I could eat a garlic sandwich and my dog Lulu would still be happy to see me, covering my face with kisses if I let her. My friends and loved ones aren’t quite so generous with their affection. Perhaps that's why pet spending has steadily increased over the past decade, particularly during the sweetest month of the year. Valentine’s Day spending will reach an estimated $18.5 billion this year, according to a National Retail Federation survey. Even in this sluggish economy, that figure is up slightly from 2012, when consumers said they planned to spend $17.6 billion. In addition to candy hearts and flowers, expect to see plenty of carob-coated dog biscuits and heart-shaped catnip toys in the mix. Pet owners will spend an estimated $815 million on their furry friends this year.

“No matter what kind of difficulty people are going through — whether it’s a natural disaster or what have you — they cling to the people they love,” said pet lifestyle expert Kristen Levine, who offers advice on her Radio Beastro petcast. “In today’s digital age, I communicate with my husband via text throughout the day, I talk to people by phone or email. Pets are the creatures we only communicate with face to face. It’s the only tangible physical relationship we have. You can’t cut corners with technology. We need that tangible connection.”

To celebrate that unconditional love, Levine offers a few fun suggestions to pamper pets and the people who love them.

1. Get pets moving.

Obesity applies to people as well as pets, so she recommends gifts that promote exercise. To facilitate lengthy walks and playtime in the park, Levine suggests the Sleash line for dog owners. Touted as an “all-in-one dog outing system,” the sport pack ($44.95) includes a carrier that holds keys — or poop bags — as well as a slinger dog toy for hands-free fetch, a leash and two slotted rubber balls.

“It’s Chilly’s favorite ball by far and he has every toy imaginable,” said Levine of her 3-year-old Lab-Dalmatian mix. “There are so many benefits to spending time with pets and helping them exercise. That’s what they want most from us is our time. Do it with exercise.”

To keep feline friends moving, she opts for modular Kitty’scape structures from Solvit. Interchangeable kits can be reconfigured to challenge frisky kitties. The basic kit ($74.95 at Amazon.com) contains a sea grass scratching column, three platforms and a teaser toy.

2. Tap into technology.

For the person who loves pets and gadgets, Levine strongly recommends the Tagg pet Tracker GPS system ($99.95) made especially for dogs. If pets go beyond a designated border, Tagg notifies owners via text messages or email. Levine and her husband put Tagg to the test last year when Chilly spent time with her sister.

“My husband I and were on an anniversary ski trip and we get a text that says, ‘Chilly has left the property,’” Levine said. She immediately called her sister, who was providing baby-sitting duties along with her three young boys. “I called her and said, ‘Did you know my dog’s missing?’ They found him six doors down at the neighbor’s house. I can’t imagine what I would do if my dog disappeared and I never found him.”

Cats also can pounce on the tech bandwagon with fun apps such as the popular “Cat Fishing” game from Friskies. For those who feel particularly brave, check out the “You vs. Cat” app and see who has the best reaction time. (The YouTube video below is so hilarious that I’m almost tempted to get a cat and try this app myself.) And yes, there is a Friskies YouTube channel.

3. Spread the love.

For those of us who don’t own pocket pooches, Levine shares a way to show your puppy love on the go. iPhone cases ($30) and temporary tattoos ($10) from Steadfast Friends feature silhouettes of various dog breeds, ranging from Airedale terriers to Yorkies. Shipping is free and 10 percent of each purchase goes to a pet charity. She also is partial to the fun and funky apparel line called Dog is Good. As a former foster mom to active puppies, I have found myself living the message on one T-shirt from the company: “It’s all fun and games until someone ends up in a cone.” Dog is Good has expanded to include gear for cat- and horse-lovers. The company also donates a percentage of profits to animal welfare organizations so pet love pays it forward.

4. Protect those chompers.

Since February is Pet Dental Health Month, Levine offers a Valentine’s Day gift idea that helps fight plaque buildup as well as boredom. Bristle Bones ($5.89 to $16.89 at Doctors Foster and Smith) combine the features of a chew toy, rubber ball and rawhide treat in one fun package that clean a dog’s teeth. When the sections get worn out, simply purchase replacements. Don't be offended if your four-legged Valentine rewards your generosity by dashing off in the opposite direction. It happens to me every year.

— Morieka Johnson

Join the conversation at @SoulPup on Twitter or visit Morieka on SoulPup.com.

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