The local increase in veterinary visits, pet food sales and more is emblematic of nationwide growth trends
By Caleb Sigmon & Amanda MacLaren
Chances are good that you or someone you know has adopted an animal within the past couple of years.
“I believe pets proved to be good therapy for people during the isolation of COVID quarantine,” says Stephanie Clark, a registered veterinary technician and practice manager at Hill Creek Veterinary Hospital in Pittsboro. “Many newer clients are people who finally had time during quarantine to go out and acquire a pet for the first time. [They’ve since] recognized the stress relief and benefits of having a pet companion and are doing more to maintain that bond.”
Morgan Cartier Weston and her husband, James Weston, adopted their pit bull-beagle-Chihuahua mix, Casper, in 2020. “We were home more than ever and knew we had the time and love to give a puppy, so it was the perfect time to bring him home,” Morgan says. “We have loved walking the trails in Fearrington Village and at the Haw River with Casper and his ‘big’ brother, Chico,” she adds of the couple’s other dog, a dachshund-Chihuahua mix, who they adopted two years prior.
A nationally representative survey of 5,020 respondents by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals showed that close to one in five households adopted a cat or dog from March 2020 to May 2021.
Some of the biggest pet-related trends nationwide – a rise in pet owners purchasing animal health insurance, more consumer demand for high-quality pet food, more veterinary care options and increases in online shopping – are expected to grow in Chatham County as more families move into the area over the next decade. Fifty-two percent of dog and cat owners surveyed by OnePoll in partnership with MetLife Pet Insurance in 2021 reported that they spend more money on their pets every year than they do on themselves.
A few of our own veterinarians and pet-focused businesses weigh in on what they’re seeing locally:
PEACE OF MIND
Stephanie says that many pet owners were home more during the height of COVID-19 and either noticed health issues in their pets for the first time, or finally had the time to address health issues and get their pet seen by a veterinarian. Pet parents are also purchasing health insurance for their four-legged dependents to safeguard against accidents and help offset some of the veterinary costs to diagnose, treat and manage a pet’s illness or injury.
The pandemic lockdown helped drive up the number of insured pets, which more than doubled over the past four years. The industry is valued at $2.83 billion, according to the North American Pet Health Insurance Association. Eighty- four percent of the pet insurance industry is covered by Nationwide, Trupanion, Petplan and the ASPCA.
Dr. David Webster, a veterinarian at Hope Crossing Animal Hospital in Pittsboro, says the practice is busier than ever, and they never slowed down when COVID-19 hit. “When you look at pets with insurance, owners are able to do more and provide more for their pets than those not having insurance,” he says. “When they need it, they are very happy they bought it.”
As more workers return to the office and folks start to regularly travel again, they often need a reliable place to board their animals. Availability among pet day cares is hard to come by at the moment, according to Green Beagle Lodge owner Tammy Purner. The company, which already has a location in Chapel Hill, is slated to open another facility at 120 Lodge Ln. in Pittsboro in November to help keep up with increasing demand. “We will feature large outdoor play areas with splash pads and an in-ground swimming pool for the larger dogs,” Tammy says. “We will have five indoor/outdoor enclosures and four rooms for dogs with special needs. Our lobby has large windows that look out into the front play yards. We also have rooms for after- hours drop-off or pickup.”
ADVANCED OR ALTERNATIVE CARE
Some pet owners pursue more modern or holistic options such as blood labs, acupuncture or laser surgery as a result of increasing demand for new pet care technology.
“Veterinary medicine has made a lot of progress in the last decade,” says Dr. Laurie Weiser, a veterinarian at Pittsboro Animal Hospital. “More and more owners are seeking advanced diagnostics [such as] CT scans, MRIs [and] ultrasounds.”
Acupuncture continues to gain popularity in veterinary medicine, Stephanie says. “I believe it will become more and more common as people witness the many ways acupuncture can improve their pet’s quality of life,” she says. “Acupuncture is a highly successful, noninvasive alternative therapy for many of the disease processes seen in veterinary medicine. Many people have experienced the benefit of acupuncture in their own lives and are excited to be able to provide those same benefits to their pets.”
Pet owners also purchase products like CBD oil to treat their pets. However, they are unlikely to find this product at a vet clinic in Chatham since the North Carolina Veterinary Medical Board advises against the administration of CBD on pets. Laurie cautions owners who seek to use CBD for their furry friends because there is no regulation on these types of items for animals.
“We have no idea about proper dosing and side effects as no real double- blinded scientific studies have been published,” Laurie says.
Pittsboro Pet Supply manager Josh Miller says today’s pet owners want to give their animals food made in human-grade facilities with high- quality ingredients.
“They are concerned about finding a food that is sustainably sourced and made in the U.S.,” he says. “We find companies that are family-owned and -operated just like ours.”
The market for organic pet food is valued at about $5 billion and is estimated to nearly double in the next six years, according to investment firm The Insight Partners.
“Since moving to Chatham County in 2020, we’ve really appreciated having Pittsboro Pet Supply nearby,” Morgan says. “It is a great resource with friendly staff and a loyalty program for pet food. It carries all the big brands as well as specialty items. Our dogs have sensitive stomachs, and we’ve been able to find grain-free products for them. It has also recently started carrying reptile food, which is great for our corn snake, Pepper.”
But purchasing top-of-the-line food products is not the only way pet owners go the extra mile.
ADD TO YOUR VIRTUAL CART
Thirty-five percent of pet retail sales happen online now, as opposed to only 8% in 2015, according to market researchers at Packaged Facts. “With the busyness of life and the pandemic, it’s just one way to streamline their lives,” Josh says of customers’ recent habits at Pittsboro Pet Supply. He says his store was able to adapt despite the growth of online pet retail giants like Chewy, Petco, PetSmart or Amazon.
“We have been blessed that we started our online ordering system in 2017 and are able to compete with the online retailers,” Josh says, “because we do offer a frequent buyer card on most pet foods and can have their order [delivered] to them on the same day.”
ALL IN ALL
The pet industry is gigantic – valued at $123 billion in 2021, according to Packaged Facts – and shows no signs of slowing down in growth. As of April 2022, inflation-adjusted spending on pets and related products was 28% higher than it was in January 2019. To put in perspective, there was a mere 9.6% growth for regular groceries over that same period – meaning consumers are quicker to buy more for their pet than for themselves.
The majority of households that welcomed a furry companion amid the pandemic say they’re keeping the pet for good. So this market growth – much like the pets that were brought home – is likely here to stay.