In Pets We Invest: Household spending rises in NNY

Photo provided by SUNY CANTON

BY: Marc Heller
When Dr. Stacy Kenyon, a veterinarian in Lowville, noticed dogs showing up in the north country from places ravaged by hurricanes in the past few years, she knew the pet industry in the region was changing in a big way.

                “It’s amazing how much geography is getting to be less of a barrier,” said Kenyon, who’s also seeing more pets coming from small kill shelters in states as far away as Texas, as north country pet adoptions increasingly come from outside the region.

                The signs Dr. Kenyon has noticed are no coincidence. The pet industry in Northern New York, like the rest of the country, is booming thanks to technology that makes long-distance adoptions easier. Millennials are also driving the trend, industry sources say, as they’re more inclined to want pets and came of age with the online tools that connect more owners with potential companions.

                Pets are big business, too. In Watertown, pet owners spend about $850 a year on them, according to advertising researchers. That’s about in line with national averages, although expenses vary from region to region. Nationally, people spend tens of billions of dollars a year on pets, and those numbers have grown every year since at least 1994, according to the American Pet Products Association’s National Pet Owners Survey.

                “I think it’s a very strong industry in this area. We see increases each year in our number of clients,” Dr. Kenyon said. She’s part of a team of 16 full-time vets with Countryside Veterinary Clinic, which practices both large animal and companion animal medicine, and provides grooming services. With a total staff of 63, the practice is one of the larger employers in the area, staffing offices in Carthage, Boonville and Otter Lake as well as Lowville.

                Dr. Kenyon said the practice is seeing more clients who’ve acquired pets through shelters, although the vets work with breeders as well. From every source, she said, social media is growing as the way pet owners connect with adoptions.

                That’s in keeping with national trends. The Pet Owners Survey showed that a third of pet owners learned from the Internet about the dog they eventually bought, a figure that the association said continues to climb. The number was lower for cat owners, 19 percent. Word-of-mouth is still the top method of connecting adopters with pets, accounting of for 46 of dog acquisitions and about the same for cats, the association said.

                The survey has become an annual yardstick for the industry, often cited in national pet industry publications. Americans were projected to spend around $72 billion on pets in 2018, with expenses such as vets, boarding and food leading the way. Spending was $69.5 billion in 2017 and $66.8 billion a year earlier, the association said. A decade ago, spending was just $45.5 billion.

                The pet care market could grow to $202.6 billion by 2025, according to Grand View Market Research Inc.

                The number of homes owning pets has gone up, with 60.2 million owning dogs in 2017-2018 and 47.1 million owning cats, according to the annual pet survey. But freshwater fish outnumber them by far, given that owners typically have plenty of them; the association estimated the number of freshwater fish pets at 139.3 million.

                Urban states tend to have less pet ownership; only about half of New York households own a pet, according the U.S. Census Bureau, while states like Wyoming have higher rates of ownership. Still, New York City is home to at least 1.1 million pets, including 600,000 dogs and 500,000 cats, city officials reported.

                Industry players need to keep track of generational trends like use of social media, said Robert L. Vetere, president and chief executive officer of the American Pet Products Association, in a news release on the 2017-2018 survey’s findings.

                “It’s critical that the pet industry pay close attention to trends in pet ownership by generation as the Millennial generation continues to grow as does their buying power,” Vetere said. “We recognize, as do many industries, that Millennials continue to surpass Baby Boomers in numbers and isn’t a generation we should ignore. The goal of this report is to help the pet industry understand where the buying power is, and how to best capitalize.”

                In Watertown, the Jefferson County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has made more use of social media, and that’s helping boost adoptions, said Director Heather Spezzano. She said the SPCA’s shelter has seen adoptions double in the year and a half since she took over, totaling around 150 a month. Small dog breeds are especially in demand, she said, often staying in the shelter no more than an hour or so. Another shift she’s seen: people aren’t as inclined to adopt from pet stores, given the publicity around puppy mills that sometimes supply them. New York state also recently barred the leasing of pets, a costly practice that officials said occurred fairly frequently through pet-store chains.

                “Adopting from a rescue has become more popular and accepted in the main stream and people are staying clear of puppy stores because they are more educated on the behind the scenes and what sometimes goes on with the care of these animals,” Spezzano said.

                Web sites do more than link adopters with pets. Increasingly, industry sources say, pet owners are buying food and other supplies online, putting pressure on brick-and-mortar pet stores. The sharing economy is at play, too, with Web sites such as rover.com — owned by A Place for Rover Inc. — helping pet owners find sitters and walkers. There’s a dating app, digdates.com, that links pet owners for possible romance of their own.

                Dog-walking services aren’t as big a business in the north country as in some places, but sitting services are popular, Spezzano said.

                Another trend that hasn’t caught on as much in the north country is pet health insurance, Dr.  Kenyon said.

                Policies often don’t cover routine care, focusing instead on catastrophic coverage of procedures like emergency surgery, Dr. Kenyon said. And if polices do cover routine procedures and wellness, in rural areas the premiums may be more than the cost of going to the vet. The APPA’s annual pet survey reported that pet health insurance policies cost anywhere from $250 to $499 a year, and around 10 percent of dog owners buy them.

                “They really have to choose wisely,” Dr. Kenyon said.

                That might change over time, if industry trends continue. The market research firm Packaged Facts said pet insurance is growing fast and that the business can still make progress in convincing consumers the cost is worth the benefits. The firm estimated the pet insurance industry at slightly more than $1 billion in 2017 and forecast it could nearly double by 2022. That’s according to its report Pet Insurance in the U.S., released last October.

                One growth area, Dr. Kenyon said, could be training and education for pet owners. With more people adopting animals, she said, the region could use more expertise, so that young families that are first-time pet owners have a better idea of what they’re getting into.

                As pet shelters grow, so do their financial needs. The Jefferson County SPCA doesn’t receive any government support, relying mainly on donations and fundraising drives, Spezzano said. Adoption fees barely cover the costs of animals’ medical needs.  Medical and vet supplies are the SPCA’s number one cost — and reflect a top financial need — as the center performs around 1,400 surgeries a year. The spay and neutering program helps control the pet population — stray dogs are a relatively rare sight, she said — and the center tries to keep a hold on the potential explosive population of feral and stray cats.

                Stray cats, Spezzano said, will take major funding and community support to combat through trapping, neutering and releasing, or rescuing for potential pets. The shelter has boosted its program, going from three or four such procedures a week to as many as 30 per day.

                “We are talking thousands of stray and feral cats all over the north country continuing to breed and reproduce over and over again,” Spezzano said, far overwhelming any effort to find some of the strays homes. The SPCA continues its programs in hope of decreasing unwanted, stray cat in the next 10 to 20 years, she said. “The numbers are mind-blowing.”