 percent by 2013.

“It's one of the last categories (people) cut out of their budget,” said Morningstar analyst R.J. Hottovy.

Backing that up is a poll earlier this year in ShopSmart, a publication from Consumer Reports, which says female shoppers are more likely to buy cheaper brands of everything from medication to milk, but are digging in their heels when it comes to switching to less-expensive pet food and personal care items.

Some parts of the pet food industry, particularly gourmet and organic pet food, will likely be even more insulated than the sellers of pet carriers, clothing and outdoor gear.

That's because many pet owners, who upgraded their kibble after contaminated pet food killed or sickened thousands of animals last year are leery of switching back, a move that could cause digestive problems.

“As soon as they've moved up to the premium brands, they're kind of locked in, so it's hard to trade down,” Hottovy said.