So … was there or wasn’t there a pandemic pet boom?

by Kristi Fender

POV_pet-pandemic

Differing perspectives have emerged among animal health thought leaders.

Recently several of us at Stephens & Associates had the privilege of hearing two very smart analysts talk about the impact of COVID-19 on pet ownership trends a day apart during consecutive animal health industry events. And we came away scratching our heads a little bit. Why? Check out these representative quotes from each speaker:

“The so-called pet pandemic boom has been exaggerated, with fewer pets adopted from shelters in 2020 than in 2019.”

—Matt Salois, PhD,
American Veterinary Medical Association chief economist,
KC Animal Health Corridor Digital Animal Health Summit, Aug. 26, 2021

 

“I don’t know of any retailer or manufacturer who does not agree that there has been a significant pet population increase. From the pet products point of view, there really isn’t a question.”

—David Sprinkle, MBA,
Packaged Facts research director and publisher,
Veterinary Innovation Summit, Aug. 27, 2021

 

Salois contends that popular headlines screaming about a pet adoption explosion and veterinary practices’ inability to keep up with skyrocketing demand present an oversimplified picture. In reality, shelter adoptions (the primary way new pets are acquired) were down by 2.3 million in 2020, according to data compiled by the AVMA economics team from Best Friends Animal Society and 24PetWatch—the lowest number in five years.

What’s more, Salois says, his team’s analysis shows that the increased business veterinary practices have seen during the pandemic is being driven mostly by existing clients; new clients have made up only a modest proportion of the bump in appointments booked as well as clinic revenue.

His conclusion? There has been a healthy increase in business at the average veterinary practice, but it has not been “epic.” On the whole it has not been enough to explain why many veterinary practices find themselves in a tailspin. The “crisis” veterinary practices are feeling is very real, he says, but it is largely the result of a drop in efficiency and productivity driven by COVID, not a massive explosion of new pets.

When Sprinkle offered his viewpoint on the situation, he had the advantage of having listened to Salois’s presentation the day before. He was clearly surprised to encounter skepticism of the existence of a surge in the pet population, since so many people in the pet products industry he studies have seen skyrocketing metrics indicating such a surge.

In the Packaged Facts research Sprinkle presented, 18% of current pet owners said their pet ownership increased in 2020, and 14% said the same in 2021, at least so far. Sprinkle also noted that “pet adoption” is a phrase that can imply a specific way of obtaining a new pet: from a shelter, rescue, foster situation or similar. He uses the term “pet acquisition,” which encompasses purchasing a pet from a breeder or retail center, taking in a pet from a family member or friend, keeping a puppy or kitten from a litter born at home, and so on.

Clearly shelters are not the only way people acquire pets, so they don’t present the whole picture, Sprinkle maintained. “We need to be careful about confusing pet shelter data with pet adoption and acquisition trends,” he said.

So what’s really going on here? Was there a spike in new pets acquired during the months of lockdown-related isolation and loneliness or wasn’t there? I went looking to see if anyone has done research on overall pet acquisition (to use Sprinkle’s term) related to COVID, because Packaged Facts’ data reflected only the actions of existing pet owners—non-pet owners acquiring a pet for the first time weren’t part of those results.

I did find reference to one study by the American Pet Products Association asserting that 11.38 million U.S. households got a new pet during the pandemic. That seems like a lot, but how does it compare to an average year? And does it account for other COVID-related changes that may have had an impact on pet ownership? For example:

  • Young adults returning to their parents’ homes may have suddenly found themselves with a “new pet” in their life.
  • Widespread job loss seen in the pandemic’s early months might have prompted people to rehome their pets with friends or family based on cost of care.
  • And let’s not forget that COVID-19 has killed 750,000 people and counting. How many of those people had pets that needed to be relocated with a family member, friend or shelter?

In all these scenarios, someone could legitimately say the pandemic resulted in a new pet in their life, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s been an overall increase in the number of pets—a “pet population explosion,” if you will.

This jives well with Salois’s argument. After all, you can’t just snap your fingers and have more pets instantly available for everyone who wants one. Spay and neuter campaigns have been successful in many regions of the country, and it takes time for intact animals to be able to produce more baby pets. If there was a spike in the pet population, where did all the new pets come from?

But you can’t deny Sprinkle’s perspective either. There is no doubt that activity in the pet industry has skyrocketed, and many in the sector just intuitively feel that there are more pets out there—more than can be explained by people simply paying more attention to existing pets. It’s also true that shelter data give only a piece of the picture: foster care and breeding have to have contributed to the supply of pets, but those channels are challenging to track.

Here’s a thought that might help marry the two different perspectives: Right now there are more senior pets in homes than ever before, according to Packaged Facts—the percentage of households with senior dogs, for example, has grown from 38% in 2004 to 54% in 2021. So at least some of the pet population increase may come from pets living longer.

Older pets in households are also associated with a very strong bond with their owners, a greater need for veterinary services, more demand for specialized products such as senior pet food, and so on. This could help explain (again, at least partially) the surge in activity at veterinary practices and the pet industry as well.

Regardless of what the hard data says (or doesn’t), it’s obvious that the pandemic has made us as a society focus on our pets in ways we haven’t for decades. The implications are both heartwarming—i.e., these companions have been right by our sides through the worst of it—and frightening—the challenges veterinary practices are facing are massive, whatever the underlying causes, and the specter of widespread pet relinquishment continues to float around the edges of the conversation.

Clearly this is an area that is ripe for further analysis. It will be fascinating to watch the research continue to emerge and provide clarity on what’s happening and why. Many of the thought leaders in this arena have close ties to Stephens & Associates and to our clients, so we look forward to remaining on the front lines of creating a better world for pets and the people who care for them.

Kristi Fender is a senior content specialist at Stephens & Associates. She spent 20 years in veterinary journalism with dvm360 and other industry publications.

Topics:animal healthveterinary medicine