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Confessions

I dress up my dog for Halloween Add to ...

I have a confession to make: I dress up my dog for Halloween.

I'm not necessarily proud of this behaviour, though my hard drive is stuffed with photos of Lily the beagle as an angel, a baseball player and a pumpkin. And of course there is her Christmas elf costume.

Responses to our Halloween photos usually split between, "Oh my God, that is the cutest thing ever" and "Oh my God, you need to seek professional help now."

Maybe the naysayers are getting to me, but I do wonder whether it's morally right to costume pets. Am I abusing my authority over this trusting, gentle soul?

If I am, I'm not alone - and Lily's baleful response isn't unique. Browse through online photographs of pet costumes, and you will see a lot of thousand-yard stares.

The dogs have the same look hostages have when they're making videos about how well their captors are treating them ("This sailor outfit is totally comfortable. I repudiate the acts of the Animal Liberation Front"). The cats, meanwhile, are clearly plotting ways to murder their owners in their sleep.

With dogs, though, cuteness is not just a human fetish; it's an evolutionary strategy.

Thousands of years of domestication have rewarded puppy-like features and have shaped dogs to be our loyal companions, amenable to our whims, in exchange for food and shelter.

Maybe their canine ancestors would have thought twice about creeping toward the circle of humans and begging for food scraps if they knew that, one day, Dora the Explorer outfits would be part of the bargain.

But it's too late to turn back now.

Pet costumes hit the sweet spot of two marketing trends: the increased commercialization of Halloween and the so-far insatiable consumer appetite for pet accessories. As Halloween spending continues to grow, a survey by the American Pet Products Association found that 7 per cent of dog owners copped this year to buying a Halloween getup for their dog, up from 4 per cent in 2004.

Devils, angels, pumpkins and bumblebees are the bestselling costumes at PetSmart stores this year, according to Rashell Cooper, PetSmart's buyer of dog and cat apparel. She made the switch from human-apparel buyer three years ago, and still sounds pleasantly surprised that her job exists.

"Who would have thought it?" she says.

Ms. Cooper has seen festive outfits on cats, dogs, ferrets, guinea pigs, even iguanas.

Basically, if it slows down long enough for us to catch it, we will costume it.

"The way I look at it, pets are part of your family," Ms. Cooper says. And what says "I love you like family" better than forcing your loved one into a cheap polyester Wonder Woman outfit, and then laughing and taking photos to post on the Internet? (That's how my family celebrated every holiday, and I turned out fine.)

Despite the PetSmart fashion expert's seal of approval, I was still haunted by Lily's reproachful stare. Am I a bad "pet parent" (as PetSmart calls us)?

I turned to a more critical authority - Alison Cross, spokeswoman for the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals - and confessed my dog-dressing ways.

"As long as it's not causing stress or injury, then it's fine," Ms. Cross said.

So costumes that are too tight, that restrict animals' movements, cover their eyes or ears, stop them from barking, or have dangling pieces that could create a choking hazard - those are out. Note she said nothing about costumes that seem to engender feelings of existential dread, cynicism and a numb acquiescence to the recklessness of authority.

"Go ahead and take the photo," Ms. Cross said, just a touch reluctantly.

Phew. Glad that's settled. Now, if someone could tell me where to find eyeglasses and a Sarah Palin wig to fit a beagle, I will be set.



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