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Pet Product News Editorial Blog:

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Carefree Pets

By Sherri Collins

Editor, Pet Product News International

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Zhu Zhu petsThose of us of a certain age (ahem) will remember the short-lived, but exceedingly successful Pet Rock craze. The inventor created it for people who didn’t want to feed, bathe, walk, groom, clean up after or suffer the loss of a pet considered it. This of course begs the question of why such a person would bother having even a pretend pet. But hey, to each their own (or something like that).

The fake pet phenomenon didn’t end with the Pet Rock, though. Chia Pets soon came after (they’re still available) and then all manner of virtual/digital pets appeared—and faded away—followed by robotic/animatronic-type creatures, such as the costly AIBO robot dog. Through every succession of new-and-improved (an oxymoron in and of itself) “carefree” pets, the real companion-animal world carried on, garnering more hearts and gaining places in more homes throughout the U.S. and the world.

You’d think that with the amazing variety of companion animals available today, along with the millions of rescued pets needing forever homes, and the ever-expanding list of innovative products to keep them healthy and happy, fake pets would finally go the way of the 8-track player (and no, I didn’t own one, thankyouverymuch). Yet, according to several sources, including the online edition of the Boston Globe, one of the must-have, hottest holiday hits for 2009 is the Zhu Zhu pet (only the Snuggie surpasses it in expectation—there truly isn’t any accounting for taste).

What’s a Zhu Zhu? An admittedly adorable robotic toy hamster billed as an interactive smart pet for children of all ages (Pardon me, but so is a dog, cat, bird, rabbit…you get the idea). Cepia LLC, the company responsible for Zhu Zhus, calls them the best alternative to a live hamster, “All the fun without the mess. They don’t poop, stink or die.” While Zhu Zhus aren’t the only carefree pets to hit the market—web search the robot baby chick from Sega Toys or the Nano Cage from Troy Abbott Studies for other examples--they are the only ones I know of to offer up a complete line of accessories (habitats, tracks, wheels, tubes, balls, beds, carriers, etc). If their expected success holds, they may end up with as many accessory options as Barbie has. Which would be great for the toy sector, but could it affect the small mammal marketplace?

Should you sell the Zhus Zhus as alternatives for customers seeking a small furry friend for a too-young child? Would one make a good starter pet or would it engender a cavalier attitude toward the real thing later on? I’m curious to know what you think.

Personally, I think they’re merely cute toys that will capture society’s short attention span and then fade from memory as the “next best thing” to owning a real pet comes along. Remember Tamagotchis anyone? There’s no replacement for live interaction between a pet and its parent. No matter how good technology gets, no one will ever be able to replace or replicate the inherent joys of taking care of a live animal. Real pets rule!

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