New Book, ‘Pet Nation,’ Explores How Pets Found a Place in Our Hearts, Homes, and a Billion Dollar Economy

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A few weeks ago, I was at the urgent care pet clinic for my Boston Terrier, Ollie. When I returned emails later that afternoon, many people expressed surprise that emergency clinics for pets even existed. It’s true that a few decades ago, they were much harder to find. But the human-pet relationship has changed dramatically since then, and with it, our culture and economy, too, writes author Mark Cushing in his new book, Pet Nation: The Inside Story of How Companion Animals Are Transforming Our Homes, Culture, and Economy.

Armed with sparkling insights and supportive data, Cushing, a former litigator who specialized in animal health and welfare and is the founder and CEO of Animal Policy Group, an organization that helps strategize policies and communications for animal-focused companies, explores the evolving human-animal bond with jaw-dropping statistics about everything from the pet economy (projected to approach 300 billion dollars in less than a decade) to the current, critical shortage of veterinarians and quality pet health care—the result of our growing obsession with pets.

Here, Rover spoke to Cushing about his new book, and his thoughts on the evolving nature of pet ownership.

Courtesy of Teszler PR.

Rover: What’s the most interesting thing you uncovered while working on your book?

Mark Cushing: The most interesting thing was the astonishing position that Pope Francis I takes about pet ownership and his opposition to people—pet parents—really getting involved with their pets. It’s this zero-sum theory he has that somehow it diminishes your capacity to be kind and generous with humans. And for someone who chose the name Francis from Francis of Assisi, who’s the patron saint of animals, you would think his staff would have done a little homework on that topic. There’s no evidence. You can’t make the case that pet parents are less philanthropic, less generous. In fact, in my experience, evidence would suggest that people are better people because of having pets, not that they’re stingy and greedy and don’t have time for their neighbors.

If you wondered why you feel better hanging around your cat or dog, it’s because you actually do.

Rover: In the book, you mention the Canine Freedom Train. What is that?

Mark Cushing: It’s a name I use in honor of the freedom trains—the Underground Railroad—in the Civil War. You have northern shelters from the east coast across to the Pacific that their source of dogs for adoption mainly have been dogs in the south or southwest that otherwise would have been scheduled for an early euthanasia due to shelter conditions. But they were able to arrange this ad hoc, very efficient transportation network to bring dogs from L.A. up to Portland and up to Seattle, and from El Paso up to Denver, and Knoxville to Buffalo, and Mississippi up to Minneapolis. People walk into a northern shelter and think they’re getting a stray from the local area. But no. I kid that the dogs either speak Spanish or have a drawl. And they can go get adopted and live a good life.

Rover: What are currently the biggest pet’s rights issues?

Mark Cushing: Well, the most controversial issue is if someone’s pet is injured or killed, allegedly by the negligence of someone, do you get loss of companionship and emotional damages? The theory goes, well, if we really treat pets as family, shouldn’t dogs or cats have the legal status of children? There’s great arguments for and against it.

It’s a tremendous driver of costs in medicine because then everybody starts practicing defensive medicine…and it’s what causes veterinarians to have $200,000-a-year liability premiums, which is more than what a lot of veterinarians make in a year.

So, it’s a tremendous driver of costs, which does what? It restricts access, which is already a problem with pets in America, access to veterinary care. The idea that if you lose your pet to someone’s negligence, you should be able to treat them like a child, but we don’t let people recover those rewards for their boyfriend, their girlfriend, their favorite aunt and uncle, their grandparents, their brother or sister—we already draw limits on what the system can really afford.

The pet economy has gone from $70 billion about five years ago to $110 billion today, projected by Morgan Stanley to go to $280 or $290 billion in just eight years from now.

You continue to see efforts made on behalf of dolphins and whales and chimpanzees and gorillas. Often, research animals are in amusement parks where [animal advocates] want to give them legal standing to sue for their treatment. It would allow an attorney to be appointed and represent the animal. So far, no state has allowed it, though there are more and more cases like that.

The third area that does have a lot of activity right now is the push to appoint an attorney to represent the pet if the pet parents are getting divorced. You want to take into account the needs of the dog or cat if the couple can’t agree, and if they’re getting divorced, chances are they’re not agreeing on much.

On the one hand, I don’t see any issue if pet parents want the help of a mediator to figure out what they should do if they’re getting divorced with respect to an animal. That’s understandable. Whether you have a law that has the court appoint an attorney to represent the pet is another question. Would you do that in every case there’s a pet involved? I think there were eight to 10 bills in legislatures this year looking at that issue, so I think it’s going to get more traction.

Pets make you do silly things. They get in your head and your heart, and you don’t want to shake them loose.

Another pets’ rights issue, in a way, is states following the lead of New York in banning the declawing of cats. Millennial vet students were not trained to declaw, and they don’t want to declaw. Many younger vets would refuse to declaw. They wouldn’t perform the procedure, partly because they don’t know how to, but also because they didn’t want to learn how to either. They view that as inhumane.

Rover: I used to have a pit bull and I recall breed-specific legislation was a big deal. This was 15 years ago. What’s the current status of that?

Mark Cushing: They’re not only not increasing the number of cities or counties that have those bans, many cities and counties are repealing them. There was considerable effort made to really look at the breeds differently and not stereotype, and frankly, not place it on the dog. It really has a lot more to do, if not entirely to do, with the environment the pet is in and the training that the pet owner is providing.

More and more cities and counties are repealing breed bans.

Rover: So, why is the human-pet relationship so important?

Mark Cushing: The term that the academicians came up with was human-animal bond, so you hear that phrase a lot. It was to some extent scoffed at 40 years ago that there wasn’t really science to it. Well, now the science is considerable, and it’s not really challenged. What is it that we’ve learned? Three things. Number one, when you engage with pets, your oxytocin level goes up, and your cortisol level goes down. So, if you wondered why you feel better hanging around your cat or dog, it’s because you actually do. The neuroscience is such that all the right triggers are being encouraged, and the negative triggers are being discouraged and deflated.

Number two, you have legions of studies now showing pet engagement having an impact in difficult situations. An adolescent facing cardiovascular surgery, if they spend time immediately before the surgery with their pet dog, they will require a lower level of meds after the surgery. So, isn’t that a good thing that we now have lower level of opioids being utilized? The ability to connect with a child with autism is enhanced with the presence of a dog and a cat. A soldier with PTSD’s recovery is enhanced by the engagement and the involvement of their dog, usually.

And the third leg of this stool is what you would call the social capital of pets. What builds community, makes people trust more, makes them less fearful, lets strangers get to know each other, and just feel safer and better in a neighborhood or a small community? Studies have been done in Perth, Australia, and replicated in San Diego, Portland, Oregon, and Nashville, and in each case, the winner was pets. It was not church. It wasn’t school. It wasn’t sports. It wasn’t music. It wasn’t nature. It wasn’t culture and civic things. Pets are the number-one factor in creating social capital.

It’s not church, school, sports, or music: Pets are the number-one factor in creating social capital.

The cheapest medicine in America right now is pet ownership, both to build communities at times when we’re divided very much as a country, and to improve the health and wellbeing of individual pet parents.

Rover: How has the human-animal relationship evolved over time?

Mark Cushing: Well, we’ll start with cats. Yes, there were hieroglyphics on Egyptian walls and tombs that suggested that royalty in the BC era had cats. But basically, cats came to America as sanitation workers on boats. They were allowed on ships to kill mice and rats, so that rats didn’t destroy the food and drink all the rum. And then, when they got here, they were used in the east coast cities and in Midwest cities for 50 to 100 years, again as sanitation workers to get rid of the rats before sophisticated public health programs were implemented. So that was phase one.

Phase two was, ‘You’re fired.’ We have other ways to manage rats and mice now, so guess what? We’re going to exterminate. Cats were euthanized by the millions. Flash forward 100 years now, and we have 90-plus million pet cats in America treated like royalty. Could you have a more dramatic change in status? Probably not.

Dogs were of two sorts. They were laborers and hunting companions. The hunting companion relationship is closer to what we have today—that close connection between a hunter and his or her dog where they cared for them, wanted to make sure they’re healthy, they slept near them under blankets or by fire. That existed a long time ago, but dogs are mainly workers. They worked on farms to catch things and to discipline sheep, and now they’re on beds.

Cats were once euthanized [as pests] by the millions. Flash forward 100 years now, and we have 90-plus million pet cats in America treated like royalty. Could you have a more dramatic change in status?

Seventy-five percent of pets sleep on top of the bed of their pet parent. They have outfits. They have designer food. It’s been a wholesale transformation, best exemplified by car companies that run ads. It started with a Subaru or Nissan ad, but the only thing the ad did was show a retriever in the passenger seat with the window down on a California coastal highway, with the hair flowing in the wind and a smile on the dog’s face. They didn’t tell you a thing about the car. The only goal was to connect that dog with your brand. And it worked. So, that was a key period in the evolution of the culture we have right now, the use of pets in commercials where they were the status and the goodwill generator.

Rover: What do you think changed in the way that people were looking at animals, particularly with cats? They made this huge jump from being sanitation animals to being inside-the-home animals. Why do you think the mindset shifted?

Mark Cushing: I think a very important thing was the technology creation called the litter box. Once you could have a cat inside because you didn’t have to worry about them going to the bathroom on your nice rug or your bed, then you began to engage the cat more, and you saw the cat more. Cats are funny. They treat people like staff. They don’t always just curl up in your lap. But the point is, we began to experience the benefits of the human-animal bond with cats. That probably had more to do with the change in how people experience cats and then people discovering the complexity of cats.

Studies now show that pet engagement has an impact in difficult situations. For example: If an adolescent facing cardiovascular surgery spends time immediately before the surgery with their pet dog, they will require a lower level of meds after the surgery.

Rover: How has the evolving relationship between humans and pets changed our economy?

Mark Cushing: Well, you had TV and movies portray an image of pets that became very persuasive and very infectious. People just had to have one. Millennials really get all the credit. They were the children and grandchildren of the baby boomers, whose childhoods were the ones that first experienced pets coming inside. And the millennials, suddenly, they wanted everything for their pet that they had for themselves. That economy has gone from $70 billion about five years ago to $110 billion today, projected by Morgan Stanley to go to $280 or $290 billion in just eight years from now.

And I don’t see anything to stop that. There are challenges right now with shortages of veterinarians, shortages of vet nurses or vet techs, and increasingly shortages of dogs. If those get under control, I don’t see anything to slow down millennials who are just in their late 20s and 30s now. They’re going to run the world for 30 more years. Nothing’s going to slow them down with their enjoyment of pets.

A lot of what happened with COVID was not just new pet owners getting a puppy or cat for the first time, but millennial and Gen Z pet owners getting a second dog or a second cat and increasing the number of pets in their household. I think that trend just accelerates in the next 10, 20, 30 years.

Rover: How has that evolving relationship between humans and their pets changed our culture overall?

Mark Cushing: The cultural change has been the discovery of social capital. There’s a commonality and a unifying force. It’s caused people that might be nervous, anxious, or aloof to be more engaged, and that’s a good thing. It’s had a positive effect on human health because people walk their dogs, and that’s been shown to have as much as an $11 billion savings in the human healthcare system, according to a George Mason study.

I think it has taken generational differences and cut across those because a 70-year-old, a 50-year-old, a 30-year-old, and a 10-year-old can all hang around a Shih Tzu and have the same enjoyment.

The cheapest medicine in America right now is pet ownership, both to build communities at times when we’re divided very much as a country, and to improve the health and wellbeing of individual pet parents.

And then you’ve seen the opening up of hotels, hospitals, and workplaces for pets. Nationwide Insurance and the Human Animal Bond Research Institute studied 1,500 workers. One thousand of them had a pet. Five hundred didn’t. They surveyed them on their companies, and if the company was pet-friendly, almost all of them—with no difference between non-pet owners and pet owners—liked the company better, liked their boss better, would stay longer with that company. So now you have an additional glue that unites people at work. I know it’s a powerful factor in companies not being able to force employees to come back to the workplace with COVID. You cannot tell me that a significant driver of people saying, ‘I’m working from home,’ isn’t they’ve enjoyed being with their pets for 18 months. And they don’t want to be five-days-a-week, 10-hours-a-day away from them.

Pets have had a positive effect on human health because people walk their dogs, and that’s been shown to have as much as an $11 billion savings in the human healthcare system.

Rover: How will the pet-based economy and culture look different in another 20 years?

Mark Cushing: I think we’re going to have a lot more dogs and cats, believe it or not. You’ll also see an increase in pets other than cats and dogs. I think you’re going to see workplaces factor pets into the equation, so companies that really want you to come back are going to say, ‘Yes, you can bring your dog.’

You’re going to see pet healthcare accelerate dramatically. It’s been in a ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s model of brick-and-mortar clinics where you go and drop your pet off. That’s going to change. You’re going to see the telemedicine, virtual care, all those tools rampant in the pet world.

Rover: OK, my last question is, tell me more about your pets.

Mark Cushing: Well, at my feet right now sleeping is just an absolutely delightful Papillon puppy. He’s about 20 months old, named Louis, like Louis Vuitton. He’s about 10 pounds. He lives to chase lizards in the desert. I live in Paradise Valley next to Scottsdale, and that’s his sole purpose in life, just to go outside and chase lizards. He catches them very rarely. The thrill of the chase seems to be a really sustaining source of joy for him.

Then, we have two Bengal cats. They’re like Olympic cat breeds. Their physical ability to jump up and over, race, do flips. They’re like having Cirque du Soleil in your house, and we have two of them. They’re from the same litter. Just watching their interaction with each other and with our dog, who loves to play with them and then gets completely frustrated, If he starts to bother them, they’ll jump over him. He won’t even know what they did.

We lost two cats this year that we were sad to lose, but we did what a lot of people do and decided that we’ll keep going, and we’ll remember them. One cat we lost, Oscar, died of a bout with cancer. He loved watching football games. He just seemed like he was watching the game. So, we have the urn with his ashes, and we bring it out during games. We put it on the counter and let Oscar watch. That’s completely silly, but that’s what pets make you do. They get in your head and your heart, and you don’t want to shake them loose.

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