A Puppy for Christmas? Becoming 'Pet Parents'

by , Dec 24, 2012, 11:00 AM
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The image occurs in at least one commercial every holiday season: Children come running down the steps on Christmas morning to find that Santa has placed a furry little bundle of joy under the tree. Okay — we’re talking to and about Boomers here, so let’s fast forward a few years or decades.

Although in general, families with children are more likely than households without children to own pets, that scenario is changing. The shift toward childless households reflects the fact that our population is aging, and many Boomers are now empty-nesters, have lost a spouse, or increasingly, have never been married. And those empty nests are, in some cases, being filled with pets. Cats and dogs represent the vast majority of pets owned, but more than a few Boomers have crossed over into fish and bird territory. 

Pets provide great companionship and have been shown to lower blood pressure and heart rate, reduce stress, provide a sense of security, or just make us feel more energized. Simply try to keep up with my cat Fiona for a day, and you’ll see what I mean. The presence of animals has even been shown to speed recovery from surgery, cut down on doctor visits, and even provide lucidity for people suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s. 

About 73 million Americans currently own pets, and 9 in 10 consider themselves to be “pet parents” rather than “pet owners.” As a result, the demand for products and services now extends beyond the basic necessities of food, beds, toys and vet trips. Think gluten-free foods, automatic feeding devices, elective surgery, self-cleaning litter boxes and medical insurance. Spending is projected to top $52 billion next year, and Nielsen reports that Boomer households spend $211 a year on pet food alone, a higher amount than any other group.

Pet ownership has traditionally tended to decline among people as they age, but the industry is one that actually recognizes Boomers’ spending power, and is planning for the time when they may consider (gasp!) giving up their pets due to downsizing, medical issues or decreased incomes. But that industry also reported sales growing from 2007-12, despite a messy economy, thanks in part to Boomers’ belief that the basics at least, and often more, are nonnegotiable. That could explain why sales of pet services grew at a faster pace than other market segments in those same five years. So where are the future opportunities? The answers might surprise you.

The legal profession: This goes beyond leaving a fortune to Leona’s Maltese. Legal experts report that pet contingencies are becoming more commonplace in wills, including money set aside or even monthly stipends for persons who take them in.

The travel industry: More than half of older Americans surveyed prefer to bring their pets with them when they travel and, today, the choice is no longer limited to the kennel or cargo hold. We’ve all heard of pet-friendly hotels, but now, many airlines allow smaller pets to fly with their owners in the cabin. Cruise line amenities now range from sod boxes on the balcony to onboard pet-specific programs. 

Adoption and rescue services: Aging Boomers may not want the work or drama associated with a new puppy, so taking in an older rescue could become an increasingly attractive option -- good news for the ASPCA and those looking for a good cause to support.

Restaurants: Although we’re not as advanced as the Europeans, many restaurants are offering pet-friendly outdoor “pooch patios” and even pet-oriented menus.

Retirement living: This market segment saw the benefits of therapy animals years ago, but more retirement communities are allowing new residents to bring their pets along with them, even in the healthcare levels. In a recent study, some potential residents purposefully remained on a waiting list until a pet-friendly unit became open. 

The (pet) medical profession: Veterinary services generate about $12 billion annually, and owners are now using advanced services such as preventive dentistry and intensive care. New technologies and medical advancements will allow vets to offer even better care in the future. 

The (human) medical profession: A negative one, but a reality. The Centers for Disease Control estimates there are almost 87,000 falling injuries each year related to cats and dogs.

Technology: Electronic tracking and training devices, automated feeders. Astro’s treadmill is no longer science fiction.

Retailers: PetSmart credits Boomer customers for an uptick in business, noting that they appreciate the large selection and opportunity to learn online and in person. The retailer has also seen success with exclusive partnerships and unique product lines, including Martha Stewart Pets, Bret Michaels Pets Rock, and Toys’R’Us Pets. 

Programs such as rewards cards and online contests might be effective tools in sustaining frequency of service, especially among older pet owners. Whatever the product or service, it’s important to play up the strong family bond between owners and pets and leverage the emotional connection. In the meantime, Fiona and I have some post-holiday shopping to do.

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