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8 signs pets are becoming a big consumer class

John Lund | Workbook Studios | Getty Images

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A $55 billion leash with room to run

At just what point cats and dogs became full-fledged members of the family is difficult to determine. But today, pets' elevated status is apparent—in psychiatric counseling, organ transplants and even the introduction of a communications device called Pet Chatz, which allows a love-struck owner to call the pet at home from the office and even electronically release a treat from a dispenser while chatting.

Some 82.5 million American households, or 68 percent, include domestic animals. Americans spent an all-time-high $55.7 billion on their pets last year, and spending will inch close to $60 billion this year, according to recently released APPA data. That's a huge jump from 1996, when total pet spending was just $21 billion.

It starts with the $2.2 billion spent on live animal purchases last year, but it doesn't end there. ...

—By Lee Smith, Special to CNBC.com, with additional reporting from Roy Luo, CNBC Digital
Posted 23 March 2014

John Lund | Workbook Studios | Getty Images