When Janet and Al Domrase, owners of Alden’s Kennels in Ringwood, shifted from dog breeding to other services, they talked with customers and studied their competition.
“With the economy in a downturn, we had to be different. We saw places doing day camps, and downtown there were spas. So we remodeled, and decided to do the ‘ultimate vacation,’” Janet Domrase said.
This year, about a quarter of Domrase’s boarding customers added the ultimate vacation option, up from just a few last year. For an additional $15 a day, on top of the standard boarding fee, the ultimate vacation package offers day trips to groomers, pet spas and resorts like Gypsy Glen K-9 Kastle Pet Resort or Camp Bow Wow. Domrase also creates a video on Facebook for customers to share.
“This industry is constantly changing,” she said. “People are willing to spend the money, but you have to ask them what they want.”
According to the American Pet Products Association, about 72.9 million American households, about 62 percent, own a pet. This is up from 56 percent of households in 1988. Forty-six percent of households own a dog and 38 percent have a cat, followed by fish, birds and small animals such as hamsters or rabbits. And all of those critters need creature comforts.
Nationwide, the pet business has experienced annual steady growth since 2001. Projected sales for 2012 are $52.87 billion, up from $50.96 billion in 2011.
“Some years the growth is in product sales, other years its food or veterinary care, but there’s always growth,” said Bob Vetere, president of the APPA.
Veterinarian Dr. Fritz Trybus practiced for six years in Woodstock before opening Cary Grove Animal Hospital in June. In addition to dog, cat and small animal care, he offers specialized services such as dental care and ACL repair.
“So many pets suffer in silence with bed tooth. They’ll go on eating, but after the problem is taken care of, it’s amazing what a difference it makes,” he said.
Health insurance for pets has made owners more willing to consider expansive surgical treatments. “I had a recent case with a pet that needed ligament repair and the owner wasn’t concerned about finances because she had health insurance,” he said.
While finances play a role when considering treatment, Trybus said it is not the deciding factor when treating everything from diabetic dogs to fat felines. Obesity can be a problem for pets, as well as their owners.
“It’s often an issue of too much food and too little activity. Weight loss drugs have come on the market, but the main thing is to rule out other medical problems and then get the animals out and exercise,” Trybus said. “The prognosis is just as important. In talking with colleagues from other areas, they’ve seen a greater decrease (in surgeries) than we have.”
Sue Cashin, of Wonder Lake, owner of Fetch Pet Care of McHenry County, offers dog walking, private boarding, horse, exotic pet and small animal care and in-home overnight care. Cashin said nearly a quarter of her business is home visits.
“It’s taking the dog for a walk or just getting the cat up and moving around,” she said. “People love it because the sitter actually comes and spends the night in the house. It’s great for older animals or those who don’t do well in kennels, or if the customer wants someone to watch the house.”
Cashin opened her business in July 2009, but it took a strong marketing campaign and making contacts with local pet care professionals to build name recognition. By the end of her second year, her sales doubled, before backing off a bit this year because of increased competition.
Paul Mann, president and CEO of Ohio-based Fetch Pet Care, said the pet service sector is divided between hobbyists and those who take a professional approach. The 10-year-old company has 143 locations nationwide, and all but six are franchisees. He is actively seeking more franchisees. For information, visit www.fetchpetcare.com.
“A lot of people who’ve been in middle management and don’t see the job security, now want to make money doing something they’re passionate about,” Mann said, “and lots are passionate about pets.”
The industry’s next big challenge is to promote the advantages of pet ownership, Vetere said. The APPA is involved in two initiatives – “Pets in the Classroom,” which teaches young children how to care for small animals, and “Human-Animal Bond Research,” which funds university studies that examines the health impact of pet ownership.
“We know it helps seniors and those with disabilities,” Vetere said. “But we’re seeing a lot of benefits to autistic children, those with learning disabilities and obesity problems.”
Mann said Fetch’s customers fall into three categories: empty nesters who pamper their pets; professionals living away from family, who get a pet for companionship, but have no one to care for it while they work; and dual-income households where both travel and work long hours.
Domrase also is seeing added interest in training, as people adopt pets from shelters and rescue organizations. Customers also are eager to support animal welfare causes. This summer, Gypsy Glen will be offering $10 swims between July 31 and Aug.12, to benefit the Assisi Animal Foundation in Crystal Lake
“Before, the local industry was kind of helter-skelter,” said Kathy Reiland, owner of Gypsy Glen K-9 Kastle near McHenry. But now, customers shop around. They want those little extras like the free bath we offer, after the dog has boarded for seven days,” she said.
In business for 24 years, Gypsy Glen offers boarding, pet-sitting, grooming, acupuncture, behavior consultations and even a canine swim club in Reiland’s 23-acre lake. The general public also is invited to bring their pets to the lake.
“We’ll have groups come out with their pets, bring a picnic, the dogs swim and everyone has a great time,” she said. “Our customers say that when they turn into the gravel driveway, the dogs get all excited because they’re coming to the Kastle.”