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Pets as Family: Do You Have a Modern Family?

Meet my kids: Boo Boo, Scout, and Big Duke - - wait, what?  Yes, you heard that right. I’m the proud parent of three kids – who all have four legs. Forty years ago, it may have seemed strange to consider our pets as family members, but not anymore. Our breed of modern family is on the rise.

According to The Humane Society of the United States, pet ownership has more than tripled since the 1970s, resulting in 65% of American households in 2015 containing at least one pet.  Meanwhile, the average age at which young women get married continues to go up, and the number of babies born to women ages 15 to 29 continues to go down.  Add to that fact the number of small dogs in American households has increased every year since 1999, and the numbers seem to indicate that for many young adults, pets are replacing children.

This trend of pet “humanization” has retailers howling all the way to the bank. The pet industry enjoyed revenue of over $60 billion dollars in the US in 2015 and was one sector that proved impervious to the economic downturn. To the contrary, it continued to grow throughout and consistently outpaces GDP growth.

Forty years ago, it may have seemed strange to consider our pets as family members, but not anymore. Our breed of modern family is on the rise.

But what are we pet parents buying our furry charges?  A better question would be, what aren’t we buying?  There are the basics, like food. But pet food is not as basic as it used to be. Pet parents these days are more aware of how nutrition affects people, so they want nutritious food for their pets, too. They are willing to spend more on better quality food, and they check labels.  They're picky about where it comes from, what’s in it and who makes it.  Some people even opt to skip commercial food altogether and instead order custom-made food from specialty companies or make it themselves from scratch.  Even standard treats like dog biscuits are just not exclusive enough.  Why make your poor pooch suffer through a run-of-the-Milk Bones when you could give him a pumpkin health bar instead?

Since we go to all the trouble to make sure our dogs and cats are well fed, we want them to look good and feel good, too!  Services such as grooming, training, daycare, and boarding are most popular among pet parents, but new options for activities (flyball, anyone?) continue to spring up. So, too, do products and opportunities to primp and pamper your pet.

Birthdays are a great time for pet parents to throw away money --  I mean -- throw a pet party, and there are companies that specialize in just that. Fifi will be camera-ready with a dental cleanse and a "Pawticure," and with a spritz of dog cologne for good measure, she’ll feel like the cat’s meow or the bark of the ball!

Halloween and Christmas are the two holidays that are prime time for gifting pets, though. Americans spent 389 million on pet-related gifts in 2014. Costumes, toys, and treats lead this spending, but there is also a dizzying array of pet-focused subscriptions, gadgets and apps to please the most persnickety pet!

Some of this may seem a little silly, but when it comes to protecting their investment, pet parents are serious.  Some parents (*raises hand*) buckle their dog into a safety belt while traveling by car. More people are purchasing pet insurance, too, which can cover everything from Reiki to emergency services. Veterinarians, medical supply companies, and drug makers are aware of this development and are expanding their specialties and products to meet growing demand. And when all options are exhausted and the inevitable approaches, pet parents can choose to say goodbye to their beloved pet in private with in-home euthanasia, then memorialize him with cremation services, headstones, paw print plaques and other end-of-life products and services.

Aside from the financial implications of treating pets as family, there are social consequences as well. Disagreements among couples about how far into the intimacies of a relationship a pet is allowed can result in one partner in the doghouse while the dog gets the bed. Considering a pet part of the family also results in added strife when that family breaks up, as divorce lawyers who increasingly negotiate pet custody settlements can tell you.

But pet parents still believe that what we get out of our relationship with our pets makes up for these drawbacks - we wouldn’t change a thing. Pets are the family members we get to choose, and we are fully committed. In our most modern of families, we’re glad this trend has legs -- four of them.


The Michelson Found Animals Foundation's mission of saving pets and enriching lives is made possible by the generous contributions of Dr. Gary Michelson and Alya Michelson.

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