Tamagotchis and Giga Pets are the latest electronic trend to sweep the nation

It’s a dog-eat-egg world out there: Toy manufacturers are biting and clawing for the lion’s share of the U.S. virtual-pet market, spawned by last month’s arrival of Japan’s mega-selling Tamagotchi (translation: ”lovable egg”). Each colorful handheld toy features an LCD creature that demands constant feeding, playing, poop scooping, and discipline. (Neglect it and it’s ”dead” — until you push the reset button.) ”It’s not a typical instant-gratification American toy,” says Frank Reysen Jr., editor of the toy-industry trade mag Playthings. ”But there’s something fascinating about the mating of high tech with traditional toy values of nurturing.”

Tiger Electronics hopes to become king of the jungle with its lower-priced Giga Pets ($10 to $13 versus Tamagotchi’s $15 to $18), boosted by the ”boy appeal” of its six creatures (dog, cat, chimp, alien, critter, and The Lost World tie-in baby T. rex) plus an upcoming KFC reduced-price promo. Meanwhile, Playmates Toys has given birth to Nano, a ”virtual baby” — essentially a human pet. The $14.99-to-$19.99 toy will be advertised on such female TV faves as Sabrina, the Teenage Witch and Beverly Hills, 90210.

Tamagotchis have been bounding out of stores; 20 million have sold worldwide, and Manhattan’s F.A.O. Schwarz, the toy’s first outpost in the United States, sold 30,000 in three days, with a limit of two per customer. So it’s no surprise that Gene Morra, marketing VP of Tamagotchi maker Bandai America, is unfazed. ”Theirs are videogames,” he says. ”Ours are real pets.”

As the computerized cats and digitized dogs fight it out, expect to see Tamagotchis and Giga Pets festooning everything from bedsheets to board games; snazzy new features, such as Tamagotchi’s planned pause button to suspend your pet’s animation till you’re ready to tend it again; and four new Giga Pet critters by year-end.

On the Internet, at least, the virtual lion may lie down with the virtual lamb: Currently under construction is Polson Enterprises’ all-encompassing Virtual Pet Site (http://www.virtual pet.com), for aficionados of 41 virtual-pet variations (from Pet Rocks to Happy House Virtual Hamsters) plus anyone ”interested in… virtual reality, artificial life, physical virtual pets, computer virtual pets, [or] research into the use and benefits of virtual pets.” Holy cow.