Grow pet ownership to grow the market

Ownership of dogs and cats in the US has continued to rise in the two decades that the American Pet Products Association (APPA) has been conducting its National Pet Owners Survey. That’s the good news.

Ownership of dogs and cats in the US has continued to rise in the two decades that the American Pet Products Association (APPA) has been conducting its National Pet Owners Survey. That’s the good news.

The not so rosy news is that since 2006, the increase in ownership has been very small. For example, dog ownership increased just 1.5% in the 2011–12 survey from the previous one (2010), while cat ownership grew just 1.8%. That’s after similarly small increases from 2008 to 2010.

What’s more, the most recent increases were even lower than the 2.2% rise in US households overall. In fact, the percentage of US households owning any type of pet has remained in the 61%–63% range since 1998, settling in at 62% the last four years. For dogs, the percentage has been stuck at 39% since 1998; for cats, it’s settled at 33% after reaching only 34% in the previous eight years.

The news for other species is even worse: US ownership of birds, small mammals (other than dogs and cats), reptiles, freshwater fish and horses all declined from 2010 to 2012, while ownership of saltwater fish remained the same.

Growth in pet  ownership is similarly slow in other developed markets, such as Western Europe and Japan. So, while we should celebrate that growth is happening at all, experts in the pet industry worry it may not be enough to sustain market growth over the coming decades.

For example, some of the fastest growing groups of people in the US, such as Hispanics, show below-average pet ownership. As of late 2010, according to Experian Simmons, 40% of US Hispanic households owned a dog or cat. The rate was only 20% for black households and 23% for Asians, compared to 58% for white, non-Hispanic households.

Similarly, the US population is growing older, and only 36% of households with seniors (65 years or older) owned pets in 2010. The rate was 43.8% for households with people ages 18–24—better, but below average and a concern since these represent the industry’s future.

Fortunately, research on  pet ownership is under way. In the first phase of a three-part study funded by a PetSmart Charities grant, the American Humane Association, through its Animal Welfare Research Institute, delved into reasons for not owning a pet and the plight of homeless pets.

Despite extensive public education encouraging people to adopt from shelters, only 22% of previous dog owners surveyed and 18% of cat owners had obtained their prior pets from a shelter or rescue organization. As with the Experian Simmons data, the study also showed respondents over age 65 were among the least likely to consider owning a pet—even though the physical and emotional benefits of pet ownership for older people have been well documented.

Obviously, much work needs to be done, but at least the research is uncovering which areas need the most work. Phase II of the study will delve into how many dogs and cats acquired from shelters and animal control agencies remain in their new homes six months later and what happens to those pets when the adoptions don’t work out. Phase III will test practical intervention strategies for improving those retention rates.

This research is  contributing to a growing body of knowledge on pet ownership; for example, APPA started and continues to develop the Human Animal Bond Research Initiative (HABRI) and its online portal, HABRI Central. If you want to help ensure the continued growth of the petfood market, consider investigating these various research initiatives and how you might support them. At the very least, use the power of your position in the marketplace to promote pet ownership and adoption. Your future might depend on it.

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