Is It Really An Empty Nest If There's A Pet In It?

While the Great Recession continues to affect almost all consumer categories, one category remains exempt: pets. Annual consumer spending on pets has grown every year since it was first measured in 1996. In 2013, the total number stood at almost $56 billion, and industry experts expect it to approach $60 billion in 2014. 

How does the pet industry keep growing? The American Pet Products Association (APPA) gathers each January at the Global Pet Expo, where it trumpets the growing sales numbers but has not historically explained why those numbers keep growing. But this year they did.

APPA spokesman Curt Vetere said in an interview, "What is feeding a large part of the growth now are the Baby Boomers who have become empty-nesters and are looking for some other ways to find the love and affection they used to get from their kids.”

The pet industry’s accelerated growth began about 20 years ago, just as the oldest Boomers became empty nesters. It may simply reflect that each year since 1996 has brought us another wave of empty nesters, 40- and 50-somethings who often have more discretionary income to spend on their pets than they did on their children. 

Pet Parents, not Owners

Vetere says that owners see their pets as “extensions of their family.” We know that much – in a recent survey, 100% of respondents (all women aged 45-65) said that they considered their pets to be part of their families. And they love them with a corresponding emotional attachment.

I witnessed that attachment when I last wrote about pets and Boomers for this column. One passionate commenter said “If you have a pet and do not consider it family, you should not have a pet.” 

New Products for Pet Parenting 

What products are best meeting the needs of Boomers and their pet-children? 

Monitors. Our own survey said that 14% of pet-owners would buy electronic monitors for their pets, and manufacturers are responding. Products like the Petcube offers high-def pet videos via smartphone or desktop, and Petchatz goes one step further, allowing your pet to see you as well. Boomers are still working, not retiring, and don’t want their pets to get lonely in an empty house. 

Tracking Devices. Invisible fences had a boom in the ’90s but look very 20th century to Boomers who rely on personal technology to solve all their domestic challenges. Fortunately, there are new high-tech tracking devices from companies like Trax GPS trackers for pets, Tagg Tracker, and the RoamEO from PetTronix. Trackers help you see where your pet is at all times, and some even let you customize (and change) your pet’s own invisible “envelope” of space, notifying you if your pet leaves it.

Wearable Technology and the Quantified Pet. FitBit and a number of other products now let Boomers track their every step as they walk, run and CrossFit to stay young. Why not for their pets too? Products like FitBark and the Whistle Activity Monitor let you track your dog’s activity throughout the day, too. 

FitBark even adopts a tagline that might have sounded funny while Boomers were still raising their children: “Be the Best Dog Parent Ever.” Expect the pet industry to keep growing if it keeps appealing to empty nesters who can indulge their love of technology, competitive parenting, and pet-love with more new products every year.

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