Pet owner spending: Are happy days still ahead? (Proceedings)


What is a pet? More importantly why do people choose to become pet owners?

What is a pet? More importantly why do people choose to become pet owners? According to a study in the Journal of Consumer Research there are 6 broad categories to why people own animals:

1. People have them so that they can perceive and relate to them as humans ( their companion, friend or family member)- This is the most common reason

2. Animals as pieces of equipment- serve a function

3. Animals as property for exhibiting, showing- meant to be bought and sold

4. Animals as status symbols

5. Animals as ornaments- aesthetic value

6. Animals as extensions of themselves- objects in their environment

Even if we simply choose the first category- there are huge variations in how the animal is perceived and related too- in other words the relationship that the owner has with the animal impacts their decisions.

Let's now talk about the human animal bond. The AVMA defines the bond as "a mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship between people and animals that is influenced by behaviors that are essential to the health and well-being of both." Still another frequent definition is "the human-animal bond is the relationship between people, animals and their environment." Nowhere does it say that the bond means spending more money. Somehow, we have associated the recent increase in pet spending to an increase in the human animal bond... is that truly a fact or are we jumping to conclusions?

An August 2008 JAVMA article took a look at consumer spending on both pet-related and veterinary services. The findings showed that overall spending on veterinary services for all households increased 97% from 1980-2005. HOWEVER, when you looked at just those households that reported a pet-related expense (either pet supplies, pet services or veterinary services) the veterinary service proportion only increased 33%, the % of all households with a veterinary service expenditure held steady at 10% from 1980-2005 and when households with a pet-related expenditure were evaluated, those purchasing veterinary services decreased over time from 51% to 30.4% in 2005. So, what this basically says is even though veterinary expenses have increased- it is due to less people using more services. There is a growing portion of pet owners that do not use veterinary services.

One other item noted in this study is especially poignant given the current recession- "the apparent overall increasing probability of spending on pets is primarily an income phenomenon." In other words because household income increased significantly so did pet related spending. So, pet owners both wanted to and had the means to spend more on pets... given the current recession- that may no longer be the case.

Now for the good news! Opportunity still exists- there is a growing portion of pet owners that have minimal to no veterinary expenditures. In addition, non-white populations were less likely to spend money on veterinary services so there is a need to expand our efforts in diversity and education.

Also, in a recent Brakke study, a survey of pet owners showed that in 2008 two-thirds of pet owners spent as much on pets in 08 as they had in 07. They also predicted that they will spend as much in 09 if not MORE as they did in 08. An Associate Press survey supports this when it found that 85% of pet owners are NOT cutting back on their pet spending.

So what does this all mean... the reality is that practices will see changes in the coming months/years- changes that were signaled for many months/years ago. In other words- the cloak of just getting by has been pulled aside and financially sound practices will be at an advantage while those that made it month to month will be caught. The end result when this recession ends should be a stronger, more defined, well differentiated and targeted veterinary practice- Will yours be one of them?


Hirschman E. Consumers and their animal companions. J Consu Res 1994; 20;616-632.

Wolf C, Lloyd J , Black JR. An examination of US consumer pet-related and veterinary service expenditures, 1980-2005.

Volk, J. The Economy and Pet Care. Brakke Consulting, Inc. December 2008

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