Rx: More pets plus policies, resources to support owners

Pet ownership could be the prescription for what ails humans, especially in these times, but policies and resources are needed to support and boost ownership.

(budabar | BigStock.com)
(budabar | BigStock.com)

Prior to 2020, pet ownership had been increasing steadily in developing markets around the world; in more mature pet markets like the U.S., it had stagnated somewhat. Then came the coronavirus pandemic, which, in a pleasant surprise, spurred a boost in pet adoptions, at least in the U.S. Some experts questioned whether that rise would last, particularly as the economy started tanking and many people’s financial situations deteriorated. Another positive surprise: The increase in pet adoptions is, to date, sustaining.

Even national media like the Washington Post have noted the phenomenon. “What began in mid-March as a sudden surge in demand had, as of mid-July, become a bona fide sales boom. Shelters, nonprofit rescues, private breeders, pet stores—all reported more consumer demand than there were dogs and puppies to fill it,” noted an August 12 Post article, as quoted by David Lummis, lead pet market analyst for Packaged Facts, in the October issue of Pet Product News.

“Americans kept trying to fill voids with canine companions, either because they were stuck working from home with children who needed something to do, or had no work and lots of free time, or felt lonely with no way to socialize,” the article continued.

And, as Lummis pointed out, Americans have been adding not just canine family members but also cats, small mammals, birds, reptiles and fish – the entire menagerie, according to Packaged Facts surveys.

New book: People need more pets

Of course, this is good news for everyone in the pet food and pet care industries: more mouths to feed, more pets needing toys, beds and other pet supplies, more veterinary care needed, all on an ongoing basis. It’s also just encouraging, heartwarming news in general, which we can all use more of in these troubling times. Even in calmer times, pets provide immense comfort, purpose for people and many other benefits to human health and well-being, physical and mental – with more and more research providing scientific proof of those benefits.

Given that, a new book posits that the U.S. should endeavor to own even more pets and develop government policies and other initiatives to further support pet ownership. “I think it’s safe to say that pets do many good things at little cost … Get ready: We need more people to have pets, and more people who already have pets should own more pets,” wrote Mark Cushing in Pet Nation: The Love Affair That Changed America.

Cushing added to those thoughts in an interview with Marissa Heflin, also in the October issue of Pet Product News: “There is no medicine more powerful, available to all and less expensive than having a pet … Pets help people in stress or just get through their daily lives. Pets are the most powerful force to build social capital, which means communities are stronger for allowing more pets. So, I reduce it to basic math: If we have 185 million cats and dogs, and 330 million people – increasing every day – then let’s aim for 350 million pets. America isn’t ready today, but it could be over the next 10 years.”

Besides vowing to work toward that goal himself, Cushing suggested other ways to achieve it, including providing pet-friendly apartments particularly for lower-income people, expanded access for pets to workplaces, senior care facilities and college dorms, and more dog parks (even cat parks!). Indeed, some initiatives to that end have been under way for a few years now, such as Mars Petcare’s Better Cities for Pets program.

The “grand prize,” Cushing told Heflin, would be for pet ownership and veterinary care to reach the same level of other wellness activities incentivized by the federal government, such as programs to encourage people to quit smoking, exercise regularly, eat nutritiously and get regular medical exams.

Addressing the costs of pet ownership

All of that sounds great, but some may not agree with Cushing’s assertion that pet ownership comes at little cost. It may be less expensive than most traditional forms of health and medical care for people, but in a survey of 1,300 U.S. pet owners, LendingTree found that 62% said they were “shocked” at the costs of pet ownership. Relatedly, and probably a driver of that shock, was that 59% reported being caught off guard by an unexpected veterinary expense.

Thus, to Cushing’s list of ways to support pet ownership, I’d add providing resources to educate prospective owners about the full responsibilities and costs of taking on a furry (feathered or scaled) family member.

People want pets even during economic downturn

A positive finding from the LendingTree survey, one that may feed into Cushing’s ambitious goal of significantly increasing pet ownership in the U.S. is that, despite expenses, 34% of respondents reported spending more on their pets since the pandemic began. Only 17% said they’re spending less.

Even more encouraging: In a related survey, LendingTree asked 2,000 Americans (current and non-pet owners) if they were considering getting a pet in the next six months. Nearly half (46%) said yes; interestingly, the number increased to 69% among those who reported being laid off or furloughed from their jobs during the pandemic. (In addition, 8% of current pet owners said they got their pet between March and September 2020, corresponding with other surveys such as those from Packaged Facts.) Those numbers help lend credence to Cushing’s push for increasing pet ownership, and also to the concept that such an initiative needs to be accompanied by education on the costs of owning pets.

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