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Paws, Products and Pet Care—The Rise of Pets In the Family Hierarchy

Fletch, my adorable boxer-pit mix, enjoys as many privileges as the rest of my family these days. He sits on the couch, sleeps in my bed, eats a special diet and is even an integral part of our family photos. It’s hard to believe that pets once played a smaller role in our lives than they do today. Mere decades ago the family dog was more likely to be relegated to a one-room miniature cabin in the yard than firmly planted between my husband and I on the couch—but times have changed.

From status symbols, to functional companions, to man’s best friend, to furry family members—pets are climbing their way to the top of the household hierarchy as fast as they’re warming our hearts. Our emotional attachments to our pets have never been stronger, and as we’re opening our homes to furry companions, we’re also opening our wallets.

The cultivation of our fascination with animals as pets isn’t new—it dates back to the early 1800s, when pets became status symbols, especially in the European upper class. As time wore on, companion animals began to appear in the homes of middle- and lower-class households as pets filled functional roles—hunting dogs put food on the table and cats kept the mice at bay.

The global pet-care industry has seen unprecedented growth in scale and complexity over the past 20 years. According to the American Pet Products Manufacturing Association, 63 percent of U.S. homes own a pet. Of these pet-harboring households, 75 percent view their canine companions as a part of their family, including mine.

It’s these strong emotional connections that have bolstered the pet-care industry, turning it into a business that is nearly recession proof. In 2012 alone, Americans are expected to spend more than $52 billion on pet care. For a little perspective, that’s more than the average American household spends on movies, music and video games … combined.

Growing up, my beloved childhood dog Duchess was definitely a vital part of the family—but she was a dog. She ate and drank from bowls that were on the floor, and wasn’t allowed on the furniture. To Duchess, life was pretty great and uncomplicated. As I compare my interactions with my current dog Fletch, the changing dynamic between man and man’s best friend is evident. Fletch is allowed on the furniture (as long as he’s on his designated blanket), he eats from bowls that are elevated off the floor (for better digestion) and many nights he forsakes his doggie bed for mine.

So how did this happen? When did we collectively, as a society, decide dogs belonged in our beds, not on the floor? Or prior to that, in our homes, not in our yards?

Our enthusiasm for our furry friends has brought about a humanization trend within the pet-care industry. Coupled with advancements in technology, medicine and education, the value of pets within our families has continued to skyrocket.

Lifestyle changes have also dramatically influenced pet product innovation and consumer trends. For example, if Fletch is going to snuggle into bed with me, I’m definitely going to spring for top-of-the-line flea medication. I also find myself forking over a little more money for high-quality kibble, to ensure he’s eating a balanced diet so he may live a long and healthy life.

As the trend in declining birth rates continues, humans are increasingly fulfilling their desire for human children with furry dependents instead. Coupled with the rise of social networking and longer work hours limiting time for face-to-face interactions with our human counterparts, the need for the companionship of pets has become even more acute.

It helps that studies continue to tout the health benefits of pet ownership. According to the CDC, pets lower our blood pressure, fight depression, prevent heart diseases and reduce stress. Our pets increase our opportunity for exercise and getting outdoors. I take Fletch on walks every day just to squeeze in an extra hour of cardio—for the both of us. It’s really no wonder pet ownership is at an all-time global high; our beloved pets bring out the best in us. The generation of baby boomers has made way for a generation of pet boomers who are prepared to foot the bill.

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