Go out to any park on a sunny Sunday, and there’s a high chance it’ll be filled with people walking their dogs. Pets. They’re everywhere— whether it’s the commonplace dogs or cats, the slightly off-beat reptiles, or the plain weird (and fairly illegal) Siberian tigers and poisonous cobras. The pet industry has been burgeoning in the last few decades, and it’s clear North Americans can’t get enough of their furry (and sometimes scaly) best friends.
Looking at the numbers for the pet industry in Canada itself can be quite astonishing. About 52% of Canadian households own at least one pet, and pet owners spend about CAD 2 billion on pet food alone. According to the Hamilton Spectator, the industry was worth $7 billion dollars as of 2016, and while the percentage of households owning pets hasn’t changed significantly in the past few years, the amount pet owners are willing to spend on pets is increasing rapidly. In Canada, cats tend to be more popular than dogs as pets. In the United States, as of 2017, the pet industry is worth almost USD 70 billion, up from USD 23 billion in 1998. While food is the biggest chunk of this spending, pet services like grooming account for a solid USD 5 billion as well. According to the 2017-2018 APPA National Pet Owners Survey, a total of 56% of American households own pets, and dogs tend to be more popular with the US, a country home to almost 89 million dogs. Surveys show that trends on how pets are viewed have also changed significantly over the last few years. In Canada, almost 90% of dog and cat owners increasingly view pets as integral members of the family unit, rather than companions of a different species. In fact, research and survey responses also show a strong psychological factor in pet ownership, with most owners feeling their pets contribute to both their mental and physical health in a positive manner.
With these facts, it’s not surprising to note the upward trend in pet ownership and spending. A major reason for the increased ownership or spending on dogs is considered to be the ageing population, and drops in birth and marriage rates. Others point to the delayed age at which people now marry and choose to have children. A report by The Economist highlights how millennials tend to increasingly treat their pets like their children, possibly to compensate for this delay in producing actual children. The report also highlights how pet owners tend to increasingly identify as parents and not owners. Their flexible work schedules, outside of the conventional 9-5 jobs also allow for greater time to care for pets. Additionally, even large companies now offer benefits to pet owners: for example, Google allows employees to bring their pets to work, while Genentech offers employees subsidised doggie day care.
Since pet parents see their pets as children, they spend on them as they would on children. Pet cams akin to baby monitors are a popular device to ensure the well-being of pets when they are alone. Outfits and accessories are often provided for pets, and a huge part of a pet spender’s budget goes towards providing the highest quality foods —such as the recently trendy raw food diet— to ensure the best combination of health and taste. In fact, a lot of North American cities now boast animal cafes; these aren’t just restaurants that allow pets, but have specially crafted menus that meet the dietary restrictions of these species and craft human-like food for them. To meet the growing need for a secure means of paying for veterinary fees, pet insurance has also become commonplace. According to the North American Pet Health Insurance Association, the US has about 1.6 million insured pets, with Canada at 200,000 pets.
Another major component of the pet industry is the much more controversial obsession with owning exotic pets. Often seen as a status symbol, the wealthy spend obscene amounts of money to own animal species that are rare, endangered, and non-native. The exotic pet market is a billion-dollar industry, and an article by Huffington Post estimates that more exotic animals live in homes than in zoos around the world. While proponents argue that owning exotic pets aids the conservation effort, conservationists feel that home environments are often not suited to the needs of the pets, who can end up posing a danger to their owners in terms of health and ferocity. In Canada, every province except Ontario either prohibits exotic pets or regulates them in some fashion. This means that although owning exotic pets isn’t entirely illegal, there is heavy regulation to bypass in order to get a permit, and to continue owning an exotic pet. Some say the bar for acquiring the pets is so high that it’s essentially a ‘de facto ban’.
Returning to the issue of regular pet ownership, this increase in spending on and caring for pets is a heartening phenomenon since it extends needed care to another species. This is particularly why the revelations behind the pet breeding and selling industry are so off-putting. To meet the demand for certain dog breeds, dog breeding has developed into a billion-dollar industry world-wide. The problem tends to be that, since looks trump function, breeders increasingly breed those animals that meet the qualifications of ‘cute,’ causing serious genetic dysfunctions in resulting breeds. Additionally, Huffington Post highlights how many breeders operate ‘puppy mills’ that treat domestic animals as breeding-machines to meet demand, with awful living conditions and practices in place to produce desired quantities of pets, with desired qualities.
There are two ways to deal with the unhealthy practices existing in the dog breeding industry. The first one would be to increase animal welfare rights and regulations on breeding practices on a government level. The second would be to encourage alternate means to pet ownership than purchasing. In the US, about 6.5 million animals enter shelters every year, while 1.6 million are said to be euthanized. In Canada, approximately 200,00 animals entered shelters as of 2012: estimates say 41% of dogs and 15% of dogs had to be euthanized. With the availability of so many healthy animals in need of homes, adoption and rescuing is a better way of procuring pets and should be encouraged to curb malpractice in breeding, and promote the general well-being of animals.
All in all, the pet industry in North America shows little to no signs of slowing down. Even during times of recession, reports found that pet owners did not scrimp on lavishing their pets with comforts, and continuous growth in pet-related industries was found— growth which is expected to continue in the coming years, expanding in retail, hospitality, healthcare and insurance sectors to meet demand.