Pet ownership has been growing worldwide for decades, but it has reached new heights over the past year. Few self-respecting households would be seen without a four-legged friend. Vets are closed to new customers. And parks are filled with dogs of every size and shape. The phenomenon is pervasive, but where will it end Consumer journalist Harry Wallop investigates.
I always vowed that we would never get a pet. Despite my four children badgering me for nearly a decade, I stood firm. I argued that pets took up too much space, created a mess, and were far too much of a responsibility. And what about the allergic reactions? My wife sneezes by merely watching All Creatures Great and Small. Were my children really going to expose their mother to this indignity? Were they really going to walk a dog, in the pouring rain on a dark December morning, before going to school?
In truth, it wasn’t the animals I didn’t like. It was the owners. Their indifference as their rare-breed Persian starts destroying your new pair of shoes; their mawkish insistence on buying advent calendars for their pooch; their smug bonhomie as the kids’ new Dobermann slobbers over your leg – as if you should feel lucky that the brute has chosen you as a target for its affections.
But then Covid-19 happened. And, yes, my family procured a lockdown puppy, along with most of the western world, it would seem.
It’s hard to pin down exactly how many extra dogs and cats have been purchased over the past year, but according to the German Canine Association, dog sales in Germany increased by 20 per cent in 2020, while Nestlé reported double-digit sales increases in its global pet care division, a performance that analysts described as “incredible growth”.
The UK Kennel Club has seen a 180 per cent increase in enquiries from potential dog owners, while the RSPCA animal charity has seen a six-fold increase in visits to its puppy fostering web pages. Even hens were hard to come by last summer. And in the US, the share price of Chewy, a pet food and accessory retailer, went from below $25 just before lockdowns were implemented in March 2020 to more than $80 this spring.
The world has gone pet crazy, and if you are in the pet business, this is a gold rush. Our family had to pay £2,000 for our cockapoo puppy, and some breeds are going for more than double that figure. Why have so many of us taken on this expense?
The RSPCA animal charity has seen a six-fold increase in visits to its puppy fostering web pages
In my case, the children’s pestering grew interminable. I had always argued that having a pet made going on holiday very tricky. Who would look after the dog? With foreign travel cancelled for the foreseeable future, that’s no longer an issue, the children pointed out. The final blow was my 12-year-old daughter’s PowerPoint presentation laying out the reasons why a dog would improve our lives. And how a cockapoo – a hugely popular cross-breed of cocker spaniel and poodle – was hypoallergenic and therefore wouldn’t upset her mother.
I reluctantly succumbed.
Of course, Covid has meant that millions of us are now at home, with time on our hands to clean out the rabbit hutch or play fetch with Fido. We’ve been missing our friends and live entertainment. Can a tortoise munching very slowly on some lettuce replace a night down the pub? No. But it’s a small distraction from the tedium.
The boom in pet ownership is not entirely Covid-related, however. The number of pets around the world has been growing steadily in recent decades. One estimate reckons they have doubled since the 1960s. As the world has grown richer and, notwithstanding Covid, healthier, it has also become more anxious and needy. For many owners, pets have evolved into a status symbol as much as a companion – an accessory to lavish care and treats upon. Birth rates may be falling in many parts of Europe, and car ownership too, but pet numbers continue to climb. They are the ultimate sign that you have not just a warm heart, but also the money and the time to look after another sentient being.
I have now become the smug man in the park who believes that strangers should be grateful that my badly behaved puppy has ruined their clean trousers. In normal times, this would mark me out as an insufferable citizen. But as everyone in the park also has a puppy, I can just about get away with it. I hope n