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Cats And Dogs Are Being Pampered More Than Ever, And It's A Multibillion-Dollar Industry

Hilton and her mother Kathy Hilton. June 12, 2005. Los Angeles, California. Photo by Phil McCarten/Getty Images.

Believe it or not, the person who deserves much of the credit for turning the pet industry into an almost US$50-billion machine is Paris Hilton. Back in 2004, when the starlet became a tabloid fixture, she gained great attention for outfitting Tinkerbell, her ever-present chihuahua, in a series of designer dresses, T-shirts and sports jerseys. Pet owners went nuts, and high-end pet clothing and accessories started flying off the shelves.

“She was why I started dressing my dog,” admits Cheryl Ng, owner of FouFou Dog, a Richmond Hill, Ont.-based animal clothing manufacturer that placed No. 33 on PROFIT’s 2010 ranking of Canada’s Top Women Entrepreneurs. And Ng is not alone. According to the American Pet Producers Association (APPA), U.S. spending on pet products has climbed by US$13 billion over the past six years, and the industry is still growing.

In a time of great economic uncertainty, the pet industry is noticeably healthy. Every part of it is thriving, from clothing to food to health supplements. Pet owners are happily spending money on everything from doggie treadmills to fashion-forward coats to GPS-enabled collars, says Connie Wilson, editor of Vancouver-based Modern Dog magazine. Many “in” people are now treating their animals like they treat themselves; if an idea can be marketed to humans, there’s a good chance that millions of North American pet owners will want it for their furry companions, too. As a result, what used to be an industry for pet-loving entrepreneurs now holds opportunities for all sorts of firms — animal-focused or not.


Image credit: Roger Wright

Annette Bickford, a sociology professor at York University in Toronto, says the sector’s robust growth has occurred because owners are anthropomorphizing their pets — that is, treating them as people. While pets have lived indoors and slept on their owners’ beds for decades, says Bickford, she has never seen animals treated as much like humans as they are now. She says this trend is connected to technology; the rise of computers and smart­phones means most people have fewer personal contacts than before. “People are lonelier than ever,” says Bickford, making them more receptive to — and willing to reward — the love and attention of a doting pet.

As in any business, to truly stand out in the pet space you need a great product or service that’s new­ — or, at least, better than what was previously available. In the pet sector, green, healthful and practical offerings are especially hot.

Perhaps unsurprising, the humanization of animals makes health and wellness one of the fastest-growing segments within the pet industry. The APPA estimates this subsector will grow by 6% in 2010. Animals are living longer, says Julie Johnston, marketing VP of pet-supplies chain Pet Valu, and the older they get, the more likely they are to contract ailments such as arthritis and skin problems. Here, the big opportunity is in prevention; there’s a market for products and services that might avert a trip to the vet, according to FouFou Dog’s Ng: “Medical bills get expensive, so people want to feed natural or healthier products to their pets.”

Clothing is a hot area, too. But it’s no longer all about the rhinestone-encrusted novelty frocks that Tinkerbell favours. Marlene Cook, founder of Toronto’s Woofstock, North America’s largest outdoor dog festival, advises new market entrants to focus on more practical merchandise, such as insulating winterwear. Other garments that pet owners are willing to pay for include doggie raincoats and organic clothing.
If you do decide to pursue pet-related opportunities, you won’t be alone. Some established companies, including popular hair-care brand Paul Mitchell and nail-polish giant OPI, are adding pet-focused products under their well-known brands. And big pet-apparel companies, which can buy in large volumes from overseas factories, are churning out clothes faster and more cheaply than the average startup can.

Ng says that it’s harder for new entrants than it was when she got into the pet business six years ago. Still, she points out, retailers such as Winners and London Drugs are opening pet departments, creating more space for entrepreneurs to sell their wares. In order to land coveted shelf space, recommends Ng, you should start by building a reputation at boutiques. From there, network like crazy — and don’t dismiss anyone. The boom in the pet market means more retailers than ever are interested, says Ng: “If I see someone with 30 stores, I will cold-call them, even if they’re not pet-related. Everyone is carrying pet stuff now.”

Does this create a risk of oversaturation? Not as long as pet owners seek fulfilment from their animals. As Bickford says, if you can make pets feel good, their owners will feel good — and will be prepared to spend.

Believe it or not, the person who deserves much of the credit for turning the pet industry into an almost US$50-billion machine is Paris Hilton. Back in 2004, when the starlet became a tabloid fixture, she gained great attention for outfitting Tinkerbell, her ever-present chihuahua, in a series of designer dresses, T-shirts and sports jerseys. Pet owners went nuts, and high-end pet clothing and accessories started flying off the shelves.

“She was why I started dressing my dog,” admits Cheryl Ng, owner of FouFou Dog, a Richmond Hill, Ont.-based animal clothing manufacturer that placed No. 33 on PROFIT’s 2010 ranking of Canada’s Top Women Entrepreneurs. And Ng is not alone. According to the American Pet Producers Association (APPA), U.S. spending on pet products has climbed by US$13 billion over the past six years, and the industry is still growing.

In a time of great economic uncertainty, the pet industry is noticeably healthy. Every part of it is thriving, from clothing to food to health supplements. Pet owners are happily spending money on everything from doggie treadmills to fashion-forward coats to GPS-enabled collars, says Connie Wilson, editor of Vancouver-based Modern Dog magazine. Many “in” people are now treating their animals like they treat themselves; if an idea can be marketed to humans, there’s a good chance that millions of North American pet owners will want it for their furry companions, too. As a result, what used to be an industry for pet-loving entrepreneurs now holds opportunities for all sorts of firms — animal-focused or not.

Annette Bickford, a sociology professor at York University in Toronto, says the sector’s robust growth has occurred because owners are anthropomorphizing their pets — that is, treating them as people. While pets have lived indoors and slept on their owners’ beds for decades, says Bickford, she has never seen animals treated as much like humans as they are now. She says this trend is connected to technology; the rise of computers and smart­phones means most people have fewer personal contacts than before. “People are lonelier than ever,” says Bickford, making them more receptive to — and willing to reward — the love and attention of a doting pet.

As in any business, to truly stand out in the pet space you need a great product or service that’s new­ — or, at least, better than what was previously available. In the pet sector, green, healthful and practical offerings are especially hot.

Perhaps unsurprising, the humanization of animals makes health and wellness one of the fastest-growing segments within the pet industry. The APPA estimates this subsector will grow by 6% in 2010. Animals are living longer, says Julie Johnston, marketing VP of pet-supplies chain Pet Valu, and the older they get, the more likely they are to contract ailments such as arthritis and skin problems. Here, the big opportunity is in prevention; there’s a market for products and services that might avert a trip to the vet, according to FouFou Dog’s Ng: “Medical bills get expensive, so people want to feed natural or healthier products to their pets.”

Clothing is a hot area, too. But it’s no longer all about the rhinestone-encrusted novelty frocks that Tinkerbell favours. Marlene Cook, founder of Toronto’s Woofstock, North America’s largest outdoor dog festival, advises new market entrants to focus on more practical merchandise, such as insulating winterwear. Other garments that pet owners are willing to pay for include doggie raincoats and organic clothing.
If you do decide to pursue pet-related opportunities, you won’t be alone. Some established companies, including popular hair-care brand Paul Mitchell and nail-polish giant OPI, are adding pet-focused products under their well-known brands. And big pet-apparel companies, which can buy in large volumes from overseas factories, are churning out clothes faster and more cheaply than the average startup can.

Ng says that it’s harder for new entrants than it was when she got into the pet business six years ago. Still, she points out, retailers such as Winners and London Drugs are opening pet departments, creating more space for entrepreneurs to sell their wares. In order to land coveted shelf space, recommends
Ng, you should start by building a reputation at boutiques. From there, network like crazy — and don’t dismiss anyone. The boom in the pet market means more retailers than ever are interested, says Ng: “If I see someone with 30 stores, I will cold-call them, even if they’re not pet-related. Everyone is carrying pet stuff now.”

Does this create a risk of oversaturation? Not as long as pet owners seek fulfilment from their animals. As Bickford says, if you can make pets feel good, their owners will feel good — and will be prepared to spend.