Why we can’t afford the pet shop

14 June 2016

I’ve never been much of a pet person. As a child, our family had two gerbils, one after the other. Both were named ‘Gary’ – not because my parents were particularly enthralled with that name, but after a certain Mr Speed (RIP) and Mr Lineker.

The cat we had after this, Mollie, was one of the most unpleasant and bad-tempered creatures to ever stalk fledgling birds in a garden.

And I’ve always been of the opinion that, concerning dogs, if you want something that will be utterly dependent on you, requires cleaning up after it and a plethora of jabs, you may as well have a child instead. At least one of those won’t leave hair anywhere.

As a result I’ve been called heartless, a freak of human nature and a ‘man with no best friend’. But it appears that the people of Great Britain may be coming onto my side – even though the reasons for doing so are less out of choice and more to do with their purse strings.

Mintel, not a brand of breath freshener, but a market intelligence agency, has just released its British Lifestyles Report, which always makes for quasi-interesting reading regarding consumer trends. Among the stats and purple coloured graphs one thing jumped out at me: "The market for pet food, care and accessories continues to face challenges from the ageing population (the older the person, the less likely they are to own a pet) and a rise in rented dwellings," the report says.

A quick look at the Pet Food Manufacturing Association (PFMA) shows that in 2012, there were 8 million cats in the UK. In 2013, 8.5 million. In 2014, 7.9 million and in 2015, 7.4 million.

For dogs, 2012 had 8 million, 2013, 8.5 million, 2014, 9 million and 2015, 8.5 million.
The reason I find this so interesting is because it could well be a consequence of the crazy state of house prices and rent that I had never considered.

Of course there will be many other reasons for pet ownership falling – ponder the rising cost of vet bills and pet insurance, for example. The nation is also getting older, as the cited report states.

However, I’m convinced that the shaky economy and extortionate cost involved in keeping a roof over your head, not to mention the limitations this has on what you can do in your home, plays a big factor in this. When my friends and I landed our first ‘real’ jobs after university, we never imagined losing them – a job was something you had until you decided that you wanted to try something else. The 2008 financial crisis put paid to that belief – it’s been eight years now but every single person in my age group who I know deeply enough to discuss these things with still has the uneasy feeling that they could lose their job at any moment. They’re maniacs about saving as much as they can, despite poor interest rates. Perhaps this is unique to the people I acquaint myself with, but this a blog, so anecdotal evidence is fine.


Above, pets reacted to the news that ownership on the decline.

Essentially, if the threat of unemployment is constant, and you can’t afford a deposit so rent instead (a quick look on Spareroom.co.uk for one bedroom properties in North London that allows pets shows 11 places available, versus 217 places that won’t allow pets), why would they commit to becoming the steward to a needy furball that will be kicking around your feet for 15 years?

To lend some credence to this theory I looked at the UK birth rate using the most recent Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures, which are for 2014. They show a decrease of 0.5% in the birth rate for England and Wales. This figure has been falling since 2012, although that marked a high point of recent years; a steady increase since the millennium, where things looked really bleak.

If you take these findings to their logical end you could conclude that we, as a people, are becoming more flighty, less able to settle down and commit. If so, is this due to a shift in our national character? Or is it driven by something else? I agree with 1992 Bill Clinton; “it’s the economy, stupid!”