PHILADELPHIA – How could she say no?
The engagement ring was attached to Stella, a carmel-brown boxer – a gift from her then-boyfriend, Randy, in 2010.
Fast-forward five years. Married, but childless (for now), Hollie Rothrock refers to Stella and her other dog, 8-year old Rosco – a black Lab-shepherd mix that she's had since he was 6 weeks old – as her "fuzzy kids."
She showers them with treats and toys – including birthday presents and stocking stuffers every year at Christmas.
"I take better care of them than I do myself," said the fourth-grade learning-support teacher from Bucks County, Philadelphia.
"That way, they'll be around longer, and I can enjoy them longer. You take care of your family."
Pet owners such as Rothrock are a big reason why the pet-care industry is booming. They are projected to spend about $60.6 billion this year on food, toys, grooming and boarding, among other things – up from $58 billion in 2014 – according to the American Pet Products Manufacturing Association.
Nearly half of this year's total – $27 billion – will be spent on health care, including veterinarian visits, vaccinations, shots, and pills.
Veterinary experts say pets are living longer and enjoying a better quality of life because of better nutrition, health care, and not the least, TLC from their owners.
"There is a greater human-animal bond, so much more so than it ever has been," said Joseph Kinnarney, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association. "Now, the pet is a family member who does not stay outside like 40 years ago. Now, he or she sleeps with us, travels with us. They go with us everywhere."
That connection has been a boon to companies such as PetSmart and Petco – the two largest pet store chains in the United States. PetSmart is now in talks to buy Petco, which would create a combination collecting half the industry's annual revenue.
The human-animal bond also has fueled the rise of pet insurers, such as Petplan. When the insurer began nine years ago, only 0.5 percent of animals in the U.S. and Canada were insured. But that figure was up to 2 percent by the end of 2014, said co-CEO Chris Ashton.
The pet insurance industry nationally has been growing 10 to 12 percent annually with Petplan increasing revenues by more than double that, Ashton said. Its $69.3 million in sales last year are projected to increase to almost $90 million this year.
Warner Bros., Lego, and SpaceX now offer the firm's pet insurance to employees. "There is a growing gap between what people want for their pets' health and what they can afford, and pet insurance fills that gap," Ashton said.
Kinnarney, a small-animal practitioner in Reidsville, N.C., has documented how animals are living longer.
"The life expectancy has more than doubled of patients we see," said Kinnarney, who treats mostly dogs. Since 1984, he has been recording their average life expectancy on his computer.
"Thirty-five years ago, six or seven years was the average life expectancy for dogs. Now it's 11 or 12 years," he said.
Kinnarney said advances in human health care mirrored those in animal health care – including a healthier food supply; early vaccination protocols to detect infectious diseases, such as rabies and distemper; better tick and flea killers free of toxins that made dogs sick; and the availability of more advanced technology to diagnose and treat diseases such as heartworm.
"Owners are now seeing this dog or cat as part of the family and taking preventive measures to keep them from getting sick and keep them alive as long as possible," he said.
"In the early 1980s, every other dog that I saw had an internal parasite, and every fourth or fifth dog had heartworm disease," he said. "Now, we very seldom see it since all dogs are on the heartworm pill."
Veterinarian Grace Anne Mengel, who runs the primary-care service at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, said another game-changer was guidelines from the AVMA and American Animal Hospital Association in 2011, requiring certain breeds of dogs or cats over age 8 to have annual blood work taken.
"We can now diagnose kidney disease or other changes," Mengel said. "If detected early, we are able to put them on better diets and an early intervention.
"Overall, people are willing to do more, and recognize they can do more, for their pets," she said.
Natural dog-food brands are selling well, such as Blue Buffalo with its chicken-and-brown-rice formula, or Mature Adult Active Longevity formula from Science Diet to improve mobility.
Retiree Phyllis Goddes shopped for a new outfit for her beloved 12-pound, 6-year-old bichon-shih tzu mix, Zoey Joy Goddes, at a Petco in Feasterville, Philadelphia, one recent Sunday.
"It takes a lot of involvement and cost," she said of caring for Zoey, whose picture she carries in her purse. "But it's worth it. The unconditional love (pets) give you is unbelievable."
Goddes, of Langhorne, said that when both of her longtime cats died over the last 2 1/2 years, Zoey comforted her throughout her grief.
"They just know when you're going through things," Goddes said.
Rothrock shops at PetSmart in once a month for toys and a 25-ounce bag of Pup-Peroni dog snacks.
"They love anything they can destroy," she said while playing with her "fuzzy kids," Stella and Rosco, in her Yardley backyard. "And they love pepperoni."