Millennial pet owners fuel pet industry growth in Central Pa.

Bari Dixon readily admits that she’s a “crazy dog mom.”

She and her husband Michael make spending and lifestyle decisions largely based on their dogs, Hank, a cockapoo, and Izzy, a mini-goldendoodle.

“They’re probably a little more spoiled than the average dog. People always tell us we treat our dogs like our babies … we don’t have kids yet. It’s good practice!” said Dixon, 26.

Shortly after moving into their house in 2017, they spent a couple thousand dollars to install a fence around their yard, Bari said, so Hank and Izzy could safely run around outside.

“They are literally our biggest priority,” Michael, 27, said, as Hank snuggled up next to him on a couch in their Springettsbury Township home.

The Dixons aren’t alone in viewing their pets as a stepping stone to having a family.

Millennials are putting off having children to begin with, according to data from the Pew Research Center. In 2014, 42 percent of millennial women were moms, compared to 49 percent of Gen Xers when they were the same age.

Like the Dixons, millennials are making major life decisions based on their pets’ well-being. According to a July 2017 Harris poll conducted on behalf of SunTrust Mortgage, a third of millennials surveyed cited their dogs as a reason for purchasing their first homes.

The American Pet Products Association reported in April 2017 that 35 percent of millennials own pets, making them the largest pet-owning demographic, just ahead of baby boomers, at 32 percent. The group, which represents pet product manufacturers and importers, also reported that spending on pets topped $66.75 billion in 2016, up from $60.28 billion in 2015.

Trends in the pet industry are apparent in Central Pennsylvania, as new vet practices open to keep up with a growing population, and specialty products and services become more widely available.

Pet care is personal

Kristen Zellner, who has owned the pet store Abrams & Weakley in Susquehanna Township for over nine years, has watched the changes in the pet industry in the region.

“When I think about the younger generations and how they treat their pets … they don’t hesitate to buy them the best treats and food. They want to know what’s on that label on their pet food,” said Zellner, whose shop has offered a wide range of natural ingredient-based pet products since it opened in 1985.

“They’re very, very educated. They’re pet-savvy,” she said.

The demand for more natural products has led to an inundation of options in recent years for what Zellner stocks in the store.

“It’s insane…and it’s very difficult to pick things,” she said.

Big-box retailers have caught on to that increased demand, too. Stores that didn’t used to carry pet products now do, like Home Depot, Target and Lowe’s, said Zellner. Plus, grocery stores have added higher-end, holistic-minded pet brands, another added competitor for Zellner.

Still, she remains confident in the loyal community of customers who have historically shopped at Abrams & Weakley, despite increased pressure from a newer Pet Valu location on Linglestown Road in Susquehanna Township.

According to Pet Business Magazine’s 2017 list of the top 25 pet retailers, Pet Valu added more locations in North America than any other pet brand, including the two largest, Petco and PetSmart. The Canada-based chain has nearly 20 stores in Central Pennsylvania.

Although not independently owned like Abrams & Weakley, Pet Valu’s locations are notably smaller than the big-box pet stores, which gives customers a more personal, boutique feel when shopping there.

The Dixons, dog-parents to Hank and Izzy, buy dry dog food at their local Pet Valu. “Every time we go there, they know us. They talk to us and help us,” Bari said.

Another place the Dixons buy some of their dogs’ products is Chewy.com, an online retailer whose East Coast distribution center is located in Silver Spring Township. The company, which strives for friendly, reliable 24/7 customer service as one of its core principles, has seen major growth since its founding in 2011. Chewy.com’s annual revenue has grown from $26 million in its first year to nearly $2 billion by March 2017, according to a report from the Miami Herald.

More technology, more possibilities

That same focus on personalized service has driven demand for more veterinary services.

As the population — human and pet — in Central Pennsylvania increases, Ivan and Sharon Pryor, who own Shores Veterinary Emergency Center in Lower Paxton Township, said they saw a need for an emergency veterinary clinic on the East Shore. Among its few local peers are the Rossmoyne Animal Emergency Trauma Center in Lower Allen Township. Otherwise, Harrisburg-area patients must travel to York or Lancaster counties for emergency pet services.

When the Pryors opened Shores in December 2017, they wanted to build upon the success of their other vet business, Dillsburg Veterinary Center.

They sought out a staff of doctors and technicians who were empathetic and compassionate, first and foremost. “Clients that are coming here, they’re coming here with a sick pet, and they’re stressed, and we want to make that experience for them as [good] as possible,” Sharon, who manages Shores and the Dillsburg practice, said.

Currently, Shores is open from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. during the week, as well as on weekends, filling the gaps when regular, non-emergency practices aren’t open.

The Pryors plan to be open 24/7 by the summer and eventually expand their offerings to include more specialty veterinary medicine, like orthopedics, oncology and radiology. In doing this, they hope to keep patients from having to travel outside the region to Maryland or Philadelphia for specialty pet care.

At $15.95 billion, veterinary care was the second largest category — behind pet food — of the $66.75 billion Americans spent on pets in 2016. According to Petfood Industry magazine, this 3.4 percent increase from 2015 might have to do with the increased availability of more specialty pet health care, like the Pryors hope to offer.

“Pets in our general society have been elevated over the last couple decades, and with technology and the way medicine has improved, there are definitely more ways to spend more on them because of the things that we’re capable of doing now,” Ivan, a licensed veterinary doctor, said.

Pets are priority

For the Dixons, pet care is a major part of their regular expenses.

There are regular vet visits, as well as unplanned ones, like when they took Izzy to figure out why she was gnawing on her paw. Each visit costs at least $60, Michael said.

Izzy and Hank — who both have fluffy, curly fur — get groomed roughly every six weeks at a local business called Bark of the Town. Each session costs $100 for the two dogs.

Then there’s food and treats. Hank is a picky eater with a sensitive stomach, so he gets special food that fetches $35 for the smallest bag sold. They also get special food supplements, treats that help clean their teeth and other treats for rewards.

The Dixons have also invested money to help ease Hank’s anxiety and calm Izzy’s high-energy personality, while treatments to prevent fleas, ticks and heartworms cost $50 to $60 per month.

The Dixons admit that their income allows them to spoil their dogs a bit. Bari works for a Lancaster-based online reputation management agency called BrandYourself. Michael, ironically, works full-time for a family-owned York County-based company called Zae’s Pet Sitting & Dog Walking. But they don’t think they would sacrifice quality care if their finances were tighter. The Pryors of Shores and Zellner of Abrams & Weakley agreed that their clientele will often spend big on their pets’ well-being, regardless of whether it suits their incomes.

“You obviously feed your kids before you buy yourself something, and I think we feel that passionately about our dogs that we would make sure they were cared for,” Bari said.

Becca Oken-Tatum
Becca Oken-Tatum is the web editor for the Central Penn Business Journal. She also coordinates and writes for CPBJ's monthly Young Professionals e-newsletter. Email her questions, comments and tips at btatum@cpbj.com.

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