Dr. Andrea Laurent-Simpson of SMU discusses Bigeye’s 2023 US Pet Owners Study, revealing that 97 percent consider their pets family members. Hear how owners derive personal happiness and emotional support from having pets, and why the data reflects consumers’ desire for healthier lifestyles, holistic well-being, and the growing number of child-free or involuntarily childless individuals who treat their pets as family. Download the full report at bigeyeagency.com/pets-23
Adrian Tennant: Coming up in this episode of IN CLEAR FOCUS.
Andrea Laurent-Simpson: Today, we have dogs and cats specifically being thought of as actual family members, and in many cases, being given human identities, like brother, sister, and child. Some of us are choosing the properties that we buy to live in based on what works for our dogs and cats. This is not a pet anymore – it’s very clearly a family.
Adrian Tennant: You’re listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, fresh perspectives on advertising produced weekly by Bigeye: a strategy-led, full-service creative agency growing brands for clients globally. Hello. I’m your host, Adrian Tennant, Chief Strategy Officer. Thank you for joining us today. Back in March, Bigeye published its second national study of pet ownership. The report reflects responses from over a thousand pet owners nationwide, revealing what kinds of pets are most popular, how owners acquire them, and the food and non-food pet products that are purchased most regularly. The report is available on our website at bigeyeagency.com/pets-23, and you’ll also find a link in the description and transcript for this episode. To discuss some of the findings from Bigeye’s 2023 national pet owner study, and to provide some context around why dogs and cats have evolved from domestic animals to cherished members of the family, we were joined at the launch by an expert in the field: Dr. Andrea Laurent-Simpson – a research assistant professor and lecturer in the Department of Sociology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. Dr. Laurent-Simpson is also the author of the book, Just Like Family: How Companion Animals Joined The Household, which examines how pets have become so integral to families in America. Today’s episode of IN CLEAR FOCUS is another opportunity to hear our conversation.
Adrian Tennant: Andrea, welcome back to IN CLEAR FOCUS.
Andrea Laurent-Simpson: Thank you, Adrian.
Adrian Tennant: The last time we spoke on this podcast, we discussed your book, Just Like Family. For anyone who didn’t hear that episode, could you explain the book’s thesis and what the multi-species family is?
Andrea Laurent-Simpson: Of course, I think the main thrust of that book was to try and make an argument based on family demography, about how changes in mortality rates and fertility rates post-industrial revolution have changed just the American family structure in general, from one that say, early to mid 19, 20th century and earlier was more of a nuclear family. Got a biological mother and father, heterosexual couple, living under the same roof with very traditional gender roles. But with changes in mortality and fertility rates, drops in both of those rates, we started to see some fracture of that traditional family structure. Probably around the 1970s, we started to see increases in divorce rates, decreases in marital rates, and increases in cohabitation. And so the emergence of single-parent families, divorced families, stepfamilies, like lots of non-traditional family structures, that became emergent, and eventually eroded away that more traditional family structure, which continues to be somewhat dominant today, but is definitely, a much smaller percentage of family structures in the US today. In the midst of all of those changes, the argument in my book is that the multi-species family,began arising in the 1970s. When I think of multi-species families, I’m thinking of the families that we see today where we have dogs and cats specifically being thought of as actual family members, and in many cases, being given human identities, familial identities, like brother, sister, child,within the family. And as a result of that, actually being afforded the privileges that come with being a family member. Also the disparity that comes with being a family member. Whether that’s domestic violence or impoverished states, economic states, right? But being included as part of the family. The historical kind of movement in that direction I think was prompted by, industrialization and prompted by movement, within kind of technological innovation in the United States, towards forms of relationships with pets that were no longer as utilitarian in nature, that were no longer as rural in nature. Certainly, our relationships to pets became much more urban in the late 18 hundreds and into the 19 hundreds with the disappearance of the draft horse by the early 20th century actually, so as most of our population was living in urban areas, I guess our relationships became much different with pets or domesticated animals in particular pets, dogs, cats, and birds. So we kind of started to perceive them as pets, defined more like animals that have names, that live indoors, and that don’t really have any other purpose than entertaining us. Some researchers point to that and say, well, that’s the multi-species family. And you talk about this being, kind of a new, relatively new emergence, in terms of relationships within the family structure. But I don’t think we’re thinking of our dogs and cats anymore as simply entertainment, right? And we’re not just simply giving them names and letting them live indoors. We’re actually, as some of your research has shown, sleeping with our animals in bed, where some of us are making food from scratch for our animals, and some of us are choosing the properties that we buy to live in based on what works for our dogs and cats. This is not a pet anymore. It’s very clearly a family. And so this is what the book is about. How that historical demographic drift and changes in family structure have really helped to lead towards the emergence of a multi-species family where our dogs and cats are like people with familial identities, and that they’re no longer disposable. They are indispensable in our families now.
Adrian Tennant: In Bigeye’s Pet Owners Study, 97 percent consider that patch to be family members. More than four in five owners say they love and spoil their pets as if they were children, and approaching three in five owners describe their pets as being like a child to them. Andrea, did these statistics mirror what you’ve seen in your qualitative research?
Andrea Laurent-Simpson: I think definitively, especially for child-free families and for involuntarily childless families, dogs and cats have taken on a very significant role. Where these families are very aware that their dogs and cats are not actual children, but that they have bonded with them as if they’re children. And their behavior suggests that they think of them as children where they are engaged in reading stories to their pets, where they travel everywhere with their pets, where they are willing to lay out thousands of dollars for things like veterinary care to ensure that their pets have the absolute best lives possible. I think definitely the qualitative work that I have for those family structures indicates empirical support for your quantitative findings. I would also say that for families who have human children, who have young human children, there is also the tendency to identify their dogs and cats as babies, as kids, as four-legged family, but they’re much more, I think, careful to draw a line of distinction between their human children and that of their furry children. So while they may refer to their animals as children, and say that they willingly think of them that way, their behavior suggests a little bit differently, which makes sense because US society is very pro-natalist, it’s very supportive of having human children. And so once you’ve had human children, if you begin equating them or holding them on an equal level with furry children, stigmatization becomes a very real thing very quickly. So I think that that also probably lends some support to the quantitative data that you’ve found here. Just kind of, I think, refining it a little bit with thinking about how different family structures are gonna impact the ways in which people think of their dogs and cats and how I think their behavior exhibits the ways in which they’ve identified their dogs and cats that way.
Adrian Tennant: In our study, four in five owners report gaining personal happiness and emotional support from having a pet. Approaching three in five owners report that they experienced less anxiety or depression from having a pet. And half of all owners report that having a pet helps relieve stress. Andrea, what did these stats reveal about the perceived or real benefits of pet ownership?
Andrea Laurent-Simpson: Well, Adrian, I think this is, an interesting, ongoing methodological dispute between those in psychology, sociology, and human-animal interaction research. There is a good deal of research to support the idea that companion animals support human health, mental health, and physical health in a number of ways. The CDC argues that bringing dogs and cats, in particular, into our households helps to bring on decreases in blood pressure, decreases in loneliness and anxiety, and even symptoms of PTSD. That triglyceride levels are likely to drop, as well as cholesterol, bad cholesterol levels are likely to drop, and that dogs, in particular, bring on increased opportunities for exercise and outdoor activities that we may not otherwise be engaged in given the ways in which we live our lives: sitting in chairs working and staring at screens all day long. But also for older adults, the CDC has highlighted particular benefits for older adults who are likely to experience isolation and depression, and owning a dog especially, but a cat as well, leads to greater opportunities for our elderly to socialize. Some people argue a little bit against this, like they counter that, well, maybe we see qualitative reports – although your research has offered quantitative reports – qualitative reports, where participants highlight all of these benefits that they perceive as happening with their animals and their relationship. There is quantitative psychological research that says the impact is actually negligible. But I think that ultimately – and this is an argument that I’ve made multiple times as a qualitative researcher – I think that it’s better to foundationally actually listen to what people’s perceptions are and the ways in which they see their lives being bettered by this relationship than to necessarily depend on statistical measures and operationalization of variables through researchers who have well, based in the literature, decided how or what they think is the most important way with which to measure this so-called pet effect. I think those perceptions are much more important and was actually very pleased to see this quantitative support, for the pet effect in your work.
Adrian Tennant: Thank you. Well, we found that pet owners are pretty brand loyal. Over two-thirds say they’ve always purchased the same pet food brand, but if they do switch to trying new pet food brands, the top three reasons are related to price (46 percent), availability (44 percent), and the quality of ingredients (42 percent). Three-quarters of owners report that they strive to feed their pets only ingredients that they would be comfortable eating themselves. And three in five Gen Z owners say they would prepare meals from scratch to ensure the quality of what their pets consume. Andrea, do you find anything interesting in these findings?
Andrea Laurent-Simpson: I find this report to be very interesting. I especially find the Gen Z reports to be very interesting. There’s an increasing tendency – and there has been, especially for the past decade – for human trends in eating to be reflected in the ways in which we’re feeding our animals. And so I think that generally, US society is moving towards healthier eating habits, at least encouraging healthier eating habits, healthier lifestyles, and even, although affordability is an issue here, even towards more organic lifestyles, right? Eating cleaner. And so, looking at Gen Z, the results were 60 percent of those owners are reporting that they’d actually prepare their pet’s meals from scratch, represents a couple of different things to me. First of all, it represents this continued trend where we are just seeing more and more focus on how we take care of our bodies and what we put into our bodies,the kinds of ingredients that we put into our bodies. But I think also it reflects, potentially, a continued trend for Gen Z coming out of Gen X and, Millennials and now Gen Z, where I think that probably as they get older, as they start building their own families or choosing to be child-free within their family structures, that they’re going to turn to their pets in particular as child-free persons. Gen Z certainly has the potential to have greater child-free choices, I think, percentage-wise, as they grow older, to turn to their pets. And really treat them behaviorally as if they’re human. So we prepare our meals from scratch, and parents of human children, sometimes, depending on whether they have the time or not, are preparing meals from scratch for their human children. Such a high percentage of Gen Z reporting that they would be willing to prepare meals from scratch is not surprising to me at all because I think there’s an increasing trend for child-free – and involuntarily childless owners especially – to think of their pets as children, but also the Gen Z finding was really interesting to me because I think also it might, I wanna be cautious in that analysis because I think it might also reflect, at least currently, a trend that includes opportunity, time opportunity of Gen Z. They’re in their late teens, into their early twenties right now, and so they’re still, you know, when you look at their income, a good chunk of their income is still coming from their parents, right? As their parents hand them discretionary income. They still have some time on their hands, especially since the younger ones might still be in High School, and the older ones may be in college, right? So a lot of them may not actually be living that adult life yet that has so much demand on, time resource,as well as a financial resource. They may actually have more time on their hands with which to engage in this kind of behavior. So I think that analysis is such a young generation, we have to be a little bit cautionary about it. But certainly, I know marketers and research in marketing that is examining discretionary income, is watching Gen Z really closely because of the percentage of discretionary income that they have right now, but also because of how careful they’re being children coming out of the Great Recession. I think that they’re more prone to saving and being a little more frugal instead of going out and buying prepared foods, they are probably more likely to be preparing from scratch, which is a cheaper alternative.
Adrian Tennant: Let’s take a short break. We’ll be right back after this message.
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Adrian Tennant: Welcome back. I’m talking to Dr. Andrea Laurent-Simpson about the results of Bigeye’s 2023 US Pet Owners Study. We found that approaching four in five dog owners celebrate their pets’ birthdays or adoption anniversaries. In multi-pet households, approaching one-half of dog owners have birthday or adoption parties for their pets. Well over two-thirds of all owners purchase birthday or adoption anniversary gifts. Christmas is the most popular occasion for owners to purchase gifts for their pets, with 57 percent of owners doing so. More than one-half of dog owners with annual household incomes of $200,000 or more also report purchasing gifts for their pets for Valentine’s day and Halloween. Andrea, can you unpack this consumer behavior for us?
Andrea Laurent-Simpson: I think for sure, and that last point on household incomes of over $200,000 purchasing Halloween and Valentine’s Day gifts, discretionary income, right? There’s just plenty of discretionary income there with which to do so. But I think that probably the most interesting finding, and I’ve always been very fascinated about the celebration of birthdays for our dogs and cats. I think that this really has a root in the historical processes of birthdays in the United States, in particular, in the history of birthday celebrations. If you look throughout history, usually birthday celebrations were reserved for the elite, for nobility, for rulers. Birthday celebrations for the average family or Joe we’re not engaged. But with the Industrial Revolution – I always tell my students, “Look to the Industrial Revolution for why we’ve changed so much!” – with the Industrial Revolution, that brought decreases in family size with increasing importance placed on human children. Certainly, the 19th century is probably when we first see in the US this kind of emergence of birthday celebrations at all. And it rested on children,and it comes alongside some demographic changes where as those families are getting smaller, because of drops in fertility rates and mortality rates, and children are increasingly being seen as more valued emotionally. Whereas in the past, they were more valued economically, right? They could go work in the fields – “We’ll have lots of kids and they can help support the family.” But with industrialization into the 20th century, you start to see kind of this shift over to that smaller size format and greater emotional and financial investment in human children, and part of this is the birthday celebration, and this emphasis on the importance of these children coming into our lives. It’s also, I think, the emergence of birthday celebrations are rooted in or increasing awareness of how time impacts our lives. again, not something that really was paid attention to pre-industrial revolution. Keeping track of time was not something that was really done. Clocks, if there were clocks, they were not usually very accurate , but industrialization brought on urban jobs, right? And brought on the need to be at your job on time and to leave on time. As education became more widespread for children, same thing, getting them to school and back home on time. All of these things shifted our understanding of how time changes, and the birthday celebration is just part of this, thinking about how our lives are changing, and thinking about the importance of those in our lives with birthdays. So, what does all of this have to do with how people are spending money on buying gifts for their dogs and cats today? This is, to me, a very predictable trend. Thinking of dogs and cats as family members, as valued family members and needing to spoil them as such, needing to demonstrate to them in the same ways that mid 19th century into the early 20th century, children were increasingly celebrated. These four-legged children are now being increasingly celebrated and being doted upon with adoption or birthday gifts and anniversaries and other holiday celebrations as well. It’s simply a demonstration of the emotional value we place on you and your presence and the time spent in our family. It’s a little bit morbid, but you can also see the same thing in terms of the evolution of the ways in which pets pass away, and how we memorialize them when they pass away. In the early 20th century, you can see the emergence of some very early pet cemeteries. but when you go back and look at those stones, the names that are on them, for the pets, are not human-like. They’re not usually dated, like you don’t usually have a date in terms of how long the pet lived. And you don’t usually have any kind of In Memoriam statements. Right? Whereas today, when you go and you look in places where we bury pets now, pet cemeteries, you’ve got all of that information just like you would in a human cemetery. It is really just literally this kind of historical shift over towards assigning personhood over to our animals. The birthday piece, right, is thinking about how you’ve come into our lives and celebrating these yearly markers, and then the passing away and recording of some sort of historical markers about your life on your headstone as how we kind of sum up our pets as well.
Adrian Tennant: Last year, we saw devastating wildfires in the west and the deadly impact of hurricane Ian across the Southeast. Emergency orders from the authorities to evacuate can present pet owners with terrible dilemmas, especially when their closest shelters don’t accept pets. In our study, almost two-thirds of owners report, they would be extremely or somewhat likely to risk their own lives, to save their pets from a dangerous situation. Owners in households without any children are more likely than others to say this as our owners, belonging to generation X. Andrea, this data suggests that we need more pet-friendly locations for people to shelter during natural disasters. Have you seen anything in your research that reflects this willingness to save pets during dangerous life-or-death situations?
Andrea Laurent-Simpson: Definitively, in my research, while we didn’t speak as much about disasters, I certainly saw evidence that people were either willing to sacrifice their own safety for the safety of their pets, whether that was physical safety or emotional safety. I think that that broke down by family structure, especially the physical safety piece. It broke down by family structure, again, with people who had human children reporting that if you put me in a situation where I have to choose between my dog or cat and my human children, I’m going to choose my human children every single time. But speaking with child-free families or involuntarily childless families, it was a very different story right? There was definitively an increased willingness to put themselves out there, for what they might have perceived as emotional bullying of their pets, either by partners or by friends, but even physical safety. I remember a particular participant, talking about his dog being endangered. He had a Dachshund and he had let his dog down, I guess off of his porch onto the sidewalk to go for a walk. His dog was on a leash and another dog that was not on a leash came barrel, a much bigger dog came barreling down the sidewalk, and could have easily killed his dog and was growling and very aggressive. Well, the participant had some chronic knee problems that made it very difficult for him to move around. And really going up and down steps was an activity that he’d been advised against in totality. and what he reported to me was that he went as fast as he could down the steps. He stumbled a little bit as he went down them, got to his dog, picked his dog up to keep his dog safe from being attacked. Not only did he put his own physical health, kind of at risk going down those stairs, but he also put his physical health at risk because the other dog could have easily attacked him instead. But in his mind, as he reported to me, he didn’t care. He just wanted to make sure that his dog was safe, secure, and that he would be able to ward off any kind of attack. So there’s that. In terms of actual, natural disasters or human disasters like war, and I think that the most common example that human-to-animal interactions think of, maybe I should say the most influential example would be Katrina. The response during Katrina to evacuation was for first responders to go in and get the people out. that was their imperative: you go in and get people out before they die. And what they ran into was people saying, “Okay, I’ll go with you. I’m gonna bring my pets too.” And the first responders had no policy or procedure to take animals with them. They didn’t have shelters to take their animals to. and so essentially, what they were left with was saying to evacuees, “you either come with us without your animal, or we have to leave you behind.” Guess what happened? People stayed behind. They stayed behind, and there’s increasing amounts of research and just empirical evidence and news stories of people saying, “Okay, I’m gonna evacuate, but I’m going back in and I’m going to get my animals. I don’t care if you say it’s safe or not. I will go back and get my animals.” Post-Katrina, the federal government answered this issue with pet evacuation and transportation standards. And essentially, what that did do for natural disasters was govern first responders’ policies about how they would evacuate humans and their pets. Essentially, what they were given was imperative that if you go in to evacuate a person and they have an animal they want to bring with them, you must also bring the animal. and so I mean, different emergency response organizations respond to that in different ways. But ultimately, what it means is now people get evacuated with their pets because there’s obviously a public health concern if people are willing to stay behind with their animals, then that means that we are increasing the risk of public health with, damage from natural disaster, physical injury, disease and the spread of disease, but also post-disaster in terms of post-traumatic stress, disorder and depression and anxiety being much higher amongst pet owners who were forced to leave their animals behind. So, and I will just add this other piece cuz I find this fascinating and it’s not about the United States, it’s actually about Ukraine, right? And the invasion of Russia into Ukraine. there were lots of pictures, as just the mass exodus from Ukraine, with Russia invading the country, of people carrying their animals with them and walking, you know, hundreds of miles to try and get over the border. And some research that’s been done since then found that, 39 percent of people actually reported staying behind in Ukraine, in part because of their pets. They didn’t feel like they’d be able to take their pets with them, so they stayed. and of those that left, less than about 10 percent actually left their pets behind. So one thing that I’ve argued in my book is that this is not actually just an American thing. I think what this is, alongside, looking at total fertility rates and mortality rates and levels of development, is it really is unique to post-industrialized nations that have, higher GDPs, and that have opportunity to build in these kinds of relationships with their pets. They’re not no longer just focused on their own physical safety and survival. they’re no longer focused on building big families with human children. and this opens up opportunities for, bonding with dogs and cats in the way that we see here in the US. one more thing. some more kind of interesting research from the ASPCA indicates that about 90 percent of pet owners say that they bring their pets with them in an evacuation. So the vast majority of pet owners in the USA say “I’m taking my pet with me during evacuation.” Interestingly, 84 percent of them have no like emergency pet sheltering planned, so they would take their pets with them, but they don’t know where they would take them to. And as you mentioned earlier in your introduction to this question, that’s a problem. Like we need some more government funding or something in terms of setting up more pet shelters as we Come upon and approach more and more natural disasters. 68 percent of the people, according to A S P C A that were interviewed, said that they actually feel like the government needs to put some funding in place to support that. So, you know, I mean that’s kind of another, piece of refinement about thinking on natural disaster preparedness is that most pet owners really want that in place, but either they don’t know how to do it or they haven’t gotten a chance, the opportunity, to do it. Vast majority of them don’t have that planning in place, but also a large majority want the government to be the ones that take that responsibility on.
Adrian Tennant: So Andrea, if IN CLEAR FOCUS, listeners would like to learn more about you, your academic work, and your book, Just Like Family, where can they find you?
Andrea Laurent-Simpson: Well, they can find me on academia.edu and with my name, Andrea two-thirds, or they can email me at ALaurentSimpson@smu.edu.
Adrian Tennant: Andrea, thank you for being our guest again on IN CLEAR FOCUS.
Andrea Laurent-Simpson: Thank you for inviting me. I’ve had fun!
Adrian Tennant: Thanks again to my guest this week, Dr. Andrea Laurent-Simpson of the department of Sociology at Southern Methodist University, and the author of the book, Just Like Family: How Companion Animals Joined The Household. Andrea’s work was a source of inspiration for the Bigeye Pet Owners Study, and she very kindly reviewed the questions with us before we fielded the survey. If you’d like to obtain a free copy of the report, please go to our website at bigeyeagency.com/pets-23. And if you have any questions about the results or the insights contained in the report, please let me know. You can email me directly at email@example.com. Thank you for listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS this week, and I hope you enjoyed learning more about pet ownership in the US. I’ve been your host, Adrian Tennant. Until next week, goodbye.