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Baby toy or dog toy? Babble’s Andrew Adam Newman investigates.

When someone calls up New Native to order one of their sling baby carriers, the customer service representative asks some questions to determine the right size. Like, “If you’re still pregnant, what was your pre-pregnancy weight?”Every couple of weeks, the question is met with an awkward silence.

“Because it says it’s a baby carrier, sometimes people are kind of embarrassed to say, ‘I don’t have a baby – it’s for my dog,’” says Nancy Main, the founder of the fifteen-year old company. Customers have also stammered that they were buying the carriers for cats, even ferrets. “They thought they were being weird maybe.” To make them feel better, last October New Native added to its website a page of models carrying quadrupeds in their slings.

Main is not selling her carriers to pet stores yet. “We’re a small business and we have a lot of projects we’re doing on behalf of babies so we haven’t focused on the pet aspect yet,” she says. Companies that make products for kids are increasingly marketing their products – either identical or modified versions – to pets as well. And pet product manufacturers are stalking the aisles of Toys R Us and kids’ goods trade shows for new ideas.

“There’s definitely an awareness of pet-product manufacturers looking at the children’s industry, because they occupy a similar place in the household,” says Joe Fucini, who has worked as a consultant with pet manufacturers for two decades. “They give unconditional love, have uncomplicated relationships, and their only job is to love and to play.” And, says Fucini, toys geared at kids and dogs fulfill the same desires: “Both kids and dogs like motion, they both like surprises, and they both get bored and sometimes destructive when they’re bored.”

Some may take umbrage at equating their progeny with Rex. But according to the American Pet Products Manufacturing Association, seventy-four percent of dog owners – and sixty percent of cat owners – consider their pet a member of the family. “Over the past six or eight years, pets have successfully have been transformed from that warm fuzzy thing in the backyard to a family member,” says James R. Morgan, another pet industry consultant.

Thanks to that evolutionary journey from doghouse to sofa, people are lavishing the sort of attention on pets that was once reserved for kids. Today Petco seems to be morphing into Babies R Us, offering everything from dog diapers for those not yet house-trained (and according to Petco’s website, “females in season” – let us not speak of this) and pet wipes (like baby wipes but for paws and coat) to pet strollers (for dogs that are lazy or decrepit).

And here’s the thing with the pet-baby crossover: it’s not just a one-way street, with makers of pet products taking cues from their pet product counterparts. Some designers of pet lines have found their way into the nursery.

Lane Nemeth founded Discovery Toys in 1978, after she couldn’t find toys she deemed suitable for her newborn, Tara. It grew to a $100 million business – not by licensing characters, which it eschewed, or by flashy packaging, but by stressing the developmental potential of toys. The Farmyard Fun puzzle, for instance, promises to bolster “motor skills, thinking and problem solving.” The toys were sold at house parties, like Tupperware.

Nemeth, whom Working Woman twice deemed one of their “Top 50 Businesswomen,” sold Discovery Toys to Avon in 1997. But she didn’t stay retired for long. Three years ago, her daughter Tara, now an adult, got a dog. Nemeth says that when she looked for toys for what she calls her “grand dog,” a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel named Jade, “I said, ‘Oh my God – there’s nothing out there.’”

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