Millions on Pet Halloween Costumes? Why We Spend More and More on Pets

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American consumers are expected to collectively spend $370 million on pet costumes this Halloween. That’s $70 million more than last year, and a whopping 40% increase compared to 2010. And how’s this for perspective: Americans will spend barely three times more on costumes for children than they will for pets.

The estimated 15% of Americans who will buy pet costumes aren’t likely to just throw a bandana on their dog and be done with it. Not only are more people purchasing Halloween costumes for their dogs—there’s been a 24% increase since 2010—but they’re spending much, much more per costume, with a rise of 40% in overall spending in two years. Expect to see dogs dressed as tacos, skunks, crayons, dinosaurs, chefs, princesses, leprechauns, flowers, and even as Gumby…. if you can imagine it, there’s a costume. Last year’s top-selling costumes were pumpkins, devils, and hot dogs.

Enthusiastic spending on Halloween pet costumes is but one example of a larger year-round trend indulging our pets. Last year, consumers spent $51 billion on pets, a record that’s expected to be broken again this year. As recently as 2002, total pet expenditures in the U.S. came to less than $30 billion.

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Part of the surge in pet spending is simply because there are more pets out there. In 1988, 56% of American households had a pet. Today, pets are part of 62% of homes.

But that’s not a large enough increase to account for such a hefty rise in spending. Why, especially during a period of economic turmoil, has pet spending continued to rise? Here are some explanations—and some insights as to what the trend says about our society:

1. Pets are stress-busters — and we need that now more than ever. In 1994, roughly 15% of Americans reported increased anxiety in their lives. By 2009 that number had risen 49%, and it’s predicted to be even higher now.

When we cuddle, play with, and even just look at our pets we get a hefty boost of oxytocin, our body’s naturally occurring feel-good, stress-relieving, emotional-bonding hormone. So do our pets, by the way. Which makes all parties more relaxed and happy, and more deeply bonded.

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That bond, and our appreciation of the stress relief we get from our pets, is a partial explanation for why 77% of Americans give birthday presents to their pets, and why we spend $5 billion on holiday gifts for our pets.

2. Pets have more status today. Compared to previous eras, there is currently much less hierarchical distance, and more equality, between parents, kids, and pets. More than 9 in 10 owners consider their pets to be members of the family, and 81% say pets are equal members of the family. Pet lovers themselves recognize that there has been a shift in the status of pets within families: 60% of adults say they don’t remember their childhood pets as having the exalted status the pets in their lives enjoy today.

Still need more proof? There are one million dogs in the U.S. that have been named the primary beneficiary of their owners will.

Higher status translates to pets deserving more — be it vacation care in pet hotels rather than kennels, more toys, or better healthcare.

3. Pets fill connection and friendship vacuums. Americans have about a third fewer close friends today than they did 20 years ago — averaging two rather than the three they had, on average, in 1985. And though online connections alleviate some of that loss, we’re neurologically less satisfied by online friends than we are by personal contact. Pets provide companionship and connection that we need more than ever today. Dogs, in particular, also increase human social circles through gatherings at parks and getting out into neighborhoods more often through walks.

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Cat owners also say they get plenty of emotional connection from their pets. In fact, nearly a third say they’d rather chat with their cat after a long day than anyone else, and 39% say their cat is more likely than a romantic partner to pick up on their current mood.

Almost 95% of pet owners say their pet makes them smile at least once a day. It’s no wonder that multiple studies show that pets lower blood pressure, alleviate depression, and boost mental and physical resiliency.

Given the emotional support, connection and happiness pets provide, it’s not surprising that people want to honor and reward them — often with goodies.

4. Pets fulfill our need to nurture. An unprecedented number of people live alone today – 1 in 7 Americans. Plus, our years without children stretch longer on both ends. Empty nesters live longer and people have children later in life. Regardless of a person’s household composition, the need to nurture is universal. Which partly explains why 78% of animal owners think of their animals as their children and themselves as pet parents, not pet owners. In fact, 58% of pet owners call themselves “mommy” or “daddy.”

When you’re a pet parent rather than an owner you’re more likely to want to give your pets a human experience—for example, fancy foods and treats that are fresh, organic, and look like something a human would eat.

5. There are simply more things to buy today. Undoubtedly, many pet owners would have been game to pamper their dogs and cats a decade ago. But the options were more limited. An abundance of choice gives us psychological permission to take a step toward indulgence.

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Last year, more than $11 billion dollars was spent on pet supplies. Many are products that weren’t available a decade ago, such designer pet bowls, orthopedic dog beds, fancy puppy carriers, and of course a plethora of toys. We’re not just talking about basic squeaky toy or Frisbee, but things like “Jimmy Chew” plush toys and doggie puzzles that provide your pet with “mental stimulation.”

Even though the sharp rise in pet spending may seem puzzling, when all things are considered, pets are a bargain. The emotional gratification most people receive from their pets is immense – far outweighing whatever money is spent.

Kit Yarrow chairs the psychology department of Golden Gate University and was named as the university’s 2012 Outstanding Scholar for her research in consumer behavior. She is co-author of Gen BuY and is a frequent speaker on topics related to consumer psychology and Generation Y.