Pets prove to be recession-proof

  • Article by: KATHY ANTONIOTTI , Akron Beacon Journal
  • Updated: June 19, 2013 - 2:21 PM

While Americans willingly cut their spending on upscale restaurants during the Great Recession, their pets continued to dine on gourmet meals and receive other pampering, according to new government figures.

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Curtis Johnson, who owns a dog walking and training business, walked eight dogs around Lake Harriet in Minneapolis in 2011.

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

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While Americans willingly cut their spending on upscale restaurants during the Great Recession, their pets continued to dine on gourmet meals.

A recent report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) backs up an October 2011 Time magazine report that claimed pets were as “recession-proof as doughnuts, chocolate and condoms,” and so popular that Americans spent more than $330 million on their pets’ Halloween costumes that year alone.

Spending on pets and their needs soared to a record $61.4 billion in 2011, according to data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau. The results of two surveys conducted from 2007-2011 indicate that while overall household spending decreased by 7.7 percent, Americans spent 7.4 percent more on their pets during the same time period, said BLS economist Steve Henderson, chief of the Branch of Information and Analysis at the Consumer Expenditure Survey Division in Washington, D.C.

In the BLS’ latest quarterly Beyond the Numbers report, Henderson says that Americans, whether they be higher- or lower-income households, devote about 1 percent of household income to pets.

Americans own 218 million pets that live in nearly three-quarters of U.S. households, according to the American Pet Products Association, cited in the report.

The average U.S. household spent just over $500 on its pets in 2011. Put another way, households reported spending more on their pets annually than they did on alcohol ($456), said Henderson.

“I was interested to see that spending stayed constant, that people kept caring for their pets as much as they did and that (spending) wasn’t affected. The other thing I find interesting is that even when we sliced up the data by age, people were still spending on pet food and pet care into and beyond their 70s,” Henderson said.

More practical approach in Twin Cities

Twin Cities consumers still pampered their pets, but might have brought brought a bit of Upper Midwest practicality to spending during the downturn, said one local pet-accoutrements store owner.

“[Local shoppers] were spending a little less at the very high end,” said Laura Bednarczyk, owner of the LuLu & Luigi stores. “They still wanted quality but at prices more in line than with what was going on with the economy.

“People were still spending on their pets because to some people they’re their kids. So while some businesses were hit harder, I think the pet category was spared the brunt of the downturn.”

Individual pet owners took different approaches.

Meredeth Barzen of Minneapolis said her pet Sadie got no more or less “stuff” during the recession. “I try to cut out unnecessary spending on my dog regardless of the economic climate. Vet bills, food and licenses are expensive enough that I’m not inclined to spend where I don’t need to — aside from the occasional box of treats, of course.”

Pam Wetterlund of Minneapolis said she never cut corners for her dog Frida — “I’d scale down on myself before I’d scale back on her” — but she started saving a lot of money two years ago when she got a job at Grassroots Solutions, where she can take Frida to work instead of a daycare center.

Even though more workplaces are allowing or even encouraging employees to bring in their dogs, short-term kennels proliferated grew during the recession, said one a local canine expert.

“New dog daycares and self-service dog washes are popping up all over,” said Ali Jarvis, founder of www.sidewalkdog.com, a website listing dog-friendly sites around the Twin Cities, “and the rise in the local industry began at the very beginning of the recession."

Jarvis said she cut back on eating out but not on dog-food spending.

“I found that as people were having to cut back on large expenses, it made them feel good to spend money on their beloved pets. I have a friend who couldn’t afford to stay at expensive hotels, but she could afford to send her dog to ‘five-star’ boarding facilities. My sister had to stop working with a personal trainer, but she could swing hiring a dog walker.”

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