Maybe Pet Spending Isn’t Recession-Proof After All

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Throughout the worst of the economic crisis and a post-recession era bogged down by uncertainty and high unemployment, consumer spending on pets remained strong. In surveys, owners said they refused to spending on their dogs during tough times, and overall pet spending seemed to increase by at least 5% annually like clockwork. Recently, though, signs indicate that there are limits to how much we’ll spend on pets, as owners are more apt to shop around for bargains, more willing to scale back on pet product purchases, and more likely to switch brands to save a few bucks.

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Bloomberg cites data indicating that Americans’ love affair with their pets is still very much alive, but it does have limits. After years of stubborn refusal to make sacrifices or scale back on pet spending, more and more owners have reached a breaking point and are actively seeking ways to save on pet expenditures.

In February 2010, just 27% of American pet owners said they were spending less on pet products. But in a survey conducted last fall, the percentage of owners who said they’re spending less on pet products soared to nearly 40%. According to another survey, while 53% of dog or cat owners reportedly being loyal to a particular brand of pet food or pet product in 2006, by 2011 that figure fell to 41%.

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Over the past few years, disposable income among the masses has shrunk, and a deal-seeking, bargain-hunting mentality has taken hold, from “extreme couponing” to daily deals, and more. Pet owners are also now hot on the hunt for bargains, with three-quarters indicating they regularly look for deals, especially for goods such as pet toys and pet clothing.

As pet owners have grown more careful with their spending, retailers are ramping up efforts to attract shoppers, often via loyalty reward programs and old-fashioned discounting., a pet-product marketplace owned by Amazon, has been offering free one- or two-day shipping on all orders over $49—no minor promotion, as many pet foods and other products can be quite heavy and costly to ship—and 15% off the orders of first-time customers (promo code: WAGPET). PetSmart hosts a regularly rotating list of deals, as well as flat $5.99 shipping on orders of at least $60, while the Pals Rewards program from Petco gives 5% back on all in-store and online purchases. (Incidentally, a flash deal from Petco knocks 40% off sitewide through February 28 only, with free standard shipping on orders of $49 and up.)

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Manufacturers of pet foods and products are also resorting to a favorite trick: shrinkage. Because consumers tend to get peeved by straightforward price hikes, companies have a long history of repackaging products so that the price stays about the same while the amount of product decreases—allowing the company to keep making profits on each item sold. Examples of such shrinkage are everywhere, from orange juice containers to ice cream cartons, graham crackers to toilet paper. Major producers such as Kraft have also been aiming the shrink ray at dog and cat foods, according to the research firm Mintel.

Everything’s relative, though. The Bloomberg story notes that high-end doggie care salons have noticed subtle changes in customer behavior: Nowadays, they’re more likely to spend on spa treatments for their pets rather than “frivolous” gifts such as crystal-encrusted dog collars.

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And if owners are scaling back on their pet spending, there’s a good chance the change has come only after they’ve cut back on other household expenses. A report last fall from Mintel quoted an expert indicates the length to which owners will go to ensure their pets are treated well:

“Despite the difficult economy, 50% of pet owners make unplanned toy and treat purchases for their pets and another 16% say they have cut back on extra household expenses in order to afford pet-related care…showing the true commitment of pet-parents.”

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.