Pets Are Basically People
“He sees me watching him,” a young woman says, motioning to one of the many dogs in front of her.
She’s right. The Chihuahua is in a room with a couple dozen furry companions. But while the others play and fight — a puffy four-pound Pomeranian is causing most of the drama, pouncing on dogs twice its size and then running for its life — the Chihuahua sits, watching his owner through the glass. He doesn’t break eye contact, even as the manic Pomeranian hurdles past.
“I need to leave, so he can enjoy himself,” she says, waving in his direction before exiting the New York Dog Spa and Hotel into what is, at 10:30 a.m., already shaping up to be a muggy summer day.
While it’s unclear whether the Chihuahua is enjoying himself — he looks resigned and a little drooly — he interacts with the other dogs once his owner is gone, sniffing a few rear ends and getting sniffed in return. Although small enough to be left in the apartment while she’s at work, he’s dropped off here once a week, so he can “socialize” with other dogs. For a dog his size, the privilege costs $31 for up to 4 hours, and $43 for the entire day.
That many of the New York Dog Spa and Hotel’s services and amenities, including PB & Bacon, Mac & Cheese and Apple Pie-flavored treats and group “play date” sessions, appear to be designed for human children is not lost on marketing manager Dana VanPamelen. “It’s like childcare,” she says of the company’s boarding services.
Yes, this is New York City, known for its over-the-top, expensive amenities. Along with urban centers such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, New York is an outlier in the sheer volume of its upscale pet services. But as with many trends that start on the coasts and bleed inward, it’s also an exaggerated manifestation of a national shift.
Americans are spending more money on their pets than ever before. This year the pet industry is projected to take in $63 billion, up more than 25% from 2010 according to the American Pet Product Association (APPA). Meanwhile, the percentage of pet owners remained relatively stable, rising just 3% in that same period — today, approximately 65% of U.S. households own pets — which means average spending far outstrips the growth of the pet population.
“If you look at the amount of money per capita we spend on pets, it’s absolutely stunning. Most of the [industry’s] growth has been on the high-end,” says Harold Herzog, a professor of psychology at Western Carolina University in North Carolina, citing an explosion of luxury products and services, everything from manicures, to facials, to fitness trackers, to gluten-free snacks, to pet day care, to automatic water dispensers.
“Whatever you might want to give for yourself and your children, you might want to do for your pets as well,” agrees George Puro, an analyst for the market research firm Packaged Facts. This translates into pet owners expressing their personality via merchandise for their dog, cat, guinea pig etc., be it Stars Wars gear, themed t-shirts, or elaborate Halloween costumes.
In the food category, it’s created an explosion of products marketed to attract human tastebuds and assuage human health concerns. The premium pet food market, which took in $23 billion last year, has tracked human health trends — visit any high-end pet food store, and you’ll find an array of non-GMO, organic, grain-free, raw, paleo, fill-in-the-food-fad-of-your-choice-here products. Dog treats now come in flavors from lobster roll, to green juice, to pizza crust.
“They’re giving [these products] names that sound yummy to your own ears,” says Puro.
This tendency to market dog products as if they were for people is reflected and reinforced by mainstream advertising and media (a recent New York Times opinion column was titled “Dogs Are People, Too.”)
“I’d like to see more of the old Lady. I’d like to see her go back to her more, you know, social side,” a man says about his 10-year-old dog in a commercial for Purina Pro Plan Bright Mind, a formula that contains “enhanced botanical oils…that have been shown to promote alertness and mental sharpness in dogs 7+,” according to the company’s website. After switching Lady to a diet of Purina Pro Plan Bright Mind, “she wants to learn things,” the man continues, tearing up.
In short, we’re treating our dogs, cats —and in some cases, hamsters, birds, turtles and a variety of other pets—as if they were our children. According to a recent Fortune-Morning Consult Poll, 76% of owners classify their pets as “beloved members of the family,” compared to the 19% who responded that they’re “well cared for, but still considered animals.”
“I’ve talked with other people in my field, and we’ve all noticed it,” says Herzog. He believes it comes down to demographic shifts. More Americans live alone — the percentage of single households rose to 28% in 2014 from 17% in 1970 — and millennials are waiting to get married and have children. Meanwhile, retired people are living longer, healthier lives. These multiple trends culminate in a sizeable percentage of the population that has the money, time, and emotional space to treat a pet as if it were a child.
VanPamelen’s experience at the New York Dog Spa and Hotel supports this. Just like new parents, many of the Hotel’s regulars are obsessed with documenting their dogs’ daily lives on social media: More than 50% of incoming dogs arrive with their own Instagram accounts. (Nationwide, one in 10 pets has its own social media account, according to the market research agency Mintel.)
“Some of them have way more followers than me,” she says. They may be an ego check, but an online presence makes her job easier. When owners ask for photo updates, VanPamelen simply tags the dog’s account. A large percentage of clients “don’t have a kid yet — or maybe they have one kid — so a dog is a big part of their life,” she says.
Owners’ love for their pets has made the industry a resilient one. As president and CEO of the APPA, Bob Vetere has been tracking pet spending for decades. From 2007 to 2009, the heart of the financial crisis, the business of pets grew more than 10%. “People cut back on vacations, they cut back on the number of times they go out to eat, they cut back on a lot of other things — but they’re not going to get rid of their pet,” he says.
That’s the analyst take. And then there is the anecdotal evidence. Mary Atwater-Kellman, 26, lives in New York City. In addition to her full-time job at as a communications associate at a non-profit, she is a caretaker of two, small dependents. Every night, she comes home to make them dinner, typically steamed vegetables, fresh lean meat and quinoa. At 3, Inky is a rambunctious ball of energy. Emoji, age 12, is like “a cranky old man,” says Atwater-Kellman. Which is fitting; in dog years, the relevant measurement as both Inky and Emoji are pugs, he’s earned the right to be a grumpy senior.
It hasn’t been an easy ride. Atwater-Kellman adopted Emoji a year and a half ago; since then, he has been diagnosed with cancer. To cover the expensive treatment she took a loan from her parents, which resulted in a number of lifestyle changes. Some of them are small — she’s reduced her visits to the nail salon — but others, such as cutting back on dinner with friends, have a larger impact.
Despite these adjustments, she doesn’t regret the adoption or paying for the treatment. “I can’t imagine life without Emoji.”