Americans Owning Fewer Pets … But Spoiling Them More Than Ever

Allison Kade
two golden retrievers

Assistant Managing Editor Gabrielle’s beloved dogs

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%.)

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.”

  • Cc11782n

    We’re definitely guilty of spoiling our puppy!! We’ve learned over the course of the last 7 months we’ve had him though where to splurge and where to cut costs. For example, I buy him the highest quality food possible, as I’ve read a ton of research about diet and nutrition that suggests that lower quality food can lead to health problems down the road. I’d rather shell out an extra 20-30 a month now then pay exhorbitant vet bills and watch him suffer through something I could have prevented later. When it comes to toys though, we go the cheapest route possible as anything that can be destroyed will be destroyed (and quickly!). The initial vet costs though of owning a puppy – between shots, neuter, etc., have defintely put us off having another puppy. We just don’t have the disposable income to do that right now – we didn’t have it when we got our puppy to even begin with, since we didn’t realize the expenses would be so high. Having him is definitely worth the costs though, but I understand why pet ownership would be down at the same time.