All in the Family

Pet Product and service novelties of the recent past are now part of the fully fledged pet humanization trend 


It’s not that long ago when a spa day for your cat that included a moisturizing bath, massage and peticure, or, a dinner of New Zealand venison served in a stylish raised bowl to a dog wearing a tuxedo,were simply labeled gimmicks. Now, this imagery is simply a reflection of family life in many homes with pets across America.


The keyword is family. According to various pet-related surveys recently commissioned and published by such diverse sources as business strategists to pet-manufacturing companies like Hartz Mountain Corporation and Del Monte Foods, the majority of pet owners in this country now call themselves “pet parents”.


Consequently, many dogs and cats have lifestyles that mirror their pet parents’ own health and wellbeing ideals. Thus, the “gimmicks” have morphed into a fully-fledged trend aptly labeled “pet humanization”.


“Pet humanization was an almost inevitable reaction to our times,” said Michael Schaeffer author of the book One Nation Under Dog, a well-researched look at our love affair with our pets. “A century ago, domestic dogs and cats were kept for economic reasons as guard dogs or rat catchers. Now, most people keep pets for love. So we apply the same instincts to caring and nurturing them as we do for our kids. And, since the way we nurture kids has changed a bit — we go for more natural food and less punishing education, we work longer hours and thus rely more on daycare — so has the way we nurture our pets.”


For the past 15 years, the American Pet Products Association headquartered in Greenwich, CT has been documenting every paw print made by the pet industry. Its National Pet Owners Survey highlights exactly how pet owners spend their dollars.


“ I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say pet humanization is evident in every category of the market place,” concurred APPA’s president and top dog, Bob Vetere. “And it’s directly responsible for turning the pet world into a multi billion-dollar industry.”


At the end of the Second World War, people started buying cars with huge chrome fins, fashions got bolder and brighter and music more upbeat, all in an attempt for people to feel better and escape the doldrums brought on by the economic  recession of that time.


“As a result of the current economic climate, we are looking to our pets to make us feel better,” said Vetere. “In current stressful times, you can turn to your pet knowing it hasn’t had a worse day than you. Our pets are a great source of comfort and solace.  Because people are deriving this benefit from their pets and, because it’s a benefit on a human level, they no longer want to reward the pet in pet terms.  While a dog would be happy to play with a dirty ball, from the pet owners perspective, that’s not enough. We feel better when we are rewarding our pets and treating them more humanly.”


In the study just released by the Hartz Mountain Corporation of Secaucus, NJ, a company with an 85-year-history in the pet industry, sixty five per cent of the respondents felt that their pet’s personality was far more important that its physical appearance or pedigree.


“This is a very human characteristic being attributed to your pet,” said Ian Weinkselbaum, the company’s senior director of integrated marketing and insights. “This translates into questions such as how is my pet going to relate to me?  Will we have fun together, and, will it love me and allow me to love it?


“As a manufacturer, its important to understand our customer base. Consequently, we commissioned the survey in order to find out how pets are fitting into our consumer’s lives, and, to further understand the special bond between pets and their owners.  This allows us to deliver products to help pet owners increase the bond they have with their pets and simultaneously allows pets to live healthier happier and longer lives. For example, our pets share our beds, so products like shampoos and sprays that makes them smell good, are now important.”


According to Elisabeth Charles, chief marketing officer for PETCO headquartered in San Diego, Calif.  the category that has possibly experienced the biggest impact from pet humanization is nutrition.


“As nutrition and healthy living have become more important to humans, a strong upward trend has emerged in the demand for premium, natural and organic foods and treats for pets, too,” she said.


“The trend has also heavily impacted pet care because as people seek out luxury and pampering in their own personal health care treatments, they are also doing so for their pets. Today, we offer spa packages that allow pet parents to select from different services and scents to pamper their pets just as they would themselves.  Further, the human appetite for high fashion and eco-friendly products is also being projected onto family pets.  Other areas strongly reflecting pet humanization include vitamins and supplements, especially those targeting aging pets.”


The last five years has also seen many major American companies from other consumer sectors finding a place for themselves in the pet marketplace too. Bissell Homecare Inc. based in Grand Rapids, MI is one such company that now has an extensive range of pet related products manufactured specifically for the pet specialty retail market


“As more pet owners humanize their pets, they become less likely to give them up when faced with difficult issues. They just can’t imagine doing that to their “fur kids!” said Sue Potter, a category manager at Bissell Homecare Inc. “Whether the pet has a health, behavioral or another issue, owners will work to find a solution. This means that more owners are seeking help cleaning up after their pets, rather than abandoning them because of the messes pets make in their homes.”


While pet owners have been out playing ball with their dogs and entertaining their cats, medical research has been hard at work in many academic arenas documenting that this feel good euphoria isn’t a figment of the imagination; pets really do impact human health and well being.


Many of these study initiatives have been both funded and promoted by Delta Society. The organization was specifically formed in 1977 with the purpose of promoting research to demonstrate companion animals have health benefits for people.


“At that time, there was little or no research,” said Bill Kueser, public relations spokesperson for the organization based in Bellevue, WA. “ Currently we provide researchers access to our pet partners teams, (humans and pets who are trained to work in health care and other settings), in order that researchers have access to therapy animals to conduct their studies. The number of pet partner teams now registered has grown steadily over the years.”


Business strategist Mike Dillon of Dillon Media in Berkley, Calif, the publisher and author of a survey called the Pet Industry 2011 Strategic Outlook confirmed that as part of the spin-off of the human health benefits of owning pets, new markets are opening up for those focused on preventive health.


“ Even Yale Law School is using dogs for de-stressing students,” he said.


But Dillon has a very pragmatic take on pet humanization.


“We’re past talking about ‘humanization’ as pets are already ubiquitous in American culture and business. We’re already on the next phase, which is integration, and it will mature over the next five years. This next stage is the continuation of all that has begun; more industries not traditionally associated with pets will begin appealing to pet owners, extending popular brands and products into the pet segment. Traditional category boundaries will blur as integration spurs products that cross segment definitions. And there will also be more cultural and legal changes to reflect the status of pets.”


Dillon added that pet specialty retailers have an important role to play in the industry’s future because the industry is driven by start up companies and small businesses.


“There are hundreds of them and they appeal to very mixed demographics which is very healthy,” he said.


And, on the subject of the way pet companionship impacts on human health, Dillon added, “the integration into health and wellness programs has just begun.”


His forecast is already finding roots in reality with the formation of HABRI, the Human Animal Bond Research Initiative designed to form a central database for all research relating to the human-animal bond.


The organization was officially launched at the Global Pet Expo last March.  Its founding sponsors are the American Pet Products Association, Pfizer Animal Health and PETCO. The central database, known as HABRI Central is Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.


“HABRI fills the need for a comprehensive organization that can support multi-disciplinary research on the human-animal bond to provide scientific evidence for informed decisions in human health and pet ownership,” explained Steve Hellem the organization’s executive director. “Right now, there’s a lot of anecdotal information out there than needs to be further explored. Ultimately, the plan is for the organization to communicate with and educate Congress about the importance of providing $30 million to create a Human Animal Bond Research Center at the National Institute of Health and to continue to inform and educate the general public on the health benefits of pet ownership.”


He added. “And, if we do our job right, we are hoping that a lot more people will have pets and expand their pet families and that means as good as the pet marketplace is right now, backed by science that proves that pets really are a good for people, it’s going to get even better.”



“What is the one best thing to come out of the humanization trend?”


Bob Vetere President of APPA: “I think a general improvement in pet health. People are starting earlier in their pet’s life to worry about basic health targeted benefits. It all contributes to responsible pet ownership.”


Michael Schaeffer author of One Nation Under Dog: “When people accept their animals as family members, they are signing on for a lot of obligations. And that’s a good thing.”


Ian Weinkselbaum, senior director integrated marketing and insights Hartz Mountain Corporation: “It’s brought increased awareness in doing the right thing for your pet’s health. This includes greater focus on veterinary attention, doing the right thing nutritionally and, also providing pets with mental and physical stimulation. I think more people are tapped into the trends and are more aware of their pet’s needs than ever before.”


Steve Hellem executive director of HABRI: “ The best thing to come out of the humanization trend is the acknowledgement that pets are a prescription for (human) good health.”


Michael Dillon publisher and author of the Pet Industry 2011 Strategic Outlook: “Cancer researchers are finding that purebred dogs may help provide answers about the genetic basis of cancer in both dogs and humans- because the dogs’ small genetic pool makes it easier to isolate cancer-causing genetic mutations. Wonderful.”


“What is the strangest thing you’ve seen as a result of pet humanization?”




Bob Vetere President of APPA: “I am not sure my dog needs to have his toenails painted.  However a lot of people are taking advantage of this canine beauty service. But I guess it’s not a bad thing if it makes people feel good.”


Michael Schaeffer author of One Nation Under Dog: “ I visited a doggie hotel where rooms are $85 a night and are equipped with flat screen TVs. Families can log on and look at their pets via a webcam and even order room service for them. Humans just feel so guilty about leaving the pups behind!”


Ian Weinkselbaum, senior director integrated marketing and insights at Hartz Mountain Corporation: “I wouldn’t want to disparage any pet owners for doing anything they do to show their love for their pet, but I find elaborate Halloween costumes and pet Snuggies a bit strange. Nevertheless I know people buy such items because they love their pet and that’s the important thing.”


Michael Dillon publisher and author of the Pet Industry 2011 Strategic Outlook: “Dog nail polish is silly.”


This article is from Pet Product News International

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