There is an internet meme which claims that if you were to be reincarnated, you should aspire to be a golden retriever, endlessly scoffing treats and chasing tennis balls. That cushy life is getting cushier not only for these favoured dogs but for billions of other creatures around the world. Never have pets been so prized. Global annual spending on domestic animals is forecast to rise to nearly $150bn in 2023, a nearly 50% rise over the course of a decade, according to Euromonitor, a research firm. Americans alone spend nearly half of that, greater than the gdp of two-thirds of countries.
This is not just because people are keeping more animals. It is partly explained by a rise in pet pampering. Owners can now buy beer for their dogs in Melbourne, send their cats to a luxury five-star hotel in Kuala Lumpur and indulge their guinea pigs with a spa weekend in the English countryside. There is even a market for animal lingerie.
But most of the increased spending has been on food and vets, which account for about two-thirds of the total. Though domesticated snakes, budgerigars and clownfish have all become trendy, cats and dogs hog the extra treats and treatments. The average price of surgery for a pooch is nearly $500; a routine check-up costs around $250 and an emergency visit nearly $350.
Bob Vetere, president of the American Pet Products Association, says that in his lifetime pets have moved from the backyard to the heart of a home: most are now treated as family members. So the same anxieties that plague parents now dog pet-owners too, particularly about nutrition and health. Farm dogs that once feasted on ailing rabbits now grow up with high-protein lamb nibbles, regular anti-flea medication and oil capsules to make their coats glossy. Millennials are an especially health-conscious bunch, and are quickly becoming the largest cohort of pet owners. Since many are waiting longer to have children, a puppy offers a good trial run.
Pets have followed human trends in other ways too. Better nutrition and health care has increased the life expectancy of dogs and cats. That has contributed to a rise in the lifetime cost of owning one: the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals, a British charity, reckons that owners will spend at least £17,000 ($21,900) during the life of a large dog, and £12,000 on a cat. More than 90% of owners underestimate those expenses. Because their spending on creature comforts has risen more quickly than their wages, many are now cutting back on other luxuries, notes Vetere. Some families are driving to holiday destinations rather than flying, to avoid paying someone to look after their pet.
Euromonitor forecasts particularly rapid growth outside America and Europe: China is likely to overtake Brazil as the second-largest market for pets by 2023. Though Mao Zedong’s Red Guards slaughtered puppies during the Cultural Revolution as symbols of the pampered bourgeoisie, dogs are making a comeback. Some 7% of Chinese homes owned one in 2013. As incomes grow, expect to see more pooches enjoying luxurious dinners – rather than ending up as one.