Pet Parenthood is Not Just a Figure of Speech

It has often been speculated that increased levels of pet ownership among young women are related to the fact that they are starting families later in life. This contention is now backed by a small, but growing, body of scientific research, shedding new light on recent trends in the pet care market.

Family life delayed

Largely as a result of changing social mores, the increased availability of contraception and a long-term increase in the proportion of women in the labour force, the average age of women at first childbirth has been steadily increasing. In Japan, the average age of women at first childbirth rose from 29.7 years to 30.2 years between 2009 and 2014. Women tend to start their families at a younger age in the US, but the gap is narrowing: the average age of women at first childbirth in this country leapt from 25.2 years to 26.8 years over the same period. In most of Western Europe, this figure is now around 30 years.

Shedding light on the science of bonding

There is a good deal of anecdotal evidence to suggest that owners are increasingly looking at their pets through maternal eyes, referring to them as their “baby”. There is also a growing body of hard scientific research: a study conducted by researchers at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna that was published during 2013 concluded that, “The relationship between pet owners and dogs turns out to be highly similar to the deep connection between young children and their parents.” It found that the “secure base effect” (young children using a parent as a secure base for interacting with the environment) was also present in dogs. Co-author Lisa Horn noted that, “Adult dogs behave towards their caregivers like human children do.”

Meanwhile, a study conducted by researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston that was published in October 2014 and compared the “functional neuroanatomy of the human-pet bond with that of the maternal-child bond” found a similar neural reaction when women viewed images of their children and their dogs. Lori Palley, co-lead author of the study, commented, “Levels of neurohormones like oxytocin, which is involved in pair-bonding and maternal attachment, rise after interaction with pets, and new brain imaging technologies are helping us begin to understand the neurobiological basis of the relationship.”

Dog food is the new baby food?

The main consequence of this is that self-styled pet “parents” are increasingly shopping for pet food in the same manner as many parents buy baby food. The past decade or so has seen a boom in organic baby food that has proved to be remarkably resilient in the face of difficult economic conditions. Many are making their own.

Very similar trends are evident in pet food, most notably booming sales of such types of “alternative” pet food as organic, raw and grain-free offerings. Premium products accounted for 54% of value sales of dog and cat food in the US during 2014, up from 52% in 2009, while, in Western Europe, value sales of premium products are forecast to overtake those of mid-priced offerings for the first time during 2015.

This trend may also be driving growth in the population of small dogs, which tend to be particularly popular among younger women, in many markets. The proportion of the overall canine population accounted for by small dogs (up to 9kg) rose from 42% to 52% in the UK between 2009 and 2014, for example.