New research on human-animal bond could help spur petfood market

Research on how pets benefit human health can help make the case for pet ownership on many levels, which can, in turn, grow petfood sales.

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How could a study of US physicians play a role in petfood sales growth? Well, when the research shows these doctors clearly believe pets benefit human health, that could help increase pet ownership, which could, in turn, lead to higher petfood sales.

In its latest report, Pet Food in the US, 11th edition (September 2014), Packaged Facts lays out stark facts. “For several years, most of the dollar growth in the US pet market has been coming from higher prices. This means most of the money is being spent on the same (or, for some animal types, a lesser) number of pets, a trend that reflects slow growth in the pet population,” the report says.

It goes on to cite data from the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) 2012 US Pet Ownership and Demographics Sourcebook, which shows the overall percentage of US households owning pets in 2011 was 56%, down from 57.4% in 2006. Similarly, Simmons research has ownership at 55.9% of US households in 2011, 54.7% in 2012 and 56.5% in 2013, the Packaged Facts report says.

There is an outlier in terms of US pet ownership data: the American Pet Products Association (APPA) National Pet Owners Survey 2013-2014 shows 68% of households owning pets in 2012, up from 62% in 2010. However, in 2012, the survey was conducted completely online for the first time, so it’s not quite an exact comparison with previous years of the survey.

Even if you discard that outlier, APPA’s ownership data has historically been higher than that from AVMA and Simmons, but it’s worth noting the level of ownership among US households has remained fairly stagnant at 62%-63% since 2000, according to the APPA data. Similarly, the Simmons data cited by Packaged Facts shows the level of dog ownership has remained at about 38% since 2011, ranging from 38.1% then to 38.4% now, while cat ownership has declined slightly in the US, from 26.8% in 2011 to 25.8% in 2013.

There is good news from Simmons, which also tracks the percentage of US households owning either a dog or a cat; that level has steadily risen from about 50% in 2008-2010 to 53.3% in 2013. And, as you delve into ownership data for specific groups of US households—those earning less than US$60,000, Gen X and Y, and even Americans age 65 and older—levels are starting to rise. (The increase with the last group is especially good news, since pet ownership has traditionally tended to drop fairly steeply among older people.)

Still, the increases are slight, and when you combine that with the very small growth in US petfood sales this year (1.1%, according to Packaged Facts), you can easily see the relevance for our industry. And this is not just a US problem; it’s happening in many other developed markets, such as Japan, Australia and countries in Western Europe.

That’s why research on the human-animal bond is so important, because it can help make the case for pet ownership on many levels and from many perspectives. For example, the latest study, released by the Human Animal Bond Research Initiative (HABRI, which is driving much of the research being done in the US), involved a source that many people consider trustworthy: their family physicians. The survey interviewed 1,000 US family doctors and general practitioners, with 95% saying they own or have owned a pet themselves and, even better, 97% stating they believe there are health benefits to owning a pet. 

The survey also showed that 75% of the physicians have seen a patient’s overall health or a specific medical condition get moderately or significantly better after the patient adopted a pet; 87% said they’ve seen a patient's mood or outlook improve as a result of owning a pet; 84% said they talk to patients about their pets; 60% have recommended that a patient get a pet; and 82% said that if medical evidence supported it, they would prescribe a pet for a patient.

While the sources on the benefits of pet ownership for many of the respondents were anecdotal (patient stories at 64%, personal experience at 59% and traditional news media at 44%), 38% did report finding out about the health benefits through medical journals. That’s where organizations like HABRI come in; their purpose is to fund and encourage scientific study on the human-animal bond.

We in the industry can help, too, not only by supporting HABRI and similar initiatives but also by spreading the word about these types of research findings. “Pets are good for your health” is a pretty easy and positive message to share.





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