How much do we love our pets? The answer, it seems, can be measured in the billions of pounds we’re prepared to spend on them. British pet owners are no longer content to chuck the occasional dog biscuit in the general direction of their resident mutt, but are dropping increasingly vast amounts of cash on luxury pet products and services. These range from cat hotels we’d be happy to check into ourselves, to gourmet birthday treats and dog massages, and even, for the busy pet-owner, automatic ball throwers that will amuse Fido while you’re out – though there’s no guarantee as to what state your home will be in on your return.
According to 2016 research by totallymoney.com, pet owners spent £7.16bn in 2015 – an increase of 25% since 2010 – as they forked out for luxuries such as customised storybooks starring their favourite pet. Recent American Express research shows we’re splashing even more cash on our furry, feathery and scaly friends, with UK dog owners alone spending £10.64bn annually on their pets.
Abi Purser who founded a luxury cat hotel, Longcroft, in 2010, has seen demand boom. To date she’s sold 14 franchises of her upmarket hotel which offers cats their own dedicated room with play area. “The boarding industry started in the 1960s and nobody’s really shaken it up and said ‘come on, why are we shutting cats in tiny cages for two weeks’?” Purser says.
Longcroft offers a service that is bespoke to each feline guest. “We make sure we know a huge amount about them before they arrive,” Purser explains. “Are they a rescue, what are they scared of? We really drill down – if they’re scared of hoovers we write that on their notes and we won’t hoover near them.”
Owners pay from £17 a day for a single room – but can upgrade to a larger one and pay more for special treats such as play sessions and a “relaxing paw massage using the finest organic paw balm”.
For those with more exotic or larger pets – as well as cats – another company, Homesitters, offers specially vetted individuals who will stay in your home and care personally for your animals.
From entertaining dogs in a castle in Scotland to looking after a group of 25 pythons, managing director Alan Irvine says sitters often build a relationship with a family’s pets and are requested time and time again. “We always have a preliminary meeting [in the home] and for many clients it’s a question of whether the pet gets on with the sitters.” Irvine says the business grew by around 20% in the first quarter of this year alone, and customers increasingly include young professionals.
Purser’s customer base runs across a wide demographic. “I have people who drive up in a Porsche and people who drive up in a clapped up old Fiesta going camping,” she says. The defining characteristic – that they love their animals – is one that cuts across the social and economic spectrum. “If you said ‘I have a £7 option or a £17 option’ I think 90% of people would like to choose the better quality option,” Purser says.
There’s also a lifestyle element to owning a pet which has emerged over the past few years, according to Amy Fleuriot, co-founder of the luxury pet accessories business Hiro and Wolf which offers distinctive hand-made dog collars, leads and harnesses from its shop on east London’s Colombia Road. “We couldn’t find dog collars and dog leads that we thought were different and that went with the whole eclectic east London vibe,” Fleuriot explains. “Pet accessories were either traditional or blingy.”
She and business partner Bee Friedmann design and sample each item themselves. They started selling online, then tried out a market stall and are just about to open their second shop in Margate. Customers buy items for daily use and have also ordered co-ordinating accessories for events such as parties and weddings. Business has tripled since they started and social media is essential to communicating with their expanding market, Fleuriot says.
“We do have grand dreams – a pet parlour and a cafe where people could come with their dog and a dog-friendly hotel,” she says. “The next step is towards expanding Hiro and Wolf as a lifestyle brand because we do love that connection with people who are our customers – if we had a venue that they could come to, we could have dog events and talks by experts.”
Extreme pet grooming including fur dyeing and “fur-jazzles” (temporary crystal and glitter ‘tattoos’) will likely only appeal to a small proportion of pet owners, but increasing numbers are concerned with their pets’ health and physical wellbeing. Worries about poor quality pet food led Pooch and Mutt founder Guy Blaskey to create recipes that “take the junk out, and put beneficial ingredients in.” Describing his products as “health food for dogs” Blaskey acknowledges that some may see that spending £14 on his pet food rather than £3 on a cheaper product as a luxury choice, but insists that “increasingly, customers value quality over price.”
At the very top end of the health eating trend for pets, a dog bakery, Four Legged Fancies, specialising in handmade, natural and wheat-free treats for dogs (anyone for a Himalyan Yak Chew?) – was launched in 2012 and has garnered awards and celebrity clients. Given that many owners spend long periods out of the house, concern for pets’ fitness has also created a market for wearable activity trackers and, at £80 a pop, pet drones with “cutting-edge collision avoidance system technology” that dangle toys at optimal altitude for “cat-and-mouse” style play sessions.
It appears that owners increasingly prioritise the quality of their pets’ life and are prepared to spend money on high quality products and services to enhance it – a trend that entrepreneurs who are typically animal-lovers themselves understand how to tap into. “I get people who say ‘I would pay double,’” says Purser. She says she can’t grow her business fast enough to meet demand, but adds: “I don’t want to grow the wrong way, with the wrong people.” At Homesitters, Irvine too is adamant that only the best will do. “There might be some sitters who are not cat people, and if you have a little dog in London it’s not the same as two big dogs in the country. We do careful matching.”
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