Pet care has never been as fancy as it is now
Reversible puffer jackets, dry shampoo, CBD oils, freshly-made meals delivered on-demand to your doorstep, stretch-knit balaclavas emblazoned with the word “Ski.” These goods aren’t just for humans anymore, but they’re things you can actually buy, tailor-made, for your pets now.
It begs the question: When did our pets become so fancy? (Or a more pressing question: When did all of this become so expensive? The default answer these days—inflation—only goes so far as pricing on nearly all consumer goods and services are rising this year.)
Many new, independent brands have been entering this market—at higher price points—lately, recognizing younger pet owners are willing to spend more than ever (or spoil, depending on how you look at it) on their four-legged best friends. Sure, some of it might be for social media, ambitiously hoping their animals might be the next Jiffpom (9.8 million followers on Instagram) or Doug the Pug (3.8 million followers on Instagram).
But others might be more willing to spend on a given brand if it appears healthier and/or more sustainable than legacy pet retailers. And there has been a lot of chatter over the last few years that more and more millennials are leaning toward pet adoption versus having children, thus they’re spending their money on cats and dogs in lieu of kids. A MetLife survey last fall concurred and also found that some owners spend more on their pets than they do themselves.
“A pet’s place in the home has finally evolved from possession to full-fledged family member,” says Patricia Machado, cofounder of Pride + Groom, a high-end line of grooming products for dogs. “There is a reason dogs and cats are referred to as ‘fur babies.’ Our pets are sleeping in our beds and living on our furniture, which has motivated pet owners to keep their pets cleaner and fresher.”
David Sprinkle, analyst at Packaged Facts, speculates the cause behind this current wave of pet industry startups is two-fold.
“One, the pet industry has often been a darling of Wall Street [and] venture capitalists, with a generally deserved reputation for being recession-resistant, as confirmed by boom performance in the wake of COVID,” explains Sprinkle. “Though the pet industry is not particularly in the limelight at the moment, due to some backing down from initial COVID-era enthusiasm over pet market prospects. Startups pay attention to what Wall Street [and] VCs like.”
Second, he continues, many startups—particularly those founded by younger entrepreneurs—wish to be mission-driven, or at least positioned as mission (not just profits) driven. “Given the almost universal enthusiasm for pets and heightened recognition of the benefits (including mental and physical health) of pet ownership and of the human-animal bond, pet products and services can readily fit into a mission-driven business narrative.”
Given the economic and political uncertainty of the last several years, Americans did go out and adopt new pets in record numbers at the onset of the pandemic in 2020. “The pandemic was very eye-opening as we realized that no matter what life throws at us, our pets are an unwavering source of support and unconditional love,” says Machado, who has a four-year-old Shi Tzu named Leo.
Of course, COVID-19 intensified attention on health and wellness for humans, and Sprinkle says this extended to “some relatively newfangled concerns such as pet anxiety and stress.”
“It’s not just a coincidence that younger pet owners, who are well aware of the mental health benefits of having pets, are very concerned about their pet’s stress [and] anxiety,” he notes.
Collectively, Americans spent $103.6 billion on their pets in 2020, according to the American Pet Products Association (APPA), and an estimated $109.6 billion in 2021.
Owning a pet doesn’t have to break the budget. Dog owners spent an average of $1,880 per canine in the prior 12 months, according to APPA, covering food, treats, toys, vitamins, grooming, visits to the vet, and dog-walking/kennel services. Cat owners, during the same time frame, spent an average of $902 per feline. Vet bills are typically the most costly segment of the budget to own a pet, and lack of access can be prohibitive to pet ownership for many people.
Joe Spector, cofounder of telehealth provider (for humans) Hims, decided to expand his portfolio into online, virtual pet care with the launch of Dutch. The company facilitates online visits with veterinarians, who can prescribe medication when appropriate and then administer the transfer of that prescription to a pharmacy for home delivery. Dutch membership starts at $15 per month for unlimited video chat access to a veterinarian. The startup recently just completed a Series A round of fundraising.
Spector says his experience with Hims as well as his own personal experiences with pets made him precisely poised to launch Dutch. “I’m an avid pet lover, and as I realized my brother’s anxious dog was being left untreated, I was inspired to create a modern form of veterinary care that was more accessible, affordable, and provided quick, quality care plans,” he explains. “There are so many everyday, non-life threatening ailments that our pets experience that feel less of a priority to treat in the moment, so we often wait until there is a larger issue to take them to the vet for a more in-depth checkup.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has shed a light on the critical challenges facing medical professionals, which includes a growing shortage of qualified veterinary staff and clinicians as a result of burnout and fatigue, creating long wait times and added anxiety for pets and pet parents. This combined with the pandemic pet boom, Spector says, has opened the door to a multitude of new pet-focused business opportunities.
“Now more than ever people are finding strong companionship in their pets and are seeking ways to treat them more like family,” says Spector, who has a one-year-old corgi named Eddie. “We are now more willing to provide our pets with the quality products and services that meet our own standards. As a community obsessed with our animals, we are eager to find new brands that provide our pets with the care they deserve, so there’s lots of opportunity for emerging brands to break into this industry at a time like this.”
The humanization of pets has resulted in new ways to better take care of pets and include them in our families, adds Carol Bramson, founder of Side by Side Pet, which makes all-natural pet food in small batches using whole foods and Eastern Food Therapy (EFT) philosophy. This trend to humanize domesticated animals has manifested heartily in the pet food aisle, now crammed with labels on products you’d see elsewhere in any Whole Foods, terms like grain-free, gluten-free, dairy-free, grass-fed, etc. But it’s present in other hard and soft goods, as well, from puppy strollers to fashionable rain jackets.
“Individuals working from home provided the opportunity to finally include the pet in their household, and the comfort these animals have provided during these challenging times has been rewarding as well,” says Bramson, who has a 7-year-old labradoodle named Wrigley that she adopted in 2015. “Giving back to these furry family members through better food, comfy beds, and new fun toys have all increased demand and the entrepreneurial activity we’ve seen in the space.”
In 2018, she launched Side by Side Pet, named for the way we live with our pets: side by side. With a portfolio of pet food, treats, and supplements, Side by Side Pet creates its products around four factors: a base of real whole foods (no powder substitutes), species-appropriate ingredients (no human fads like pea protein), minimal processing, and personalization (matching the right food to each individual pet to support their health). Some of Side by Side Pet’s products include duck l’orange jerky ($15), freeze-dried beef and salmon patties (up to $41 for a 12-pack), and “belly balance” supplements for digestive support ($24).
As someone focused on healthy living and good nutrition, Bramson says she wanted to be sure her furry family member had the same advantages. “Kibble was recommended to me, and I quickly became concerned. The brown, dried bits did not look like food—it looked more like cardboard,” she recalls.
The cofounders of Pride + Groom spoke to more than 200 dog parents—none of whom had a brand they were in love with, according to Haymes, who has a seven-year-old cavapoo named Penny and a three-year-old standard poodle named Kiki.
“My partners and I are mad pet lovers—between us we have seven dogs and two cats,” says Regina Haymes, also cofounder of Pride + Groom. “When we asked each other, ‘What’s your go-to brand of grooming products?,’ we realized there wasn’t a product line or even a single shampoo any of us loved. That was the a-ha moment, and we decided to create one.”
“Almost every existing product either smelled of chemicals or cotton candy and the ingredients were not very good,” she says. Combining their diverse professional backgrounds—chemical engineering, advertising, marketing and design—the women set out to create the first beauty brand for dogs. “My partner Jane [Wagman] says she was all in when I called her up in August 2019 and said, ‘I know—let’s be the next Vidal Sassoon of dog shampoos!'”
The first thing the team realized, Haymes recalls, is that different breeds have different needs, such as hair versus fur, shedding versus non-shedding, etc. Before Pride + Groom, cofounder Jane Wagman—who has two goldendoodles (Pepper, 9; Schnitzel, 7) and two chihuahuas (Seashell, 13; Waffles, 7)—admits she washed her dogs with the same shampoo she used to wash her own hair.
“That was also before I realized that for so many reasons—from PH balance to undercoats—pets have very different needs from humans and, more importantly, from each other,” Wagman explains. “We want to know exactly what is going into the products that we are grooming, feeding, and treating our pets with. We want to do everything possible to make sure our pets have the best, so they will stay healthy and live longer, better lives.”
On the long-term outlook, analysts like Sprinkle see the ante for pet products and services getting higher and higher, rather than a drastic break from previous decades or generations.
“As time has shown, there were bubble elements to some pet stock valuations at the height of COVID-triggered enthusiasm over the increased centrality of pets in our lives, including pet adoption among younger generations and spikes in pet care spending,” Sprinkle says. “But the pet industry has very robust prospects for years to come. Never bet against dogs, and cats are finally getting more of their due in the U.S. market.”
Dutch’s Spector suggests that what today’s consumers are looking for now that wasn’t necessarily available before is twofold: quality and accessibility. “The pet industry is nothing new, but it’s only in recent years that we’ve really seen the emergence of high-quality pet products and care that we trust and want to provide our pets with,” he explains. “While more pet brands today are aligned with the idea that our pets are loved, valuable members of the family, there are still many brands that are inaccessible to the masses from a price standpoint.”
And it should be noted: quality can have a different meaning for different people, especially when it comes to what they purchase.
“Simply put, we want the same level of luxury for our pets that we afford ourselves,” Wagman says. “Almost every single high-end brand (i.e. Prada, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, and on and on) have extended into pet accessories.” And on a superficial level, she laughs, “It’s just pure fun for me and my chihuahua Seashell to walk down the street in matching faux-fur coats!”
Never miss a story: Follow your favorite topics and authors to get a personalized email with the journalism that matters most to you.