It's a (Recession Resistant) Love Affair: Pets and the Pet Industry in the United States.
Pets, We love 'em, don't we? Indeed, it's absolutely true that for many of us, these most important family members are treated every bit as well as any human counterpart. Because of this, the pet industry is thriving in spite of tough economic times. In fact, revenues are expected to go up more than 5% a year, making it an industry that is truly "recession resistant," a rare feat for any industry.
Not that pet care is just a frivolous expense, though. Pet care and the pet industry may be thriving for a reason – pet ownership is actually good for us. Take a look:
Owning a pet is good for your health
Most pet owners probably wouldn't be surprised to know that having a pet can actually improve your overall health profile. The benefits are obvious, especially when you come home after a long hard day of work; the stress of the day falls away as you are greeted with unabashed delight by a wagging tail or a contented purr.
It isn't just that you subjectively feel better when you have a pet, though. Research has actually shown that owning a pet is good for your health. You can literally lower your blood pressure, decrease anxiety, and boost your immunity. It's even been shown that, contrary to popular belief, owning a pet from childhood on actually lowers your risk of developing allergies. It's not possible to actually break down the cost of owning a pet versus the actual health care savings humans reap as a result of owning a pet, but it's an interesting premise to consider that owning a pet may actually save money on health care costs for humans in the long run.
The history of pet ownership in the United States
Today, we think of pets as ubiquitous, but it wasn't always so. The pet industry for most of the American population begins with the dog and the cat as its first choices. How did this come to be?
Cats as pets
Descended from European and African wildcats, today's domestic cat is a species all its own. It was first domesticated about 4000 years ago, in ancient Egypt. There, cats were used to control rodent populations and protect food stores. Beyond ancient Egyptians' practical uses for cats, however, they also worshiped cats as living gods and goddesses, and held them in awe because of their great hunting skills. In fact, Egyptians imposed the death penalty on anyone who killed cats. Cats were so revered, in fact, that they were mummified and laid to rest alongside their owners.
Domestic ownership of cats spread slowly to other parts of the globe; it's surmised that because cats were so worshiped as gods and goddesses in their own right, Egyptians prevented their export to other parts of the world. Greeks began to adopt domestic cats beginning about 500 B.C., with Romans adopting them beginning about 300 B.C. Slowly, their domestication spread to other parts of the world, including Europe and ultimately, the United States.
Although there was a brief period of time in the Middle Ages when cats were associated with devil worship, ancient Egyptians' reverence for the cat generally held steady in other parts of the world, too. Cats were brought to the "New World" by European immigrants, and by the 18th century, cats had become prized and beloved household pets in the United States. As with ancient Egypt, cats in the US were kept for their ability to control mice and other vermin, but they also increasingly became beloved members of the family. Today, about 86 million of these mysterious, enchanting, playful and deceptively independent (but fiercely loyal and loving) creatures are kept as pets in the US.
Dogs as pets
If the cat is seen as mysterious, independent and aloof, the dog is simply seen as "man's best friend." Although cats are a little more selective about whom they choose to love, dogs' joie de vivre and desire to be loved by and to please everyone make them every bit as popular in American households as cats to become family members.
Dogs are descended from the gray wolf and were first domesticated as work animals. Beginning about 15,000 years ago, dogs were used as hunting companions, protectors of the herd, and pointers to flush out game. They were also used as guard dogs by the Greeks, and were trained as army fighting dogs by the Gauls and the Romans.
Despite this great dependence on dogs, ownership of and respect for dogs fell off during the Dark Ages in Europe. They were abandoned by owners and left to run in packs, eventually terrorizing entire towns. Superstition also ran rampant during the Dark Ages, and people began to blame dogs for the problems they were having.
Luckily, the dogs' popularity rebounded and they were saved from what might have been an unfortunate fate by monks who recognized that breeding dogs could actually provide much-needed revenue. In fact, popular saints throughout history have been credited with developing new dog breeds.
Françoise Hubert was one of those. He was an eighth century monk who retired to a monastery in the Ardennes in France, after his wife died. He was later given sainthood. Hubert began to develop what became known as St. Hubert's hounds, a breed of bloodhound, even before joining the monastery. However, he took an even keener interest in breeding after he became a monk. Abbots in his monastery continued to breed the dogs even after his death. Today, St. Hubert is known as the Patron Saint of Hunters; he is celebrated every year on November 3.
Monks like Hubert are credited with restoring dogs' popularity first as work animals and ultimately as pets. Dogs came over on the Mayflower to the New World with the Pilgrims, and George Washington himself was an avid dog lover and breeder. Generally, dogs were still seen as work animals at that time and for many years after. Larger dogs like Mastiffs were put to work powering machines, while smaller dogs like Terriers were used to kill rats and protect street vendors' carts from thieves.
Slowly, the dog was gaining popularity as a pet in the United States, too. Although the early years saw the dog as largely a work animal, by the 1950s, dogs were increasingly seen as pets. Today, they are integral members of the family.
The pet industry is thriving despite tough economic times
The upshot is, Americans' relationship with their pets has changed, from one of master and loyal work animal to true companions. We are in love with our pets and they're good for us, to boot. You can be sure that they're not going anywhere anytime soon. This is good news for the pet industry. In fact, even in light of the recent recession and the country's continuing economic struggles, the pet industry is thriving.
The American Pet Products Association (APPA) calls the pet industry "recession resistant," with spending up in 2010 by 6.2%, to $48.35 billion in 2010 versus $45.53 billion in 2009. In 2014, it exceeded $56 billion, up 15.8% versus 2010.
The greatest area of growth in the pet industry was health care, according to the APPA. In 2010, spending was $13.01 billion, up 8.1% versus 2009. Veterinary services are popular because, according to the president of the APPA, Bob Vetere, people treat their pets with the same care as they do their children, and they want to "enhance their pets' lives with products and services similar to those that humans enjoy." To that end, the industry has responded by providing pet owners with what they want. Veterinary care in 2014 was on pace to continue its growth with an 10.45% increase since 2010, for total spending of $14.37 billion.
Pet insurance is a relatively new option in the US for pet owners. Although it's been a standard offering in the UK for quite some time, it's only recently become a truly viable option for pet owners in the US. While insurance is still quite expensive, policies are improving in that they include more health conditions in their coverage. More veterinarians are also accepting insurance as a matter of course, which makes it a more attractive option for pet owners.
Pet services are up in spending as well, to $3.51 billion in 2010, a figure more than double what it was a decade ago.
Pet food and supplies
Food is a major focus for pet owners, with expenses for owners up 6.8% in 2010, to $18.7 billion. Pet supplies such as over-the-counter medications have become a cheaper alternative to veterinarian-purchased medications, with an increase of 5.1% and total spending of $10.94 billion in 2010.
Who has pets?
The National Pet Owners Survey of 2014 showed that today, more U.S. households than ever have at least one pet. Up 2.1% over the last year, today, 72.9 million households have at least one pet, and 40% of those have more than one pet. Dogs and cats are at the top of the list, with 95.6 million cats and 83.3 million dogs. Fish, too, were popular, with almost 160 million fresh and salt water fish present in American households as well as 20.6 million birds.
Has the economy negatively impacted what owners spend on their pets?
Actually, no. In fact, the opposite is true. Owners didn't just hold pet expenses steady because of the rough economy. Some owners said that the economy actually encouraged them to spend more, in some cases.
That is, although the economy has influenced people's buying decisions in other ways, pet owners resoundingly said that the economy didn't impact their decision as to whether or not they owned a pet, or how much they spent on that pet. In fact, some said the economy actually influenced them to spend more money on their pet – 2 to 5% more on average. (Those who didn't own pets, however, chose not to get a pet because of the downturn in the economy.)
Cost of adopting a pet
Dogs topped the list of "most expensive" domestic pets to buy, with owners spending as much as $364 for a dog, versus $121 in 2008. These are for purebred dogs, with animal advocates pushing adoption from shelters to keep the rates of euthanasia down.
In order of priority, dog and cat owners spend the most on food, boarding, routine veterinary visits, and surgical procedures.
Not to be left out, fish and bird owners, too, weighed in on the cost of pet ownership, with the greatest cost going for containment (fish aquariums and birdcages) followed by veterinary visits, both routine and surgical.
The verdict: Pet ownership is here to stay, which is good news for the pet industry.
Ultimately, what it all boils down to is that even during tough economic times, the pet industry continues to thrive, simply because pet owners are devoted to their pets. And why not? Research has shown that having pets is good for us, literally.
They provide unconditional love and companionship, something that may be especially valuable when technology and other factors render us increasingly isolated from each other. It certainly costs something to raise and keep a pet, to be sure, but when we consider the alternative, pet ownership becomes truly cost effective.
Cats and Wildlife: a Conservation Dilemma. John S. Coleman, Stanley A. Temple and Scott R. Craven. http://wildlife.wisc.edu/extension/catfly3.htm. 1997.
Retrieved August 24, 2011.
Dogs as Pets.
Retrieved August 24, 2011.
Five Ways Pets Can Improve Your Health.
Retrieved August 23, 2011.
History of the Domestic Cat.
Retrieved August 24, 2011.
Pet Dog and Cat Population.
Retrieved August 24, 2011.
Pet Industry Spending Tops $48 Billion in 2010.
Posted March 17, 2011.
Retrieved August 23, 2011.
Americans spent a record $56 billion on pets last year.
Retrieved April 7, 2015.