Pets grow in popularity, fueling product sales and academic programs

Posted March 22, 2017

Pets are making their way into more households across the U.S., including Wisconsin.

The number of people owning pets in the U.S. has continued to rise since 2008 and people are spending a record amount of money on them. According to research firm Mintel, in 2016 the U.S. market for pet products and services was estimated at $67.5 billion, an increase of 4.3 percent over 2015.

“The biggest increase we have seen in sales is in dog toys and dog chew bones,” said Dawn Kobs, assistant store director-in-training at Family Fresh Market in River Falls. A very large section of the pet aisle is now dedicated to just chew bones.

Kobs also said she is surprised by the number people who buy cat litter but don’t buy cat food.

“It’s not always easy to understand what the customer wants and why, but we are happy to supply pet products to our customers,” she said.

Nationally more than 50 percent of dog owners and 38 percent of cat owners buy their pets gifts, according to the American Pet Products Association (APPA). Pet owners also want products that help keep their pet healthy and happy. A recent APPA survey estimates that 65 percent of U.S. households have a pet. That equates to almost 80 million households. In 1988, the first year the survey was conducted, only 56 percent of U.S. households owned a pet.

Since the first of the year, a local veterinary clinic also has seen a noticeable increase in the number of clients it serves — and some unusual trends.

“We are seeing more and more clients who consider their pets as children,” said Audrey Schalla-Pich, a certified veterinary technician for Kinnic Veterinary Service in River Falls.

Euromonitor International recently reported that pet owners worldwide, not just in the U.S., are increasingly treating their cats, dogs and even small mammals like members of their family.

The trend of humanizing pets continues to shape the pet product market. There is a new interest for products such as pet fitness trackers, video monitors and specialty foods — even doggy beer.

Meanwhile, UW-River Falls has seen a huge jump in interest for its new animal science companion animal program.

“There is an interesting trend among pet owners in the last few years,” said Beth Rausch, who specializes in companion animal and mixed animal practice at UWRF. She has seen an increase not only in pet ownership, but also in interest among students who want to work with animals.

The companion animal program began with a handful of students two years ago and now has over 150 students enrolled.

Last spring, UW-River Falls also initiated service dog training under the umbrella of the animal science program. Similar programs are offered at a few other major campuses across the U.S., but this is the first of its kind within the UW System, according to the UWRF website.

The service dog training program, in partnership with Coco’s Heart Dog Rescue of Hudson, provides companion animal majors with hands-on experience. The dogs with which they work may enter advanced training to help people in need, such as those suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“Having a dog is part of getting back to what makes us human,” explained Rausch. Dogs in particular have been a huge part of human evolution and people want to have a deeper connection with them.

Rausch added that sometimes that connection might go too far with dog owners.

“The first thing we teach our students is that dogs are animals and they behave like one,” said Rausch. Problems, such as biting, are more likely to occur when people don’t treat their animals like animals.

Eighty-seven percent of pet owners think of their pet not just as an animal, but as a member of the family, according to Mintel.

Even though the number of pet owners is rising across the U.S., the city of River Falls may not be seeing the same trend. In fact, the number of people purchasing a dog licenses has been going down for the last three years in a row.

“There were 839 licenses issued in 2012 and only 700 were issued last year,” Bridget Hieb, deputy city clerk, said in an email. However, she added, “many people don’t know they need a permit to own a dog in River Falls.”

Dog licenses are issued from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays at River Falls City Hall, 222 Lewis St.