A Passion for Pets

Although there’s currently a battle brewing over whether they should be called pet owners or pet guardians, there’s no quarrel about the fact that we are a nation of animal lovers. More than 31 million households in the U.S. own one or more dogs (the average is 1.7); 27 million homes have at least one cat in residence; birds are caged in 4.6 million homes. Exotic animals make up a smaller percentage of pets owned, but reptiles and amphibians have their devoted fans, too. Of course, this isn’t just an American passion. Canadians and many Europeans are also devoted animal caretakers.

All this creature devotion has spawned a huge market for products and services that help care for (and pamper) Fido and Fluffy. Just a decade ago, Americans spent $17 billion a year on pet products and services. This year pet purchases are expected to rise to $31 billion.

If you adore animals in general (as opposed to your own pets, whom you believe to be full family members), a pet-based profit center could be a lovely fit for you.

Pet-related businesses usually fall into one of two broad categories: products and services for animals or products and services for animal owners. If your intention is to spend as much time as possible with animals, you’ll easily chose the former. If you enjoy sharing your passion for a particular breed or kind of pet with others who are equally enamored, you might find your niche with a product that is more people-oriented.

Pet services. You don’t have to enroll in a veterinary college to have a business that caters to animals. Pet sitting, training, grooming and breeding are old stand-bys that are all relatively easy to start and ensure optimum contact with animals.

In this busy world of ours, there’s a growing need for professional pet watchers to keep animals fed and exercised when their owners are away. When Linda Leamer, a longtime cat lover, began creating profit centers, the idea of caring for cats was a natural. She began by advertising in a local paper and her business has continued to grow ever since. Referrals from veterinarians also have expanded her client base. While she admits there was a bit of trial and error in the beginning, she was clear from the start about the geographic limitations of her service, as well as the options offered. Today, she has one part-time assistant and plans to make sitting her retirement business.

Another variation of this — a particularly good opportunity for city dwellers — is dog walking. Professional dog walkers, who earn more money than you might imagine, build a regular clientele of dogs that they handle every day. It’s a little bit like servicing a route, with a built-in exercise bonus for the dog walker.

Pet boarding services and the newly fashionable pet daycare centers require more commitment of time and financial resources, but have great potential as profitable endeavors. An excellent manual for starting a sitting business is Patti J. Moran’s Pet Sitting for Profit (IDG Books Worldwide, $17.95).

Pet grooming businesses also seem to flourish everywhere. Many people simply begin advertising without any training whatsoever, although the National Dog Groomers Association of America is trying to change that. Technical colleges often have short courses in grooming and other national programs are also available. Publications such as Dog Fancy magazine have numerous listings for programs located throughout the country.

Training is another huge area of business. Dog and horse trainers, especially, are in demand. A few trainers specialize in training guide dogs for the blind or hearing impaired. Here in Minnesota, we have a business that trains unusual and exotic animals for television commercials — a unique service. Programs that train the trainer exist throughout the country, but before signing on, you need to thoroughly investigate the methods taught by a prospective program. An additional profit center in the animal training field is the do-it-yourself training video, always popular with new pet owners.

Pet products. As anyone knows who has set foot in a pet superstore, there’s a dazzling array of merchandise available to make life comfortable for a beloved pet. Small business owners can often create their own niche by producing a product that’s unique and then marketing it in an equally specialized way. Handmade coats and sweaters for pets living in cold climates have long been hot items (that pun is purely accidental) and there’s always a market for cute, colorful or utilitarian outdoor gear.

With the growing interest in nutrition, pet owners are often eager to feed their animals the healthiest possible food. Many local cat and dog treat bakeries have sprung up around the country to provide healthy alternatives. One such business was started by Anne Abrams, owner of Treatoria Food Company, which produces specialty food and treats. After moving to Seattle, several things happened that led to the creation of this business. She found, she says, that as a newcomer she was meeting the most people on her nightly dog walks at the park. She also had become interested in naturopathy and had changed her diet to reflect that. When she began feeding her own pets a naturopathic diet, she noticed positive changes and decided to produce fresh foods for other pet owners lacking the time or inclination to cook for their pets. Originally, her products were sold through her retail outlet, but today the focus is on wholesaling.

Products for petlovers. Another area of opportunity awaits in creating and marketing products aimed at the pet lover, not the pet.

A big category here is information packaging. Instructional books and magazines help pet owners do a better job of caring for their adopted animals. Much of the information is general, but niche publications also find an audience. One such publication is Wendy Ballard’s DogGone newsletter, which highlights pet-friendly destinations across the U.S. plus offers tips for people who vacation with their dogs.

Then there’s Petoria’s Secret, the brainchild of best friends Patti Pigeon and Maria Rizzuto. The women met while in a training class for their Newfoundlands. This led to the idea of marketing products to dog lovers that were more creative than the T-shirts with breeds stamped on them that were the usual offering at dog shows. Five years later, the business, which was started on a shoestring, had grown to include a mail-order catalog plus a garage-turned-doggie-boutique in Patti’s Golden, Colorado home. Much of their business comes from selling their wares at dog shows. In addition to clothing and jewelry, they have some home furnishing with a dog theme in their repertoire as well. Big sellers include a polar fleece jacket with comical dog and dog-bone appliqués and dog-bone earrings. All products must meet their stringent criteria for being whimsical.

Over the years, I have interviewed hundreds of people about their businesses, but I have never encountered the level of passion that I found in talking to people who have pet-related enterprises. Not only do they love animals, they all sounded almost giddy in talking about sharing that love through their business and having the opportunity to work with others who share their passion for pets.

There’s more where this came from.
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