Are the dogs days over?

A pet-care boom during the pandemic is unlikely to be followed by bust as lockdown ends

Swantje Green and her boyfriend both grew up in the countryside with family pets. But busy careers in London and a small flat meant a dog was not an option for them as adults. Until the pandemic. They moved house, started working from home and are now proud pet parents to Cooper, a 14-week old cocker spaniel.

Covid-19 and lockdowns to curb its spread have confined people around the world to their homes. For most, this has come with a lot of downsides, but for would-be pet owners it has presented an opportunity—and one that many have capitalised on. Since the start of the pandemic the number of pet-owning households in the UK has increased by 3.2m, bringing the total to 34m. This has boosted the UK’s pet care market. Worth £6.3bn in 2019, this rose to £6.5bn last year and is continuing to soar, according to Joanna Davidson, a spokesperson for Pets at Home, the UK’s largest pet-care retailer. Pet food sales alone—worth £3bn—increased in volume by 1%, more than any of the previous five years. As lockdown unwinds but the economy continues to struggle, however, what will happen to these new furry friends and the market they are driving?

Before the pandemic pet ownership was already on the rise. So too was spending on pet-care products. A trend towards “humanising” pets that started a few years ago has driven a shift towards premium pet products, says Ms Davidson. Pet-owners are owners increasingly looking for ‘human quality’ food, for example, and want a deeper “understanding of its provenance and how it is prepared.”

As well as increasing pet-ownership, the pandemic has also accelerated this trend. During lockdown pets are playing “an increasingly important role in our daily lives”, explains Ms Davidson. This is helping to fuel a pet “baby boom”. “Swantje definitely treats Cooper like a human baby”, says James Fortnum, Ms Green’s boyfriend. “She talks about Cooper non-stop; she’s even got me reading puppy parenting books and joining online groups”, he laughs.

Fashion retailers are also capitalising on customers’ growing desire to style their dogs like they style themselves. In February high-street clothing chain Zara released its first pet collection. Homeware and fashion retailer Oliver Bonas also started stocking pet-care products. “This was definitely spurred on by the increase in people getting dogs and cats over lockdown”, says Hannah Rainey, Oliver Bonas’s home and gift buyer. “Our customers are looking for products that show personality”, she adds. “Pets are part of the family and customers want them eating from, wearing, sleeping in items which reflect this”.

There is some uncertainty over the future of this market, however. Even as lockdown unwinds, the economic fallout of Covid-19 will continue to reverberate. New pet-owners especially may struggle to foot the bill, fear animal welfare organisations. Once they return to work and to their normal social lives, other pet parents may realise that outside of lockdown a pet does not fit their lifestyle.

A recent survey by the UK’s Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association (PFMA) found that five percent of households who have brought pets during lockdown have already given them up. Nicole Paley from PFMA fears this number may rise as people return to normal life.  “Currently only 15% of the pet owners we surveyed work in a pet-friendly office so this could have an impact”, she says.

Sahar Islam, a 30-year-old investment banker from west London, is one of those who has already had to say goodbye to her puppy. Last year, after England entered its second lockdown, she moved back in with her parents. Living at home and working from home meant having a puppy became possible. Once Ms Islam returned to her own flat, though, she realised “how much time and energy a puppy takes”, she says. “My hours are just too long for me to be able to take care of a dog properly”, Ms Islam explains. Luckily, a friend who lives in the Cornish countryside and works more dog-friendly hours agreed to take in on her pooch.

For the majority who do keep their new pets, however, even a recession does not necessarily mean that they will spend less on them, according to Ms Davidson. The trend towards humanising pets, which has been spurred on by the pandemic, means that “owners are less likely to cut back on pet products and services, even in tougher times”.

The return to the office and to our social lives may also drive fresh growth in other areas of the market. Borrow My Dog, a online dog-sharing service, saw a surge in users during the pandemic, according to Rikke Rosenlund, the company’s founder and CEO. The number of borrowers rose especially as people sought pet companionship to ease the loneliness of lockdown. Now, as restrictions start to unwind the number of dog owners seeking to lend out their pets is rising. People are starting to realise that their puppies need to be socialised and get used to being apart from them before they go back to the office full-time or to their normal lives, she explains. “I expect this trend to accelerate as we come out of lockdown”, adds Ms Rosenlund, who has seen her revenues increase over the last year at the fastest rate since she started Borrow My Doggy in 2012.

Oxford Pet Whisperers, a doggy day-care centre in the Oxfordshire commuter-hub of Didcot, was not so fortunate. Lockdowns slashed profits and forced the company to lay off two members of staff, says Jamie Worth, the co-founder and managing director. Now, however, demand is booming. “We’re having to turn customers down”, says Mr Worth. Like Ms Rosenlund, he expects this to grow. “Dogs are going to go from almost 24 hours a day with their owner to their owner being at work 10 hours a day”, he explains. “That’s a massive change for the dog, we’re going to see a lot of separation anxiety”. As well as looking after dogs, Oxford Pet Whisperers also runs puppy training and socialisation sessions, which are soaring in popularity as people prepare their dogs for the change ahead. “We’ve now got a four-week waiting list, and rehiring staff again”, says Mr Worth.

Mr Worth and Ms Rosenlund also expect pet-owners to spend more, not less, as lockdown ends. They will be buying toys to distract their pets and help them get over the teething difficulties of the return to normality, Mr Worth says.

Cooper is already one spoilt pup. “Anything to keep her happy and stop her chewing the furniture while I try to get some work done”, says Ms Green. “I don’t even want to know how much we’ve spent”, she adds. “Would you like me to tell you?” asks her boyfriend wryly. “It’s more than you’ve ever spent on me”.

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