The Why Behind the Buy

Understanding consumerism and why we buy

Pricey Puppy Love

Five reasons why we spend more on our pets and what that says about society

Evidence of puppy love will be in ample supply this Halloween. The "I love my dog” kind, not the Justin Bieber version. Consumers will showcase their pet love by spending $370 million to costume them this Halloween. To put that into perspective, Americans will spend barely three times more on children’s costumes.

There are a few exceptionally calm cats out there who will succumb to wearing costumes (dog or bee outfits being the most popular), but most of the 15 percent of Americans buying pet costumes will be outfitting their dogs. And they won’t just throw on a bandana. Expect to see dogs dressed as tacos, skunks, crayons, dinosaurs, chefs, princesses, leprechauns, flowers, and even as Gumby—if you can imagine it, there’s a costume. Last year’s top-selling costumes were pumpkins, devils and hot dogs.

As fancier costumes have become available, consumers are spending more. The number of people buying canine costumes has increased 24 percent since 2010. But the amount spent on pet costumes has increased a whopping 40 percent since 2010.

Enthusiastic spending on Halloween pet costumes is part of a larger year-round trend. Last year, consumers spent $51 billion on their pets—a new record that’s predicted to be broken again this year. That’s nearly double what pet owners spent a decade ago.

Part of the surge in pet spending is simply because there are more pets out there. In 1988, 56 percent of households had a pet. Today pets are part of 62 percent of homes.

But that’s not a large enough increase to account for such a hefty surge in spending. People are also spending more per pet than ever before. Why, especially during a period of economic turmoil, has pet spending continued to rise? And what does that say about our society?

1. Pets are stress-busters—and we need that now more than ever.

In 1994, roughly 15 percent of Americans reported increased anxiety in their lives. By 2009 that number had risen 49 percent, and it’s predicted to be even higher now.

When we cuddle, play with and even just look at our pets, we get a hefty boost of oxytocin, our body’s naturally occurring feel-good, stress-relieving, emotional-bonding hormone. And by the way, so do our pets. Which makes all parties more relaxed and happy—and more deeply bonded.

That bond and our appreciation of the stress relief we get from our pets is a partial explanation of why 77 percent of Americans give their pets birthday gifts, and Americans spend $5 billion on holiday gifts for their pets.

2. Pets have more status today.

There is less hierarchical distance and more equality between parents, kids and pets today. Which is why 91 percent of pet owners consider their pet to be a member of the family, and 81 percent say pets are equal members of the family. Pet lovers themselves recognize that there has been a shift in the status of pets within families—60 percent of adults say the don’t remember their childhood pets as having the exalted status the pets in their lives have today.

Still need more proof? There are 1 million dogs in the U.S. that have been named the primary beneficiary of their owners will.

Higher status emotionally translates to pets deserving more—be it vacation care in pet hotels rather than kennels, more toys or better health care.

3. Pets fill connection and friendship vacuums.

Americans have about a third fewer friends today than they did 20 years ago—averaging two rather than the three they had in 1985. And though online connections alleviate some of that loss, we’re neurologically less satisfied by online friends than we are by personal contact. Pets provide companionship and connection that we need more than ever today. Dogs, in particular, also increase human social circles through gatherings at parks and getting out into neighborhoods more often through walks.

Cat owners also say they get plenty of emotional connection from their pets. In fact nearly a third say they’d rather chat with their cat after a long day than anyone else, and 39 percent say their cat is more likely to pick up on their current mood than a romantic partner.

Almost 95 percent of pet owners say their pet makes them smile at least once a day. It’s no wonder that multiple studies show that pets lower blood pressure, alleviate depression, and boost mental and physical resiliency.

Given the emotional support, connection and happiness pets provide, it’s not surprising that people want to honor and reward them—often with goodies.

4. Pets fulfill our need to nurture.

An unprecedented number of people live alone today—one in seven Americans. Plus, our years without children stretch longer on both ends. Empty nesters live longer and people have children later in life. Regardless of a person’s household composition, the need to nurture is universal. Which is why 78 percent of animal owners think of their animals as their children and themselves as pet parents not pet owners. In fact, 58 percent call themselves “mommy” or “daddy.”

When you’re a pet parent rather than an owner you’re more likely to want to give your pets a human experience. That would be a partial explanation for the burgeoning category of pet food and treats that look a bit more like something a human would eat.

5. There are simply more things to buy today.

Undoubtedly many pet owners a decade ago would have loved to pamper their pets. But options were more limited. An abundance of choice gives us psychological permission to take a step toward indulgence—not to mention new ideas.

Last year, more than $11 billion was spent on pet supplies. Many are products that weren’t available a decade ago, such as designer pet bowls, orthopedic dog beds, fancy puppy carriers and of course a plethora of toys. Not just your basic squeaky toy or frisbee, but things like “Jimmy Chew” plush toys and doggie puzzles that provide your pet with “mental stimulation.”

People are also more likely to pay attention to, appreciate and reward the contributions of their pets today. And all things considered, pets are a bargain. The emotional gratification most people receive from their pets is immense.

Sources:

American Sociological Association (2006, June 23). Americans' Circle Of Friends Is Shrinking, New Study Shows. ScienceDaily. Retrieved

Allen R. McConnell, Christina M. Brown, Tonya M. Shoda, Laura E. Stayton, Colleen E. Martin. Friends with benefits: On the positive consequences of pet ownership. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2011; DOI: 10.1037/a0024506

Walsh et al. Human-Animal Bonds I: The Relational Significance of Companion Animals. Family Process, 2009; 48 (4): 462 DOI: 10.1111/j.1545-5300.2009.01296.x

Kelton Research Meow Mix Survey, 2012

Pets Really Are Members of the Family, Harris Poll

Kelton Research Milo’s Kitchen Pet Parent Survey, 2011

Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, Eric Klinenberg (Penguin Press, 2012)

American Pet Products Association 2011-2012 National Pet Owners Survey 

Kit Yarrow is a professor of psychology and marketing at Golden Gate University in San Francisco.

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