NEW YORK - People and their pets often end up resembling each other, but image-obsessed Americans are taking that age-old relationship a step further, treating their four-legged friends to everything from spa facials to testicle implants.
In a nation of surgically enhanced human breasts, teeth and skin, perhaps it was just a matter of time before the beauty stakes were raised for pooches and cats.
One end of the spectrum features dogs like Hops, a Maltese terrier who recently was given a blueberry facial, followed by a blow dry, and tooth brushing with chicken-flavored paste, at Manhattan's Downtown Doghouse spa.
Groomer Ani Corless described this as the new normal for lapdogs.
"These are man-made breeds and they require maintenance," she said.
Mid-facial, Hops ejected a tiny puddle of vomit, but otherwise did seem to enjoy the attention.
More extreme -- and painful -- makeovers are also gaining ground.
New York Republican lawmaker Nicole Malliotakis says animals are subjected to tattoos, earrings, nose rings, chin rings, tummy tucks, even facelifts.
Owner of two Chihuahuas called Peanut and Olympia, Malliotakis has proposed a law to ban cosmetic alterations to pets in New York state, calling this "a form of animal cruelty."
"I would never think of putting my dog through any of these procedures," she told AFP.
But Gregg Miller, founder of a company called Neuticles, says Malliotakis is "nuts" and exaggerating the problem.
Nuts might be a favorite word for Miller, whose company outside Kansas City leads the world in manufacturing fake animal testicles.
Created from the same silicone used to enlarge women's breasts, Neuticles fill the space left when a pet is neutered.
"We've Neuticled well over 500,000 pets in the United States and all over the world -- dogs, cats, horses, bulls, monkeys, rats, water buffalo," Miller said.
Prices range between $119 for the XSmall pair and $599 for the XXLarge with attached epididymis.
Miller got the idea back in 1993 when he wanted to help his bloodhound Buck overcome post-neutering blues.
"We know, they know, they're missing," he said, citing dogs' loving relationships with their private parts. "With Neuticles, they don't know anything is gone."
Cruelty or beauty?
Vets and even animal rights campaigners like Malliotakis say fake testicles -- typically inserted right when the real ones come out -- are not cruel.
"I've done it on my own dogs and I think it's wonderful," Maryland veterinarian Flavia DelMastro told AFP.
She doesn't believe a neutered dog cares about losing its testicles. However, replacing that missing weight is beneficial for healing, "especially for big dogs, because when you remove those large testicles you still have a big scrotum."
One prominent fan of Neuticles is the flesh-baring, reality TV siren Kim Kardashian, whose dog Rocky reportedly underwent the exchange.
However, Tazi Phillips, at the California-based magazine and charity GlobalAnimal.org, says "ridiculous" Neuticles are part of a trend of anthropomorphism gone wild.
She cited implants to make floppy ears stand straight, declawing to prevent scratching, and tooth removal to stop destructive chewing.
Some owners of dogs like Dobermans practice ear and tail cropping to make their animals conform to the ideal shape of their breed. Then there are human vanity procedures, like tattoos, piercings, liposuction and rhinoplasty.
"A lot of this has happened as pets have become less property and more family members," Phillips said.
Advocates of cosmetic tinkering say the Hollywood treatment is just a way to show pets love.
The National Association of Professional Creative Groomers website features eye-popping examples of dogs shaved and dyed to look like football fans, Halloween ghouls and what appear to be canine versions of over-the-top pop singer Lady Gaga.
"Is it abuse?" the NAPCG asks. "We at the NAPCG believe that animals are not embarrassed by their appearance... If we tell our pets that they are beautiful and treat them as such, they will respond positively to this type of positive feedback."
According to the American Pet Products Association, nearly $53 billion will be spent on pets in 2012. The biggest portion goes on food, but the "pet services" category, which includes grooming, is estimated to be worth $4.11 billion and rising.
Miller concedes he's in a strange business. "If you'd told me 20 years ago that I'd be selling dog testicles today I'd have told you you're nuts."
But he refuses to accept the criticism. "If someone wants their dog to have testicles so he retains his God-given look, what's wrong with that?"
DelMastro said the line between what is fun and cruel should be drawn at where pain comes in.
"You have to think about the animals," she said. "If you want a nose ring, then put it on yourself."
Image: Javier Brosch / via Shutterstock