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Why Millennials Are Doing Pet Care Differently

Why Millennials Are Doing Pet Care Differently

Jed Oelbaum

Original art by Geraldine Sy. 

Original art by Geraldine Sy. 

To hear the media tell it, millennials are killing everything from beer to diamonds to Applebee’s. Still, millennials can be proud that even amid this mercantile murder spree, at least they’re not killing their pets: Dogs and cats are living longer than ever, buoyed by an unstoppable, near-$70 billion animal care market that is increasingly focused on the lifestyles of younger pet owners.

“Only a few years ago, the word on millennials was ‘they're not going to buy homes, they're unemployed, unmotivated, they sleep in their parents’ basements,’” says Nathaniel Richter, partner at Wakefield Research, which does pet-industry analysis.

People in the pet care business worried that young people “weren’t really living lifestyles conducive to the sustained commitment of a pet,” he tells me during a phone call.

But Richter’s own research shows that something more complicated is happening with millennial pet owners. While his findings confirm some assumptions about millennials—they’re making less money than their parents and grandparents did at those ages, settling down with families later in life, and spending more time in digital spaces—he found that the industry assumption that cash-strapped millennials would be reluctant to shell out for pet care products was “completely wrong.”

Baby boomers, who have and spend more money, might still dominate the economy. But the younger demographic now controls the pet supply: Millennials own more pets than any other generation, and they’re on track to finally surpass boomers in both population and soon, pet spending. (Is it any surprise critter-loving millennials rejected Donald Trump, a man who remains shamefully petless seven months into his presidency?) Richter says compared to previous generations, “millennials are just more sophisticated consumers. And that’s—to use a technical term—really cool.”

Reid Robinson, a 26-year-old who works in social media management in Vancouver, B.C., tells me he’s grateful that his employer allows him to bring his tricolor corgi, Oshie, into the office. It’s been a “big benefit” to him and his fiancée, he tells me by phone as he walks Oshie, saving them the effort and money they used to spend on daycare for the dog. Robinson says that unlike his parents, who fed his childhood dog whatever conventional pet food was easiest, he makes 2-year-old Oshie a blend of chicken and long-grain brown rice, which he freezes in batches and thaws to mix with her Science Diet kibble. “Our parents are always surprised by the lengths we go to take care of Oshie,” says Robinson. “Especially making the food, and the fact that we put her in daycare.”

Ana, Reid, and Oshie. Via Reid Robinson.

Ana, Reid, and Oshie. Via Reid Robinson.

While the tendency to coddle or humanize domestic animals has been picking up steam for generations, millennials are specifically choosing pet products that align with their political and social values, mirroring their spending habits across the board.

For some, like Robinson, this might mean cooking up their own pet food. For the less industrious, there’s been a boom in small businesses hawking cleaner, greener, healthier stuff. Virginia-based Barkworthies makes dog treats from “free-range, grass-fed beef,” and uses human food waste in its products. Honest Kitchen produces “human grade” selections, offering just-add-water mixes and “minimalist foods,” which have simple, identifiable ingredients that mimic humans’ clean-eating craze. California business Just Food For Dogs operates nine swanky retail emporiums, selling—you guessed it—canine chow in custom formulations, raw foods, and other high-grade options for your pup. And it’s not just specialty purveyors, either; earlier this year, Nutritional Outlook wrote that between 2015 and 2016, more than half of all U.S. pet food launches used natural or “no additives/preservatives” claims. In 2016, “natural” pet food—a category that tends to lump together preservative-free, organic, and eco-friendly options—generated more than $8 billion in sales, and now accounts for a full quarter of American pet food profits.

The millennial move to natural and environmentally friendly products covers more than just food. Green kitty litters are gaining ground, along with toys, leashes, and collars made from recycled materials—like Cycle Dog’s repurposed bike-tire products, or West Paw Design’s toys, which incorporate materials like IntelliLoft, an “exclusive eco-fiber” made from recycled plastic. Ben Riggan, a managing partner at Paw Pods, which makes environmentally friendly pet burial products, says that most of the customers that purchase Paw Pods’ eco-friendly pods, urns, and casks are between 23 and 45 years old. “As millennials ourselves, we feel a duty to do what’s best for the environment, our pets, and the nation as a whole,” he says in an email.

“In a recent real estate survey, one-third of millennial first-time homebuyers cited their pooch as a major incentive for their purchase, surpassing children and marriage as a motivator.”

Richter, who’s been studying the pet business for over a decade and has presented research on generational changes in the market to industry leaders, says that despite having less money overall, millennials are more likely than boomers to spend on pet products that are hypoallergenic, made with organic or natural materials, or BPA-free. They’re most interested in toys and foods that are “good for their [pet’s] health and development,” Richter tells me. “It’s much closer to how young parents approach raising children.”

Robinson says he and his fiancée, Ana, spent six years talking about getting a dog before they had enough disposable income and a work-life balance that allowed for Oshie. Once they felt ready, they bought pet health insurance and opened a savings account at their bank they titled “Oshie saving fund.” Robinson says that in the past, they’ve rented from landlords that disallowed pets, and one of the reasons the couple decided to buy their current apartment was their desire to have a dog.

In fact, in a recent real estate survey, one-third of millennial first-time homebuyers cited their pooch as a major incentive for their purchase, surpassing children and marriage as a motivator. Wakefield Research found that more than three-quarters of both baby boomers and millennials agree that their pet is a part of their family.  But way more millennials—82 percent, compared to 59 percent of boomers—see their pets as part of preparing to have a family in the future.

Robinson says he’s aware of “the thing where millennials have pets as a replacement, because we’re having kids later.” Though, he says wryly, it hasn’t worked out that way for him: “I would say that ever since having a dog I actually have less interest in having a human baby. If I have problems leaving [Oshie] alone, I'm going to be screwed if I have a child.” 

Millennials’ much-hyped delayed adulthood has been analyzed ad nauseam, but it’s hard to escape the base economic factors—like say, unprecedented levels of student debt, a gig economy that demands more hours for less money, and the prospect of never ever retiring—that undergird the challenge of buying homes and starting families. So let’s say you’re a millennial professional, just now establishing yourself financially—what do you do when you’re at work all the time, and your pet is your for-now baby? Maybe you do slightly indulgent, emotionally fulfilling stuff, like using a doggy daycare so your pup doesn’t get sad. Or you find new ways to spend quality time with your animal buddy, like sitting down to eat meals with your pets—Richter’s research found that more than half of millennial owners think it’s important to dine with, or at least alongside their animals.

Paw Pods’ eco-friendly pods, urns, and casks. Image courtesy of Paw Pods

Paw Pods’ eco-friendly pods, urns, and casks. Image courtesy of Paw Pods

My friend Ben Pasternack, who is 27 and works at Manhattan College, regularly eats with his pets. “I feed my cats when I eat, because I like to sit with them, they're my little babies,” says Ben of Bodie and Richard, whom he’s had since they were kittens. He says he enjoys when “we're all the doing the same thing at the same time.” 

Scheduling mealtimes to include one’s kit or pupper reflects a “much bigger dynamic with millennials that leads them to plan more of their social activities around pets” says Richter. “They do things like taking their pets more places, and that pet is part of who they are.” This is probably why in the Wakefield Research survey, about twice as many millennials as boomers said they preferred a “portable” pet.

Last year, the Society of Human Resource Management estimated that 7 percent of employers welcome animals into the workplace. And restaurants, hotels, and parks are also taking notice, competing for who can pull in the most pet-codependent folks: Austin, Texas—a city with a particularly fast-growing millennial population—boasted 265 dog-friendly bars and eateries in 2016. More and more dining establishments feature special menus for diners’ animal companions. You can get pumped with your puggle at doggy-and-me gyms, take your terrier to a pet-friendly laundromat, and—in any city worth its salt—get drunk with your dachshund in a variety of dives and watering holes. Special getaways offer spa treatments, gourmet vittles, and leisure activities for both pooches and people. According to one U.K. writer, the dog menu at one of these retreats included chicken casserole with rice, carrots, broccoli, and wild oats; poached salmon fillets; and liver cakes, all served on a silver platter. A Yorkshire resort offers guests a special canine photo shoot with an award-winning “phodographer.”

Richter says that social media offers a context that, in a way, brings the threads of millennial pet ownership together. Interacting with friends and family through Instagram posts and Facebook updates lends an element of performance to young people’s lives, providing social reinforcement for behavior like involving pets in meals or outings.

I happen to meet Nora walking a tortoiseshell cat in a halter outside a Chinatown park in New York. She declines to give me her last name, but says she recently graduated from college and has been walking her cat outside for a few months, hoping it can eventually “go everywhere” with her. But, she admits, she also likes taking the cat out because it’s “weird,” and provides good photos to share with her friends of the brave kitty against a gritty downtown backdrop.

“At the risk of generalizing,” Richter says, “in that context, what you buy for the pet takes on greater meaning, because in theory, the suitability of your purchases will be observed by others. And that could just be something silly, like buying your pet a sweater, and getting the positive social feedback.” Accordingly, digitally savvy animal owners can purchase basically every type of human clothing, from baseball hats, to all-terrain hiking boots, to sweater dresses, aptly outfitting their furry friends for maximum “awwww” from their friends and followers online. Pet Halloween costumes alone have reportedly generated hundreds of millions in sales in recent years.

Naturally, there's a whole line of pet "Star Wars" costumes. Via Halloweencostumes.com.

Naturally, there's a whole line of pet "Star Wars" costumes. Via Halloweencostumes.com.

A few years ago, pet brands didn’t necessarily understand why consumers with less money might actually be spending more on their pets, says Richter—and “for the Facebook likes” probably wouldn’t have cut it as an explanation. Against a media-painted picture of millennials as lazy, avocado-scarfing narcissists, Richter says it was a challenge to reassure the pet care industry that younger consumers just “think differently about what is essential.” Their “greater understanding of the products, of what goes into the product, turns something that seems irrational to a boomer … and really makes it a rational choice.”

Consider Oshie’s diet—which seems odd to Robinson’s parents—her pet health insurance, her savings account. “I saw what happened to my childhood dog later in his life,” says Robinson. “It had surgeries that cost six or seven thousand dollars. And if you don't have that saved, if you don't have an [insurance] policy that's going to cover you, that is a pretty ridiculous [cost].” He says veterinarians have told him investing in better food can prevent health problems for corgis later down the road. “A slipped disc surgery can run you $7,000. ... If we can avoid that by giving her better food, it's much preferred.”

Richter tells me that though young people still face long-term economic questions, millennial consumers have made important financial gains over the last few years. Through the generation’s slowly shifting fortunes, he says, millennials are holding on to their ideals about pet ownership. “There was a suggestion that this was just people being young, and just having idealist opinions,” he says. In fact, his firm’s continued surveys show “they still feel the same way now that they did three years ago.” If anything, his research shows “boomers have begun to think more like millennials” in their purchasing decisions, sharing professional photos of their pup online, scrutinizing ingredients lists on the kibbles they buy, and taking their pets to work.

Robinson tells me later by email that Ana’s father laughed when he first heard about the work that goes into Oshie’s upkeep. But now, he says, her dad—who often minds the corgi when the couple can’t—makes his own homemade chow for Oshie’s visits. “His version has a much higher chicken-to-rice ratio,” says Robinson. “He takes pride in the fact that Oshie eats his food very quickly.”

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