Splurging on Our Pets, Even in a Recession

Man buying pet toys
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Now and then I run into someone who tells me he’s shocked at how far pet lovers will go for their animal companions. But I’ve never been surprised. I am a lifelong animal lover, married to a lifelong animal lover, and our family has always included animals.

Our pets are family to us, as they are to the majority of Americans.

Of course, as a veterinarian I am always surrounded by pet lovers. Whether I’m in an exam room at the hospital or on the set of Good Morning America, people seek me out to share their love of animals. Opposites attract? Not in this case. We animal lovers are birds of feather; we flock together.

We spend together too: Last year the pet industry topped $50 billion in sales. That’s “billion” with a “B,” and to put this in perspective, the pet industry ranked seventh in the United States, above the jewelry, candy, toy and hardware industries.

That’s a lot of catnip and kibble.

Pet Spending Rolls On

The economy has been struggling for a long time now, and since most Americans have pets, it’s no surprise that many pet lovers have had a hard time making ends meet. We veterinarians see it in our practices, where people sometimes put off wellness care in the hope that their pets will stay healthy. (Not the best choice if you can possibly avoid it, by the way.)

With people struggling financially, it would make sense that the pet industry would be in the doldrums, wouldn’t it? Except that as a whole it isn’t doing that badly at all. That $50 billion? It’s up 5.3 percent over 2010, and predicted to climb another 3.8 percent this year. Those figures are from the American Pet Products Assoc., by the way, the host for Global Pet Expo, a trade show I never miss because it’s a place where I can always count on seeing new products and old friends.

When the economy melted down in the fall of 2008, putting many people out of work and sending their homes into foreclosure, the expectation was that the “recession-proof” pet industry would finally get hammered. In the spring of 2010, at the media conference that’s always part of Global Pet, my friend Bob Vetere, president of the APPA, shared what must have seemed surprising to many: Despite the economy, the pet industry had continued to grow.

He gave the same message in 2011, and again at this year’s show. Next year? He expects to report industry sales of $53 billion. At a time when we all seem to be cutting out what we can and delaying or compromising on what we can’t, how can it possibly be that spending on pets continues to thrive?

Putting a Price on Love

I know why: Because family is the one thing you count on when times are tough. And pets? They’re the only family you have who are always glad to see you.

I’ve spent my whole life observing and celebrating what I call “The Bond,” that incredible connection we have with animals. Study after study confirms the health benefits, both physical and mental, of having pets. They keep us smiling. They keep us moving. They keep us connected.

But why do we spend our hard-earned money on them? Because that makes us happy too.

I know this, too, from personal experience. My wife and I are empty-nesters now, with our son and daughter grown and gone. But our home seems as full as it always has — and not just because our daughter, Vetstreet dog trainer Mikkel Becker, is often visiting with our granddaughter and the “grandpugs.” Our children are gone, but we still share our home with family. These days, though, the family members living in our house are all the four-legged kind.

Teresa and I aren’t big spenders. But there are two things we have a hard time saying no to: Gifts for our granddaughter, and cute things for the pets. The fact that so many of these little indulgences aren’t that expensive? Well, that just makes them easier to rationalize.

So, no, I’m not surprised at all that we’re still spending money on our pets. There’s nothing so recession-proof as love, it seems.

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