The size of the U.S. pet population remained relatively stable over the past six years despite an increase in dog ownership in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic and more recent growth in the number of cat-owning households, according to preliminary results from the 2022 AVMA Pet Ownership and Demographics Sourcebook.
The sourcebook shows the percentage of U.S. households that own at least one dog increased from 38% to 45% between 2016 and 2020 but had leveled off by 2022. Cats, on the other hand, are becoming more popular recently. The percentage of households that own at least one cat increased slightly between 2016 and 2020, from 25% to 26%, and then increased to 29% in 2022.
“The increase in the number of households with dogs looks large, but it occurred over a six-year period, which is actually pretty conservative growth,” said Rosemary Radich, former principal data scientist for the AVMA Veterinary Economics Division, in a prerecorded presentation Oct. 24 during the two-day AVMA Veterinary Economic and Business Forum, held virtually this year.
During her talk, Radich highlighted trends in U.S. pet ownership outlined in the AVMA sourcebook, including a decrease in horse ownership from 0.7% to 0.5% of households between 2016 and 2022. She noted that data from 2021-22 were preliminary and would be finalized later this year.
As Radich explained, the sourcebook is an analysis of pet owner surveys fielded by the AVMA along with human demographic and behavioral data provided by various sources, including the U.S. Census Bureau, Pew Research Center, and Gallup. The AVMA previously surveyed pet owners roughly every five years but is now fielding the surveys more frequently.
The AVMA analysis shows homeownership and household income impact the rate of dog ownership. “Dog populations are essentially being influenced by the overall economy,” Radich explained.
As dog-owning households grew from 38% in 2016 to roughly 45% in 2020-22, a similar pattern emerged in homeownership (PDF), which increased from 63.7% in the fourth quarter of 2016 to 65.8% in the fourth quarter of 2020 and then decreased slightly to 65.5% in the fourth quarter of 2021. The pattern was the same for median real household income, in 2021 dollars, which went from $66,700 in 2016 to $71,200 in 2020 and $70,800 in 2021.
This relationship is further supported by looking at who is adopting dogs. In 2020, at the height of the COVID pandemic, people who worked remotely were eight times as likely to acquire a pet. “We’ve heard this narrative—that people working from home have more time and potentially more money due to not having to commute—were adopting these pets, and we see this supported back in the data,” Radich said.
The 2020 data further show homeowners earning over $100,000 annually were three times as likely to have acquired a pet; people who said their financial status was the same or better were two times as likely to have acquired a pet; and people who were under 45, were married, and had children were six times as likely to acquire a pet.
That trend in the higher rate of pet acquisition appears to be slowing down, according to the 2021-22 data. “Homeowners, people with higher household income, and people who worked remotely were still more likely to acquire a pet in 2021 or in 2022, but we don’t see as high of numbers as we did in 2020,” Radich said.
Why is that the case? Radich said the pandemic was a time of change and transition, such as working from home instead of in an office. For many people, adding a pet to their life was part of that change. Those days are mostly over, Radich said, and society has essentially stabilized. For a brief period, people were acquiring pets because they had more time. The reason for acquiring pets now is mostly for companionship, as was the case prior to COVID.
“All of this shows that demand for pets is highly dependent on the economy and the labor market: remote work, homeownership, household income,” Radich said. “To really understand where we’re going in the future in terms of pet ownership and pet populations, we really have to have a handle on where the economy is going.”
Consumer spending on dogs and cats between 2020 and 2022 increased across the board. Radich said mean annual expenditures on veterinary visits for households with one dog increased from $224 in 2020 to $362 in 2022. For households with cats, mean annual expenditures on veterinary visits were $189 in 2020 and $321 in 2022.
The mean cost of an annual wellness visit for a dog and a cat was, respectively, $168 and $141 in 2016, $195 and $133 in 2020, and $192 and $169 in 2022. The costs for 2016 and 2020, Radich noted, are not adjusted for inflation. When they are, the increase in cost is flatter.
Value and affordability were the primary reasons pet owners cited for not seeing a veterinarian in the past two years. “They felt like they didn’t need the service, they took care of it themselves, they didn’t have the money, or it just wasn’t worth the cost,” Radich said.
Convenience, she added, was cited less than 10% of the time as the reason for lapsed visits.
“Perceived value is key for client engagement, so really focusing on value will help you to have a higher return on investment than focusing on convenience,” Radich said.
The AVMA conducted language-focused research with pet owners across the United States to learn more about harnessing language to improve patient care. From that, the Association created the Language of Veterinary Care Initiative. The initiative provides tools—such as instructional videos, a webinar, and e-book—that can help veterinary teams integrate key words and phrases to improve patient care into daily conversations with clients.