A Year of Lockdowns for Pets and their Parents

April 15, 2021

March of 2020 was a weird month, to say the least. Early in the month, the UK was clocking less than a hundred new cases of COVID each day. (There were many more cases going unreported due to a lack of testing.) People were still gathering for events indoors, such as Crufts in Birmingham, where a wire-haired dachshund named Maisie took Best in Show.

Within a month, the National Exhibition Centre, where the competition was held, had been transformed into the second NHS Nightingale Hospital — a sign of the times. 

Hosted by the Kennel Club, Crufts is the largest international dog show in the world. It had originally been scheduled to take place this year from the 14th to the 18th of March, but has sadly been postponed to the middle of July.

This month — a year since we in the UK first entered lockdown — lots of us have been reflecting on all we’ve been through and all the ways we’ve changed due to the pandemic. Now, in honour of those four-legged competitors who will have to wait just a while longer for their chance at the Crufts crown, we’d like to spend a moment reflecting on how the world of pets — and the pet care industry — have changed as well.

A Time of Togetherness 

In the UK, dogs have it made. 

They run lead-less in the parks. Many pubs and hair salons, back when these places still operated, welcomed them. And on hot days, some friendly shop owners make it a habit to place water bowls on the pavement outside their front entrances.

If life was good for dogs before the pandemic, it’s even better now. 

With unprecedented numbers of people working from home during the past twelve months, dogs have had the constant companionship so many of them crave. Even during the strictest phases of lockdown, the rules in the UK still allowed for dog-walking. 

A survey by the Waltham Petcare Science Institute found that as many as 86% of pet owners reported having formed deeper bonds with their pets. Some people wonder, though, if their cats appreciate them being home so much. One somewhat tongue-in-cheek story from Inside Edition reported that many cats seem to have grown disgruntled at the invasion of what they apparently consider their personal space.

A Rush on New Pets

Many people have decided that lockdown is the ideal time to get a new pet. 

An article put out last year by the University of Warwick lists some stunning numbers, such as: 

  • 180% increase in the number of enquiries to The Kennel Club
  • 600% increase in visits to RSPCA’s puppy-fostering pages 
  • 78% increase in the number of people registering new pets with pet-insurance companies

It’s not just the number of new pets changing, though, but who the owners are. The dramatic increase in pet ownership during the past year has shifted the balance more towards younger owners, specifically millennials, than in previous years. 

Of course, this isn’t all good news. Pet prices have gone up. Quality breeders can’t keep up with demand, and so some lower-quality (and even black market) providers have stepped in. There have been an unusual number of pet thefts reported. 

And inevitably, as people begin returning to work, some new pet owners will realize they’re no longer well-suited for caring for their pets.

A key opportunity exists for brands in assisting, educating, and partnering with these new owners. After all, helping people thrive as pet owners after the lockdowns lift makes both moral and business sense. 

Too Many New Mouths to Feed

With so many new owners shopping on their pets’ behalves, it’s not surprising that many grocers have been running out of pet food. 

Sainsbury’s seems to have been hit hardest by the shortage so far, but all major retailers in the UK — and elsewhere in Europe as well — are struggling right now to meet demand.  

It’s not just the demand caused by the COVID pet boom straining supply chains. One BBC article cites Brexit and an increase in grain demand in China as contributing causes.    

Whatever the causes of the shortage, as more and more people find their preferred pet-food choices missing from shelves, many will begin panic-buying and hoarding, further exacerbating the problem. Others will seek out different means of obtaining supplies, causing the shortage to spread to other sources, such as online retailers.

Positive Changes

Despite some of the problems caused by booming pet numbers, the petcare industry is rapidly changing in some exciting ways. 

Pet foods and treats are becoming safer, healthier, and more sustainable. 

Some smaller companies, such as Yora Petfoods, have built their name on nutrition and sustainability. And in recent years, even the larger companies, such as the petcare divisions of Mars and Nestle, have worked to make their products as healthy and eco-friendly as possible. 

At the same time, these companies have also transformed their marketing campaigns to adjust for consumers’ growing awareness of environmental impacts and animal well-being. 

During the past year, people have bonded with their pets in new and surprising ways. More than ever before, people want their relationships with their pets to be deep and meaningful. The smart brands recognize this dynamic and are doing everything in their power to be a part of the connection between human and animal.

Going Direct

Pet food companies are also changing how they reach their customers. 

D2C (Direct-to-consumer) and subscription models for petcare products were becoming more common before COVID. Lockdown restrictions — and now, shortages at retailers — have led to a further surge in demand for ways to have products delivered directly to people’s doors. 

As a result, Nestle has major stakes in Tails.com and Lily’s Kitchen — both D2C services. Mars has launched its platform to deliver Royal Canin goods to homes throughout Germany, France, and the Netherlands. They have also invested in numerous startups — including D2C companies — planning to capitalise on the rapidly morphing D2C marketplace. 

And with D2C comes personalisation.

The company Dandy, for instance, offers an assortment of vitamins and supplements that can be customised to fit your pet’s individual needs. Another example is Jinx, which brands itself a “pet wellness” company. Jinx is specifically appealing to the recent wave of younger pet owners who naturally gravitate towards online shopping — and with whom personalisation is all the rage.

High Stakes

The pet care industry is one of the few that are considered largely recession-proof. In fact, crises such as natural disasters, economic upheaval, or pandemics often drive people away from certain types of spending but towards others — and pets, who provide their owners with much-needed comfort and company, benefit. 

But this isn’t to say that times such as these are easy for petcare brands to navigate. The stakes rarely climb higher than they are right now. As communities begin to rebuild and economies begin to reopen, consumers are looking for brands who want to partner with them, not merely profit.

Brands have to find authentic ways to communicate their ideals and purposes. Social media represents a huge opportunity for reaching consumers on a personal level. At the same time, social media marketing is a complex affair, especially as users drift from one platform to the next. 

Tiktok, for example, has lots of the younger crowd’s attention these days, but its algorithms are notoriously resistant to marketing efforts. Nonetheless, with 7.5 billion views of pet-related content in the middle of last year, platforms such as Tiktok represent a treasure trove of consumer interactions.

The fact is, the petcare industry — like so many industries — is in flux. With so many new and younger consumers — who also happen to be more aware, more committed to their pets, and more connected online to other pet owners — now is the time for brands to take bold action and make sure people know what they stand for.