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(USA TODAY) -- Folks who make and sell Halloween costumes have a most unlikely target customer this year: Fido.

More precisely, dog owners. Spending on Halloween costumes for pets -- mostly dogs, but occasionally cats -- will hit a record $370 million this year, up nearly 20% from last year's $310 million, reports the National Retail Federation.

Sales of pet costumes, though still relatively small, are the industry's fastest-growing area. They're up double-digits the past three years in a row at Rubie's Costume, says Howard Beige, executive vice president.

"Dogs are getting as many popular-character licenses as kids," he says.

Costume makers say the Spot-on trend for dogs this year is the wave of new, licensed costumes for pets -- such as dogs dressed as giant Tootsie Rolls, Heinz ketchup bottles or, for the more heroic canines, Bat Dog. Many of these costumes fetch close to $20 each.

"People just don't skimp on their pets," says Michael Gatti, executive director of the National Retail Federation's marketing arm. "They'll cut corners on themselves, but not on their pets."

Joseph Morales is one of them. The medical research photographer from Houston just spent $40 on Underdog costumes for his two Chinese Shar-Pei pooches. That's $10 more than the $30 he spent on his own Superman costume.

"My dogs are my best friends," he says. "I don't have children, so they're kind of my children. I spoil them."

The Party City chain is greatly expanding sales of pet costumes this year, says Melissa Sprich, vice president of Halloween merchandizing, after its ad agency told the chain that consumers last year did more Google searches for pet costumes than for pirate costumes.

But not everyone's fond of the trend. Pet owners should steer clear of costumes that constrict movement or that have tight rubber bands that can cut off circulation, says Jane Dollinger, a spokeswoman at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

"Most dogs are probably irritated by it," concedes Brad Butler, chief operating officer at HalloweenExpress.com. "I personally think it's silly, but we're making money from it."

So, why do folks really dress their pets in Halloween garb?

"People are dying to get dressed up themselves, but many lack the confidence," says consumer anthropologist Robbie Blinkoff. "We dress up our pets, who are a symbolic extension of ourselves."


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