The Luxurious Life of Israel's Pampered Pooches

Spas, acupuncture and fine dining are par for the course for these dogs, whose owners spend more on them than most Israelis earn in a month.

Dana Freeman, a 33-year-old publicist, spends about 2,000 shekels per month ($570) on her dog, Coco. Coco (whose full name is Coco Chanel Freeman) eats a strictly organic diet, which accounts for most of the monthly budget. Freeman also has three cats, on which she spends about 1,500 shekels per month, per feline. That brings her monthly total of pet expenses to about 6,500 shekels, which is 40 percent higher than a minimum wage salary. “I work for myself so some months are good, some months not so much,” says Freeman. “There are some months when I don’t have anything to eat – but they’re well fed. I don’t mind giving up a meal in a restaurant so I can treat Coco Chanel Freeman. Coco is always with me, and I take her for trimming and a teeth cleaning every six months.”

Freeman says that her friends returning from abroad often bring souvenirs for Coco. “One friend wanted to bring Coco a dog hoodie from America, but didn’t know what color. So he brought five different colors. It cost a lot of money.”

The term, “a dog’s life,” can be misleading. Of course, some stray dogs constantly fight for their survival. Some pets, however, have a better lot in life than many Israelis. Meital Kariheli, a professional dog groomer, runs a spa for dogs in Petah Tikvah, called Dog Hair Style. “Instead of giving dogs just a simple trim, I wanted to have fun with it,” she says. "After some hugs and kisses, the dogs leave here looking like dolls instead of rats.”

There are a few stations at the spa, explains Kariheli gleefully. “We start with a coconut vanilla face wash, and then move on to a lavender body wash. After that, chamomile and rosemary conditioner and shea butter. It smells like a bridal salon, not like a dog groomer. I give the dogs a towel to play on, then I put on two coats of moisturizer, and vanilla patchouli oil. Then the real treats start: free hair dye. Generally, people want different shades on the tail. On Valentine’s Day, it’s all pink. It’s all hugs and kisses. I don’t muzzle the dogs, not even the aggressive ones. We develop trust.”

Designer jewely

Kariheli also sells accessories: “We’ve got lots of stuff -- designer collars and jewelry. I don’t like the expensive stuff. We’re not a country of millionaires. I also sell specially designed beds for the dogs.”

These days, it’s no longer surprising to hear someone say they prefer dogs or cats to people, and such statements aren’t considered odd. Tel Aviv is a bastion of pet culture. Attorney Reuven Ladianski was elected to the Tel Aviv city council in 2008 backed by the movement “Give to Animals,” which demanded a budget of 10 million shekels for city animal shelters, and creating an animal police. During the most recent election, Ladianski was voted in on the “Green Revolution” party ticket. For the 6,300 Tel Aviv residents who voted for “Give to Animals,” animal rights and conditions for pets are the most important issues.

Ladianski created 56 different enclosures throughout the city where dogs can play, leash-free, including the 1,500 meter squared area in Hayarkon Park, as well as four designated areas for dogs on Tel Aviv’s beach. There are 24,000 dogs registered in Tel Aviv, and twice as many cats. The city also funds an animal ambulance, and keeps a staff veterinarian overnight for animal emergencies.

The phenomenon goes beyond Tel Aviv. For six years, “Spappies,” a mobile dog groomer, that comes to the customer’s home, has been trimming dogs in the Jerusalem area, and offers pedicures and manicures as well. “We groom your dog next to your home, in our vehicle,” says Shimrit Berman. “Some people want nail polish, or hair removal on the stomach. I go with the flow when it comes to customer’s requests. There used to be no awareness at all in Jerusalem, but now everyone grooms their dogs. We’ve come a long way,” says Berman.

Israel has even produced a dedicated dog TV channel that broadcasts programming specifically for canines. Ran Levi, who launched the channel, is planning a move to San Francisco in order to corner the American market. “Our programming meshes with dogs’ senses, and the colors that they can see,” explains Levi, adding that the “dog market” in the United States is worth $57 billion per year. “There, they have dog restaurants, hotels, yoga, taxis, and of course food.” "Israelis," he says, “are not in the same league as the U.S. or Japan, but you can find dog clothing boutiques here, as well as luxurious boarding and gourmet food – things that didn’t used to exist here.”

Cosmetic surgery and braces

Dr. Shiri Elan, a pet surgeon, says that some customers seek cosmetic operations for their dogs. “Some breeds, like the Shih Tzu, and the Maltese, get their eyelids fixed, and our dentist does braces and straightening. Some places abroad have a post-neutering operation, where the dogs get a fake testicle. I don’t do that nonsense.”

Another expense for such dogs is health insurance, which goes for about 1,080 shekels per year. “Just now there was an operation on a dog that wasn’t insured by us, that cost 25,000 shekels, including dialysis,” says Shlomo Ben Ari, who runs “Shay L’yedid,” a pet insurance company. “If the dog swallows something it shouldn’t, a stomach pump can cost 9,500 shekels.” When I tell him that 1,000 shekels a year is also a large expense, he says, “A dog is part of the family. Sometimes, people have to pay the veterinarian instead of paying for vacations abroad.”

Another field that has developed in recent years is comprehensive healthcare for dogs. There is a magazine, entitled “Green Animals” devoted to the field. A recent issue featured an article about a woman who offers crystal and energy treatments for dogs, for which she charges 350 shekels, at customers’ homes. “I work in homeopathy, and do crystal treatments that open up energy blockages," explains Shiri Koren. "It solves emotional problems and releases stress,” she says. “A decade ago, who had heard of acupuncture? For animals even? Now it’s common. I studied comprehensive healthcare for animals, and today I make a good living from it. Recently I used acupuncture on a sheep that had broken its leg. You can see the results – and the reactions are always, ‘wow, that’s amazing.’ An animal is like a baby. You don’t know what it’s feeling. But you can see that with Bach flower remedies, an insecure dog can develop confidence."

David Bachar
David Bachar