Something To Chew On: Flip side of human-pet bond

Are we missing out on a huge marketing opportunity? - Debbie Phillips-Donaldson

Humanization. The human-animal bond. Pets as family members. For several years now we've all heard, and used, these phrases as reasons for the petfood industry's continued growth, especially in developed markets. As more consumers pamper their pets and elevate them to the level of human family, they've been willing to spend more on petfood.

Naturally, many of you have oriented your brand and product marketing toward this trend.

But as an industry, are we missing a huge opportunity to take advantage of another aspect of the human-pet bond? Because there's a flip side: what people get out of the relationship.

The connection

During Petfood Forum 2009, keynote speaker Marty Becker, DVM, talked about how pets' roles have evolved over the past several decades. "In my lifetime I saw them move from outside to inside. What really changed was the connection. Once we welcomed them into our hearts and homes en masse, we started having a different kind of relationship based on close physical contact and intimacy."

Dr. Becker emphasized that the change hasn't just benefited pets; a growing body of research is showing how this intimacy is helping people live longer and healthier. He cited findings also reported by Kay Lazar of the Boston Globe on April 20, the day before his keynote. Consider:

  • A study conducted by the Minnesota Stroke Initiative at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis showed cat owners are 40% less likely to die from a heart attack than non-cat owners;
  • The same study showed cat owners are less likely to die from all cardiovascular diseases, including strokes, even when the researchers took into account several risk factors for heart disease;
  • Several studies showed interacting with a pet may help protect against allergies, asthma and even cancer;
  • Recent findings suggest smokers who are told second-hand smoke harms their pets are more willing to quit;
  • The Research Center for Human Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri in Columbia found that dogs are more likely to inspire older people to stick with a walking program than two-legged walking companions do.

Looking for impact

So much is happening in this area of research that many entities are getting involved. In the US that includes veterinary schools-see Purdue University School of Veterinary Medicine's Center for the Human-Animal Bond as well as governmental agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control, which has a program called Healthy Pets Healthy People . The National Institutes of Health (NIH), the US government's main agency for medical research, just announced a research partnership with Mars.

The scientists involved in this research stress that not all of it is conclusive, and some findings even disprove the claim that owning pets makes people healthier. James Griffin, a deputy branch chief with NIH and leader of the Mars initiative, emphasizes that health experts need large-scale, controlled studies to determine the true impact of pets on human health.

But the fact that governments, universities and corporations such as Mars would put money behind this research indicates there's probably a positive and potentially significant impact to find.

What's your play?

Findings so far point to a possibly powerful new marketing and positioning strategy for petfoods or perhaps an evolution of humanization-themed campaigns already in play. After all, it can't hurt to tell customers that feeding good-quality petfood not only can increase their pets' lives but also potentially their own.

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