Their faces were so hard to resist. Yet their costs – as offices, travel and entertainment options reopen – are leading to some delayed financial shock.
Pets famously provided solace for isolated Americans during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. US consumers purchased some 47 million of them in 2020, according to VitusVet, which provides services to vets. A whopping 10 million of those were dogs.
When much of the workforce was remote, keeping a new pet was easy and fairly cheap. Who needed doggy day care when every day was a day at home?
But with offices reopening and travel rebounding, pet owners say their expenses are rising steeply, approaching amounts some people might shell out for their own (human) rent. While few admit they regret their purchases, many say they are readjusting their budgets to accommodate the high price of pet ownership.
Josephine Hendrix, 38, a literacy coach who lives in Brooklyn's Dumbo district, is one such pet owner. Last year, she bought Bowie, a seven-month-old sheepadoodle. (That is a mix between an Old English sheepdog and a poodle.)
“We knew living in New York would be a premium and we figured having a dog would be no exception,” she says.
Ms Hendrix estimates that she and her husband now spend about $800 a month on doggy day care alone. That is in addition to vet visits (at least $100 every time), food ($120 for a delivery service each month) and toys ($26 a month for a BarkBox subscription).
Ms Hendrix has also spent about $400 replacing Bowie’s crates as he outgrows them, another $350 for a recent emergency vet visit and $400 for his recent bout of giardia, a parasite that puppies can contract. (Bowie is fine now.)
The added expenses are not life-changing but they have encouraged the couple to rethink their overall spending.
“Day care is definitely double the price of a dog walker, we did the maths,” Ms Hendrix says. “But we also thought that day care was double the benefit for a puppy because of the socialisation.”
She and her husband are cutting back on eating out and shopping at expensive delis. They also now park their car on the street instead of paying for a garage.
For people who do not own dogs, this might seem appear to be a significant lifestyle change. But pet industry executives and analysts say it represents a shift in the way people think about animal ownership.
More than 75 per cent of millennial and Gen Z consumers “believe that their pets are an integral part of the family”, according to Jeffrey Simmons, chief executive of Elanco Animal Health. As such, they have increased expectations of the care needed for their pets and are willing to make sacrifices.
In one survey by Realtor.com, about 75 per cent of homebuyers with pets said they would pass up an otherwise ideal property if it was not right for their animal companions.
Sarah Mogin, 34, a software developer who lives in Brooklyn Heights, is finding that in a reopened economy, she has to make some new sacrifices for her dog, Julian, a chihuahua.
At the moment, Julian can only stand to be away from his owner for about two hours.
“We can probably build that up, but that is where he is at right now,” Ms Mogin says.
That means she has to put him in day care when she goes into her office. Her company is not requiring her to return to the office but she enjoys going in three days a week to see colleagues and put some separation between her work life and home life.
Ms Mogin estimates she is spending about $600 a month on Julian’s day care, with each day costing about $50.
“It is definitely more expensive for me to go back to the office,” she says.
Then there is pet insurance for $50 a month, $15 for nail trims every four weeks and $140 for a six-month supply of flea and tick medicine, along with food, toys and vet visits.
Once, she had to rush Julian to the vet because he could not stop throwing up (he has since recovered), and the bill was $791. Pet insurance reimbursed $482 but that still left her with an unexpected cost of $309.
“He is definitely worth it all, I love him so much,” Ms Mogin says. “I look at him and I get happy. He has this cute little trot when we are walking.”
A June survey from the American Pet Products Association found that spending on pets has increased overall since the pandemic began. About 35 per cent of US pet owners said they had spent more money on their pets in the previous 12 months than in the preceding year.
Pet-sitting businesses have been a huge beneficiary of that spending.
The phone at Pups & Pals Pet Lounge in Austin, Texas, rings at least 10 times a day with calls from potential new clients, according to DeDe Lally, the owner of its two locations.
“We have 250 names on our waiting list at each location, a total of 500 names that are not our clients but want to be,” she says. “It is just exploding right now.”
At Animal Loving Care in Brooklyn, the waiting list is 70 pets long, according to Adrienne Preuss, the owner.
“We are a smaller day care,” Mr Preuss says. “We are at maximum every single day.”
It is a similar story across town at Harlem Doggie Day Spa, where owner Brian Taylor says business is surging and dog owners all seem to want three to five days of care a week, corresponding to the readjusted office attendance in the new hybrid-work world.
“I am scrambling to look for new employees,” Mr Taylor says.
The hunt for labour is one of the ways in which the pet care industry is being affected by the more general strains on the recovering economy.
At a time when supply-chain disruptions have led to shortages of everything from furniture to golf clubs, pet food supplies are also under pressure, according to Dana Brooks, president and chief executive of the Pet Food Institute.
The average dog owner spent $287 on food last year, up from $259 in 2018, according to the American Pet Products Association’s latest survey.
Despite the costs, Ms Hendrix has no regrets about buying Bowie. She would buy another dog if her building allowed it.
“I am already wondering if we can clone him,” she says.