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Pandemic puppy boom drives profits, unleashes havoc on pet businesses

Pet-care professionals warn the canine rush has outpaced capacity to meet pets’ distinct needs
Maddy Hejak, owner of Dog Logic Toronto, poses for a photograph while dog walking for clients in Toronto, on Monday, December 13, 2021. The pandemic puppy boom has been a boon to the pet industry, helping businesses recoup lockdown-related losses, and in some cases, expand operations, say owners and analysts. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tijana Martin

Arpeggio may seem like a puffed-up name for a puppy, but Alison Hodd says it suits her Australian bernedoodle, whose expensive tastes may as well have been imported from Italy.

The mother of two in Oakville, Ont., is among the legion of Canadians who decided to bring a four-legged friend into their lives while stuck at home under COVID-19 lockdown.

But despite the joys of canine companionship, Hodd admits she didn’t anticipate the financial, emotional and time commitment that dog ownership entails.

He becomes destructive if he doesn’t get his quota of lengthy walks, says Hodd. And if she wants to distract him with a dog chew, Hodd says $8 beef tendons are the only treats that pass his discerning palate.

She’s spent thousands of dollars more than she budgeted on training, grooming and emergency vet visits. Then there’s all of the accessories she’s bought to make Arpeggio feel like part of the family, including a life-jacket/raincoat, birthday gifts and a treat advent calendar.

“Did we bite off more than we can chew? … Some days we do look at each other and we do wonder,” Hodd said. “But then we get a good night’s sleep, and we figure it out, and we do it all over again.”

The pandemic puppy boom has been a boon to the pet industry, helping businesses recoup lockdown-related losses, and in some cases, expand operations, say owners and analysts.

But some pet-care professionals warn that the canine rush has outpaced capacity to meet the distinct needs of these lockdown-raised pups, raising concerns about how they’ll adjust when their owners are no longer home to spoil them with affection.

A November survey of 2,000 Canadian adults by Narrative Research found that of the roughly half of respondents who identified as pet owners, about a third said they added an animal companion to their households since the start of the COVID-19 crisis.

This influx of new customers has boosted sales of pet supplies. One of Canada’s largest retailers, Pet Valu Holdings Ltd., reported $200.7 million in revenues in its last quarter, an increase of more than 25 per cent compared to the year prior.

Lisa Hutcheson, managing partner at consulting firm J.C. Williams Group, said this explosive growth in the pet industry has largely been driven by millennials, and to a lesser extent empty nesters, catering to increasingly luxe canine lifestyles.

Among the amenities available to today’s pampered pooch include curated subscription boxes, matching apparel for man and his best friend, temperature-controlled beds, GPS and activity trackers and interactive cameras that dispense treats.

“We’re just seeing so many new ways to spoil your pet,” said Hutcheson. “There are people out there that are taking advantage of this new category and finding opportunities.”

Meghan Smith in Elora, Ont., is among the upstarts tapping into the doggie deluge.

After losing her last grooming job during lockdown, Smith decided to set up her own shop in April. And as overbooked groomers sent clients her way, Smith said it wasn’t long before Meg’s Paw Spa was packed with fur balls.

“There was a boom in the pet industry, and I just went for it,” she said.

Maddy Hajek, owner of Dog Logic Toronto, said she feared that the onset of the pandemic in early 2020 could spell the end of her fledgling walking, training and boarding service.

But since then, Hajek said, her roster of walking clients has nearly tripled to roughly 70 tail-wagging regulars, prompting her to expand her staff from one to four co-wranglers.

This expansion was aided by competitors-turned-collaborators who referred clients to Dog Logic after their packs hit maximum capacity, said Hajek.

This fall, Hajek found herself in a similar position, announcing on Instagram that walking services were fully booked until spring 2022.

But that didn’t stem the flood of inquiries to her inbox, many from dog owners desperate to find a solution for their pups after being summoned back to the office.

Hajek said she plans to bring on two more walkers in January, with an eye toward hanging up her leash so she can focus on overseeing operations.

“I’m one of many independent businesses in Toronto who’s thriving right now,” said Hajek, a certified dog trainer. “The downside of that is … there aren’t enough qualified hands to manage the amount of customer inflow that we’ve had in the last year, and so certain dogs are going to be left behind.”

Lee Neil, an associate professor at the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph, is among the animal advocates who worry that pandemic-prolonged wait lists for training services could pose long-term risks to pet welfare.

Many owners couldn’t access resources such as socialization classes during a critical period of early canine development, which could lead to a rise in behavioural issues, such as aggression and separation anxiety, said Neil.

She said lack of regulation in the pet profession could open the door to self-proclaimed “trainers” with unscientific or inhumane techniques.

Neil is concerned that some pets’ problems could overwhelm owners, and in severe cases, raise public safety concerns or put animals at risk of relinquishment.

So far, there’s no clear evidence that these worst fears have come to fruition, said Neil.

But given all of the comfort that pets have brought us during the COVID-19 crisis, she hopes we’ll return the favour by preparing them for post-pandemic life.

“The pandemic has kind of opened people’s eyes to their animals’ needs,” she said. “We definitely need to be … thinking of ways that we can keep them busy when we’re not home.”

—Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press

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