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There is a scene in The Loved One, Evelyn Waugh’s novella of 1948, that takes place at a fictional pet cemetery called the Happier Hunting Ground in Los Angeles. 'In the presence of a dozen mourners,’ Waugh wrote, 'the coffin of an Alsatian was lowered into the flower-lined tomb. The Reverend Errol Bartholomew read the service. “Dog that is born of bitch hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay.”’

The book is a merciless send-up of the sentimentality of American pet owners and their inability to cope with death. A sign that Waugh was not greatly exaggerating came in 2007 when a billionaire hotelier from Connecticut, Leona Helmsley, died and left a $12 million trust fund to her white Maltese dog, Trouble. (A judge subsequently reduced it to $2 million.)

Americans invest a lot in their pets, emotionally and financially. There are 75 million dogs in the US, with 39 per cent...