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Don't Call Them Pets

Pet ownership has surged in the US, and so, too, have attitudes and perceptions about the role of pets in our lives.

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It was about 60 degrees in Santa Monica on the morning when I met Sugar and her owner, Dan. Sugar is a sweet, caramel-brown dachshund who has clearly not missed many meals. Her legs wobble with her belly when she walks. As Sugar and my pug Gracie checked each other’s canine credentials, Dan and I swapped stories about how we spoil our pets. But what I remember most about this encounter was Sugar’s coat—a tufted down parka strapped over her plump little frame. It had a fur-lined hood. You may recall that I said it was 60 degrees in Santa Monica that morning. Dan was wearing shorts.

I share this anecdote about Sugar for a reason, and it’s not to poke fun at my west side neighbors and their warped definition of chilly. It’s to talk about pets and the consumer mindset that is driving tremendous growth in pet care industries. According to the American Pet Products Association, an industry trade group, Americans will spend almost $70 billion this year on their pets. Since the great recession, pet spending has grown much faster than the US GDP, and the bulk of the spending is in areas that would have seemed amusing, maybe even silly, only a decade or so ago: insurance, health care, organic food, and, yes, fashionable wearables.

In a recent Forbes analysis, author and generational expert Neil Howe argued that the surge is mostly due to aging boomers, who are thriving in their autumnal years but unwilling to do so alone. Pets are their new children, and boomers are taking them everywhere, giving rise to pet-friendly senior living and all manner of restaurants, resorts and leisure attractions. When Fido or Mittens doesn’t travel with them, seniors are spending heavily for lodging at Pet hotels or with properly vetted and trained pet-sitters.

Howe further argues that Generation X is also contributing to the growth, as this cohort continue to create the perfect, somewhat idealized environments for their families. And, what’s a family home without a dog or cat?

Yet there’s another angle to this story that may surprise you. It has to do with Millennials. AdWeek recently reported that 44% of Millennials who own pets consider them their children. If you doubt this, you need only follow a sample of Millennials on Instagram and you are certain to see snaps of pets accompanying 20-somethings on all manner of adventures. The trend is driving employers to institute pet-friendly policies at work, and in some cases, to provide stipends to employees for pet care.

A recent story in The Washington Post posits that the disproportionate level of pet ownership by Millennials is correlated to the generation’s delayed rates of marriage and child rearing. The fundamental need for companionship is being redirected to furry surrogates for first born. One friend told me that his Millennial son refers to his brood of dogs, cats and a rabbit as “the kids.”

Whether Boomer, Xer or Millennial, Americans are opening their wallets to spoil their fur babies. Forget helicopter parents. We’re a nation of critter daddies. The Post claims that we spent $11 billion last year on “pampering” activities. These activities ranged from the purchase of pet costumes to strollers and, yes, fur-lined parkas for breezy Santa Monica walks.

The implications for marketers and entrepreneurs extends well beyond those who sell pet-related products. We need to broaden our definition of family. While pets have always enjoyed a role in the American family narrative, the focus is shifting. Spot is no longer a fixture in the family household. He’s not the servant of a human master, always at the ready to serve and protect. Like the Millennial children of Boomers or the Homeland offspring of Xers, Spot is family and he is vulnerable to the forces of the outside world. We might not be driving around with “Dog on Board” signs, but we do feel compelled to walk Spot with a stroller to protect his legs from too much stress, or to shield him from the brutal Southern California chill by wrapping him in a proper parka .

This protective parenting streak can also be seen in a new surge of pet activism. The release of A Dog’s Purpose—a motion picture based on a bestselling book about the reincarnated adventures of a heroic dog—was heavily boycotted due to allegations of animal cruelty during production. And Netflix recently released Pet Fooled, a documentary by filmmaker Kohl Harrington that exposes deceptive practices by pet food manufacturers. It has resonated so strongly with pet-nation that a sequel is already in the making.


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