Americans Owning Fewer Pets ... But Spoiling Them More Than Ever

Americans Owning Fewer Pets ... But Spoiling Them More Than Ever

two golden retrievers

Fewer babies, fewer pets … will the recession lead to the end of overpopulation?

A couple weeks ago, we found that the down economy has led to a decline in the fertility rate in America; now we see that it’s also reducing the pet population.

The American Veterinary Medical Association found that pet ownership is down 2.4% between 2006 and 2011. Dog ownership is only down slightly, but cat ownership is down 6.2% and bird ownership, 20.5%. (Unsurprisingly, horse ownership is also down a lot—16.7%.)

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This, of course, makes sense economically: Dog owners spent $19.1 billion on their pets for veterinary care alone in 2011, and cat owners spent $7.4 billion.

Declines aside, Americans still have plenty of pets. 36.5% of all U.S. households have a dog, and 30.4% have at least one cat. And, despite the dwindling pet population, total vet visits for dogs in 2011 increased over 9% since 2006.

Americans Are Owning Fewer Pets, but Spending More

One article in The Wall Street Journal discusses the emergence of upscale dog cuisine, in which restaurants allow diners to relax on the outdoor patio with their dogs … along with separate menus for those dogs, including “anything from lamb stir fry to meat loaf to scrambled eggs with bacon bits.” There’s even a special space in back of the restaurant for dogs to go to the bathroom, including waste pickup bags.

At one restaurant in Washington, D.C. owners pay $8 for a steak for their dogs; the dog food menu accounts for 20% of the restaurant’s revenue from patio dishes. At a restaurant in Monterey, California, owners pay $16 for a steak for their dogs, and $30 for a steak for themselves.

By a similar token, pet owners are turning to companies like Freshpet, which produces fresh dog food that must be refrigerated, lest it spoil. The company even sells cookies, ice cream and turkey bacon for cats.

“But these are tough economic times!” you say, and rightly so.

And yet, Freshpet has 100 employees and is expecting $50 million in revenue this year, up from $30 million in 2011. In a Businessweek interview, Freshpet CEO Richard Thompson says that Americans’ views on pets have changed a lot over the past few decades: “I grew up on a cattle farm in Kansas. Our dogs lived in the barn and we fed them table scraps, supplemented with dog food occasionally. Now you see pets in people’s beds.” Not to mention, with their own side orders at restaurants.

What’s Up With That?

We can think of a few possible explanations for the seemingly contradictory behavior (that is, the trend of deciding against pets because they're too expensive in this economy, and the parallel trend of splurging on expensive pet care):

  • It’s about class disparity: New statistics show that the middle class is shrinking, which may be part of why we don't see much middle ground in pet ownership. Many Americans can't afford pets at all, while others not only can afford them, but can afford to spoil them.
  • We're becoming one-animal families: Americans are reducing the total number of pets they own so they can shower more care, attention and resources on the ones they do own.
  • We can't afford the big expense of additional pets, so we splurge on the smaller details instead: The big picture for many Americans may be that they can’t afford a pet (at least, they can't afford an additional one), which is why the total numbers for pet ownership are down. But we’re emotional, rather than rational, creatures, so we don't think twice about splurging on the pets we already own. And besides, we can rationalize that splurging on expensive pet food doesn't cost as much as getting a whole new four-legged friend. Maybe emotional thinking is the same reason sales are up on other expensive items that could be deemed luxuries: pricey watches, artisanal doughnuts and Greek yogurt, all of which are enjoying booms despite the economy.

Or, maybe there's another reason some people feel reluctant to live without pets, regardless of their financial situations.

As one author writes in Time, “A vast and growing library of scientific studies show that pet ownership has numerous health benefits. Pet owners live longer, happier and healthier lives. Pets provide companionship and reduce loneliness; they help people cope with stress better, lowering blood pressure and helping reduce cholesterol—in some cases at least as effectively as medication … one study found that cat ownership could cut the risks of a stroke by a third … All of this means fewer doctor visits and a better quality of life. And all this can save you money.”

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