A quick glance at pet celebrity megastars like Boo, Lil Bub, Pudge, Tardar Sauce (better known as Grumpy Cat) and Tuna, makes it quite clear that something entirely new is happening in the world of pet ownership. The rise of celebrity pets may not necessarily be news to anyone, but it points to larger, more significant trends in how millennials understand and approach pet ownership. We talked to some of the people on the front lines of contemporary pet culture to see how they’re redefining pet ownership.
1: Redefining Family
Millennials are putting off getting married and having children until much later than older cohorts, and it seems that their four-legged companions are filling the gap. According to a Wakefield study, the average millennial gets a first pet at the age of 21, much earlier than the average boomer, who waited until 29. Both groups think of pets as family, but many millennials view owning a pet as preparation for future adult responsibilities. For them, pets offer both companionship and a sense of duty, but require little maintenance at a time when many millennials’ lives are still unstable. For many young people who are struggling to start careers, find affordable housing and pay off student loans, a family is a luxury that has to be temporarily delayed.
2: Pampered Pets
Pet owners today are more sensitive to the life experiences of their animals. Millennials cater more than other groups to their pets’ comfort, and spend more money on non-essential pet items. They own more pet clothing and toys and prefer enclosures like crates and kennels that allow for exercise, according to the Wakefield study. “[Our cats] sleep in our beds and we spend a lot of money buying them toys we think they’ll like,” says Christina Ha, co-founder of Meow Parlour, New York City’s first cat café. Her guests – predominantly millennials – come to admire a bevy of free-roaming cats, all of whom are adoptable. Ha says many practices she witnessed growing up, like declawing cats, buying from puppy mills or dismissing regular vet visits, are no longer considered routine.
3: Smarter Nutrition
Millennials’ enthusiasm for authenticity and transparency surrounding food has also influenced how their pets eat. Young adults are more likely than other groups to research foods when designing their pet’s diet, and they like to have options that include natural ingredients and real meat. Like humans, pets have complex dietary needs, and young owners increasingly approach pet and human nutrition with the same degree of care. Christina Ha says that when she was growing up, local pet stores didn’t have as wide a variety of pet foods as the average grocery store does today. Thanks to the availability of information on pet nutrition and accessibility to better foods she is now able to provide meals that are suited to the particular needs of individual cats.
4: Redefining “Pet”
Ashley Paguyo and Ahmed El Shourbagy, the couple behind Dogs of Instagram, say many millennials see pets as “a form of social currency.” Sharing photos and stories about pets, and receiving feedback “seems to give us validation from our peers.” Christina Ha has observed that many of her older guests seem conscious that “cats are cats,” meaning they have wills of their own, while, “with younger people who have never owned a cat, there are very different expectations.” Although she’s quick to point out that not all millennials are this way, she admits that “though their intentions aren’t bad, they often don’t listen to the rules when they’re explained or they hold the cats in an awkward position to get a better photo.” Pets play an integral role in the social identity of many millennials, whose enthusiasm can – from time to time – distract them from the pet’s best interests.
5: Building Global Communities
For Kady Lone and Eli Omidi, co-creators of Cats of Instagram, social media is a great way to raise awareness about positive ownership and pass around useful information. Cats of Instagram shares unique photos and stories submitted by its large community of devoted fans. Kady, who is also Pudge the Cat’s owner, sees the increasing presence of pets on the Internet as a natural evolution. Having grown up online, millennials post about every aspect of their lives, so their zeal for pet posts is no surprise. Eli adds that increased visibility actually benefits pets. “If someone sees something going wrong [with a pet] online they’re going to post about it, and let people know.” Furthermore, because the community brings together passionate pet owners in a single space, followers are able to share information about every conceivable pet-related issue, like reliable adoption services, behavioral training techniques and how to assist special needs pets.
6: Achieving More
While millennials are bringing pets into new cultural territories, pets are also spurring millennials on to new achievements. One of those millennials is Sami Stoner, who lost her sight at the age of 14. Sami was a dedicated cross-country runner, and it seemed as though the diagnosis would force her to abandon her true passion. Then she met Chloe, an assistance dog. As a result of months of training together, the two formed a bond that allowed Sami to run races again, shattering the expectation that a disability could dictate the course of her life.
7: Inspiring Adventure
Pets are also inspiring millennials to explore the world and share their experiences with others. There are a host of pet-based travel blogs like Cascadian Nomads, You Did What with Your Wiener and The Road Forks that feature incredible tales of companionship and collaboration between pets and their owners. One of these stories belongs to Lauren Fern Watt. When she found out her beloved English Mastiff had only a few months to live, she created a bucket list for her best friend. They went canoeing, visited Times Square, ate lobster in Maine and became even closer while sharing new experiences.
8: Deepening Awareness
These advances in pet culture signify an increased regard for the dignity of pets. Kady Lone says of her online community, “They’re all so genuine. They’re all doing it out of love and compassion for their own pet.” Christina Ha believes that the increased visibility of pets in our culture reflects how “people are realizing that pets are more than just abstract animals, they have feelings and they come to love and rely on their owners, and that greatly affects how we treat the pets who depend on us to do the right thing for them.” Above all else, millennials are compassionate pet owners, looking for new ways to broaden the human-animal bond so that pets and people can lead better lives together.