Dog Ownership During a Recession

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Sadly, with spring turning into summer, it seems our world has entered a recession…again. Though the White House stubbornly refuses to admit it and goes to great lengths to avoid the use of that word, the truth is the economy is struggling. Inflation is crippling individuals and families in the United States, and many people are faced with making some very difficult decisions in the belt tightening process. In times of recession, luxuries go out the window as families struggle to afford the basic necessities to ensure survival. For those who share their homes with a dog or those wishing to add a pooch to their household, how does a recession affect dog ownership? 

How Does a Recession Impact Owner Surrenders, Adoption, and Euthanasia Statistics?

Sadly, when a country experiences a recession, it has an effect on every area of its people’s lives. Several studies were undertaken in Chicago between the years 2000-2007 and 2008-2010 to try to analyze economic trends and their impact on pet ownership. The results were rather surprising. Even when expendable income was dramatically lowered, families that shared their home with pets showed no interest in surrendering their pets to a shelter even if sacrifice was required to continue to provide for their needs. However, one area did see an increase in relinquishments: elderly dogs. Sadly, the study concluded that the reason for the more frequent surrendering of senior dogs could be attributed to the owner’s inability to provide the care an elderly canine requires.

Though owners were largely uninterested in surrendering their pets when times got tough for them financially, poor economic conditions had a large impact on the number of animals adopted from shelters. With fewer people able to afford an adoption fee let alone the ongoing care of a new pet, more and more healthy pets were being euthanized since shelters were overcrowded and space for new intakes was at a premium.

Does a Recession Affect the Pet Retail Sector?

The pandemic caused by COVID-19 left many business sectors reeling and desperate to survive. Though some people found themselves with time on their hands and stimulus money to spare, many others were on the brink of losing their homes and struggling to scrape together the money for groceries for their families. When times are tough, are pet stores and pet care providers affected by the financial crunch?

Though in person shopping was often impossible during the pandemic, one area where business was booming for pet-related businesses is online sales. Why is this?

There are several reasons why pet care businesses continued to thrive when other industries suffered greatly as the result of the pandemic and subsequent recession. These include: 

  • The pet care industry is considered to be recession proof.

In recent years, the interest in pet-related products has soared with the pet industry predicted to rake in $281 billion by the year 2023. For the last 30 years, pet-related businesses have continued to grow and enjoy increased profitability year after year. Since people now view their pets as family, they are now far more willing to spend substantial amounts of money on items that provide their animals joy and ensure their continued health and wellness. According to a recent study by Nielsen, the amount of many families spent on pet food between 2007 and 2017 increased a hefty 36 percent.

Both 2001 and 2008 saw recessionary periods. Surprisingly, spending on pet-related products increased by 7 and 5 percent.

  • Pets provide comfort at a difficult time.

Many pet owners feel a dog is not a luxury but a necessity because of the boost the animal provides for their emotional health. Pets are a continuous source of friendship, support, and encouragement in a difficult time. Research shows that time spent with a pet offers health benefits including lowered blood pressure, cortisol, and stress levels and increased oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine to promote better relaxation.

Forced to stay at home during the pandemic, owning a pet was the ideal solution to those suffering from social deprivation. Since many people were now working from home, it now became a viable option to adopt or purchase a pet since it was easy to provide for an animal’s physical needs since long working hours outside the home were no longer an issue. Shelters reported their adoption rates soared by more than 110% over previous years and fostering experienced an incline of over 197%. Some New York City rescue groups and shelters reported their agencies now received an influx of applications resulting in a 1000% increase.

  • Pet care is a necessity.

Pet owners understand that a commitment to own a pet is also a commitment to providing the care that they need. As the number of pet owners began to rise, so too did the interest in pet-related products including toys, treats, veterinary care, and pet accessories. In 2019, the online sale of pet items increased by 11.3%. In addition to this, the lack of ability to connect with a veterinarian in an office setting due to COVID-19 restrictions meant that many pet owners made frequent use of telehealth and Facetime services.

At the beginning of 2020, some telehealth professionals reported an increase of 78 percent in their membership services and 174% in telemedicine orders. Web traffic also saw a dramatic incline at 1053% as many pet owners increasingly relied on the internet for advice regarding training and basic health and grooming care.

What Makes Pet-Related Businesses Recession Proof?

Traditionally speaking, industries considered to be recession proof make or sell items the public at large cannot or will not live without. In the past, businesses that were labelled as recession proof provided such products and services as:

  • Electricity/power
  • Toilet paper
  • Food
  • Internet services
  • Telephone
  • Water supply

In recent years, pet care has also taken pride of place on this list of what people now consider to be absolute necessities. With pet ownership on the incline and pet spending on a sharp and consistent upturn, it is obvious that the pet care industry can now be called recession proof. In fact, research shows that people spend more money on their family pets during times of economic recession. 

Statistics show that approximately 85 million Americans share their homes with a pet, equating to 68% of all homes in the United States today. It is interesting to note that this number increases approximately two percentage points each year with the first recorded incline taking place in 2011. Though pet ownership is rising on a slow trajectory each year, pet spending is occurring at a more rapid rate with research indicating that pet product purchases increase by 7% annually.

Another pet-related area that is on the incline is the amount of money pet owners are now willing to spend on veterinary care. Between the years of 1991 and 2015, spending on veterinary care rose from $4.9 billion to $35 billion.

During the recessions seen in 2001 and 2008-2009, spending on pet care and products increased by 29% and 17% respectively. What is clear is that when other industries are experiencing declining and lackluster sales during a recession, pet-care companies are still raking in cash hand over fist. 

What Area of Pet Care is Seeing the Most Economic Growth?

Experts estimate that the average dog owners spends approximately $1000 a year on their best canine pal. With pet spending increasing each year since 1994 and seeing an increase of 4.6% annually for the last 10 years, it is easy to see that pet owners are prepared to continue to spend their hard-earned money on their dogs even when times are tough.

One of the main areas where spending is at an all-time high is pet food. Though owners may resort to buying no-name brands and skipping on frivolous extras for themselves, research shows they have no intention of subjecting Fido to any fiduciary cutbacks.

The latest statistics show these results when it comes to pet spending during a recession:

  • 6% of owners buy fewer dog treats
  • 4% of owners switched to a cheaper brand of food
  • 3% have cut back on veterinary visits

By comparison, these same pet owners display the following results when it comes to their spending habits on themselves during a recession:

  • 36% of people eat out less frequently
  • 25% of people buy fewer clothes
  • 24% of people reduce or eliminate vacations
  • 20% of people spend decrease spending for entertainment
  • 16% of people spend less on groceries
  • 15% of people walk more to reduce gasoline costs
  • 12% of people keep their homes at a lower temperature to reduce power bills

Some doctors credit the social exchange theory with these statistics. The theory purports that in social situations, each individual involved will try to maximize the positives and minimize the negatives. During a recession, pet owners tend to focus on the benefits they gain from their pet and the rewards accrued from providing them with exceptional care. By maintaining this mindset, they are able to minimize the additional expenses and prioritize their pet’s needs above their own.

Generally speaking, the pet food market has seen an increase of 1-2% during the pandemic years. Dry food continues to be the most popular type of nourishment for dogs. The largest sales increase was seen in cat treats which experienced an upward surge of 24% in 2011.

Not surprisingly, another area that has seen a dramatic increase is the pet medication sector with sales more than double of that seen any other pet-related industry. Bringing in approximately $15 billion annually, it is easy to see that the pet medication industry is not going to suffer any financial losses. After all, families may be able to go without a bag of their favorite chips or center their meals around hot dogs instead of chicken and steak, their pets cannot do without the medication they require.

Are There Any Negative Effects Felt in the Pet Care Industry as a Result of the Recession?

Sadly, not all pet-related industries are exempt from the negative effects associated with a recession. Shelters and rescue groups are bursting at the seams with little to no room for intakes. Every type of animal from dogs, cats, gerbils, and hamsters to birds, chameleons, rabbits, ferrets, and snakes are being surrendered to animal welfare groups on an almost daily basis. The most common reason owners state for relinquishing their pets is their inability to afford the care their pet deserves.

As money becomes tighter in my homes, neglect cases are also increasing. This has a dramatic impact not only on rescue efforts but also on available veterinary care as both agencies must pass on helping healthy animals to assist with true emergencies. Some owners, out of options, simply abandon their pets entirely, sometimes taking them to their veterinary clinic and never returning for them. Others may leave them in repossessed homes or to fend for themselves on the street.

Sadly, the year 2011 saw the highest number of stray or abandoned dongs with 20 dogs each day being euthanized as a result of lack of space in shelters and rescues. Other rescue efforts report a rise of 56% in dogs surrendered to their care because their owners have lost their homes. Many families who have been forced from their homes into rental units are often required to leave behind their pets when their new home has a no pets policy.

At a time when rescue agencies need funds more than ever, donations have dropped to an all-time low.

pet ownership during a recession

Other reasons cited for dog surrenders or abandonment include:

  • Working longer hours than usual
  • Destructive and noisy dog behavior due to isolation
  • Rising costs associated with vet bills

In addition to these recession-related problems, some owners are unable to afford the fees to have their pets spayed or neutered. If working long hours and unable to provide appropriate containment and supervision, their dogs may become pregnant, perpetuating the problem of too many unwanted pets.

With pet owners now returning to work with the easing of pandemic restrictions, dogs are now being introduced into social situations that they are ill prepared for. As a result, many of these pets suffer from issues such as anxiety and reactivity. With money tighter than ever before, owners often cannot afford the services of a trainer to work their dog through these issues, and instead, simply surrender their pet to a shelter.

But it is not just dogs and cats that have been negatively impacted by the recession and its accompanying cutbacks. Horse rescue agencies are also alarmed by the dramatic increase in horses and ponies that are being abandoned. In 2009, approximately 160 horses were stray or abandoned, a number that increased to 241 in 2010. In one particularly sad case, a four-month-old horse was left to die with a grave lying next to him, so that when he passed away from starvation, he could be shoved into it. No effort was made to find help for the horse; instead, his owners simply and cruelly waited for nature to take its course.

Some landlords have found themselves on the receiving end of a troublesome problem when their tenants move out and leave behind their exotic pets. Among the exotics some landlords have had to retrieve are tarantulas, turtles, and snakes.

With the economy on the sharp decline, many Americans are finding themselves unable to pay the mortgage or rent on their homes. Unfortunately, some people are forced to live in their cars, on the street, or in hotels until their financial circumstances improve. In many cases, they are not permitted to bring their beloved pets with them and are forced to make the difficult decision to rehome their pets, surrender them to a shelter, or simply leave them behind. Pet abandonment is illegal in the United States, and many different organizations are working together to try to find a solution that helps people that are down on their luck to find a place to stay that will allow them to bring their pets with them.

How is the Recession Affecting Veterinarians?

During the pandemic, veterinarians were sorely overworked, and resources were difficult to obtain, leading to an increase in their stress levels and intense fatigue and burnout amongst veterinary personnel. They noted that in order to make ends meet, many pet owners made the decision to reduce annual vaccinations and to cease preventative care for their pets. 

Veterinary clinics reported a decline in visits by their patients. The least costly treatments were selected over more effective, and more expensive, treatments, and diagnostic testing and non-essential services were simply unaffordable for many people.

In addition to this, the increase in owner surrenders and the lack of space at shelters has led to a substantial increase in euthanizations of healthy animals. In 2008, a shelter in Albuquerque saw an increase of 400% in the number of animals brought into their care. With expendable income at an all-time low and many families focus’ firmly fixed on necessities and survival, there is a surplus of healthy dogs and a dearth of available homes, leading to high euthanasia rates.

Does dog ownership change during a recession? Yes…and no. Many dog owners prefer to cut back on their own luxuries and weather some inconveniences to continue to provide the best they can for Fido. However, for many families, caring for a pet during an economic recession means giving up the very things they need to survive, an unaffordable and heartbreaking problem for them.

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