Come Sunday, dozens of pet owners will line up at the Milton Animal Shelter for the chance to photograph Fido with Santa.
The tradition, going on 15 years, has been part of a successful campaign to raise money and awareness for the shelter, and the event has developed some cult-like followers.
“[There is] a core group, probably about 20, that come religiously and do it,” said Norm MacLeod, a shelter volunteer. “But it can vary depending on the weather. It could be even up to as many as 40 [people bringing pets].”
But Milton isn't the only place where pets can be photographed with Santa.
In the South Shore alone, the family dog, cat, ferret, guinea pig, and snake can sit on Santa’s lap in Braintree’s South Shore Plaza (Dec. 15 and 22, 8 p.m. to 9 p..m), and Hingham’s Shipyard (Unleashed, Dec. 14, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.).
Not to mention Santa and pet photo events at the Hanover Mall and Independence Mall the first week of December, and Norwood’s Dirty Dawg Wash on Dec. 8.
“I received Christmas cards from people who have a picture of the family and it includes the dog and the cat,” MacLeod said. “I think people certainly are including the animal members of their family into their family.”
The South Shore Plaza, which typically expects well over 100 pet owners to visit Santa in the holiday season, even extended photo hours in 2012 with expectations that lines would be long.
Now in its fifth season, the mall is experiencing an equally successful turnout.
“It has been ongoing this season and it’s been very successful to date,” said Vicki Bartkiewicz, the Plaza’s director of mall marketing. “A lot of people bringing in their pets with all of their holiday dressings on.”
Bartkiewicz said one family brought in their five golden retrievers. Though in the past some more exotic animals have made appearances, 95 percent of participants this year are bringing dogs.
The local phenomenon points to a national trend.
“It really started to emerge five years ago,” said Charlotte Reed, a New York-based author and “petrendologist”.
Reed has seen rescue organizations as well as veterinarians offer the service as a perk for clients. Friends have given her photos of their grandchildren on Santa’s lap, to follow them up with pictures of the family dog in the same pose.
The trend is especially popular with those who don’t have children, or whose children are grown, Reed said; pets are the new family members.
“It’s something everyone loves to do and loved to do as a kid,” she said. “[The activity] brings pleasure to the pet owner and reminds them of a way to continue family tradition.”
Leslie May, Georgia-based pet expert and head of Pawsible Marketing, said the advent of technology has normalized “family member” pets as people connect to communities of others with similar mindsets.
Coupled with the high number of baby boomers and empty nesters who own pets, a pet photo with Santa is on its way to becoming the new norm.
“Pet stores are being more proactive about getting people into their stores this time of year. This is a great way to do it,” she said.
“It’s a new trend for some, but it’s not a new trend for others,'' Mays said. "I have a dog that’s 9 ½ and I took him 9 years ago to get his photo taken with Santa…[But] it seems like more people are doing it now.”
Whatever the reason, local organizations are just hoping their Santa experience will be a draw.
“This was to have a fun day that would have a variety of things for the kids, and provide an opportunity for people to bring their dogs to be seen and be remembered by shelter volunteers,” MacLeod said.