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Families more likely to own pets, but empty nesters gaining ground

Families with children are more likely to own pets, but it's not the kids bringing home new puppies and kittens. It's their parents.
Families with children are more likely to own pets, but it's not the kids bringing home new puppies and kittens. It's their parents.

SOUTH JORDAN, Utah — Families with children are more likely to own pets, but it's not the kids bringing home new puppies and kittens. It's their parents.

Demographic surveys of pet owners sponsored by the American Veterinary Medical Association paint a relatively simple picture of the correlation between family size and pet ownership: If you have a kid or two or three, you're much more likely to own a dog or a cat or some other animal friend. However, pet ownership among non-families has increased 17 percent since 2006, and more recent statistics from the American Pet Products Association suggest the trend might be more complicated in reality.

On the surface, the demographics make it seem as though families have become less likely to own pets in recent years, because the number of dogs and cats owned by non-families has increased, said Bob Vetere, president and CEO of the American Pet Products Association. However, Vetere said Baby Boomers have skewed the most recent reports.

Helicopter pet parents

Few generations have been as enthusiastic about their pets as the Baby Boomers, Vetere said, and their love of furry friends has only increased as their human children have aged out of the nest.

"Baby Boomers, as one large demographic, have turned to pets when the kids move away," Vetere said. "They were helicopter parents hovering over their kids, and now they're hovering over their pets."

That the Baby Boomers continued, and even increased interest in, owning and doting on their pets is a sign that it was the parents, not the children, who were responsible for the rise in pet ownership throughout their generational life span, Vetere said. It might also explain why spending on pet care products increased rapidly before the Great Recession in 2008 and has continued to rise more moderately since then — the Baby Boomers were among the driving forces that have caused Americans to think of their pets as part of the family, Vetere said.

"Boomers were probably as much a force in the humanization of pets as anything else," he said.

However, Baby Boomer pet ownership has only skewed statistics for cat and dog ownership. Small pets remain overwhelmingly more popular among families with children, and the children are much more likely to be the impetus in acquiring a small pet. Among fish and bird owners, more than 50 percent of pet owners say their children predated their pets. Among those families with reptiles, 80 percent said they had the kids first.

Delaying pet parenthood

The Boomers may not be entirely responsible for the demographic shift, at least not directly. Their children are actually less likely to become pet parents themselves.

Some of this can probably be attributed to the rising generation's youth, Vetere said — college students and young, single professionals are much less likely to own pets, and this isn't a new development. However, Vetere said today's young families also seem less interested in pets than the Boomer generation.

"Young families with children are sometimes reluctant to introduce a pet," Vetere said.

What's not clear, Vetere added, is whether or not their reluctance represents a new, downward trend in pet ownership, or whether they are following the Boomers' lead and will bring pets into the family later in life. The data necessary for an accurate comparison doesn't exist.

Anecdotally, parents still seem willing to bring pets home for their children. South Jordan resident Alexa Harker recently bought a puppy for her 9-year-old daughter, even though her own family growing up did not have dogs. So far it's been a good choice, she said.

"The thing that's been good about it — when they don't have a friend over, it's been a really good way to give them something to do, someone to play with," Harker said.

She said many of her other friends whose children are the same age as her own are also buying pets for their children. But she also knows several childless couples who keep pets as well.

Can pet parents have it all?

One clear trend that does seem to be emerging among a rising generation of pet parents is an interest in mobility and an active lifestyle, Vetere said.

Small animals can be left home for a few days without too much trouble — this could be one of the reasons why families with children are more likely to own small pets, Vetere said. A dog or a cat, on the other hand, needs daily attention. It would be much more difficult to leave a canine to travel for business or for pleasure.

Additionally, current pet owners are showing increased interest in services such as pet sitting and doggy day care. Some workplaces have even begun adopting more pet-friendly policies. While the growth of pet product sales has slowed somewhat since the recession, pet services have emerged as the strongest pet-related industry in recent years.