THE BLOG
06/08/2010 11:55 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Future of Pets

What does time have in store for pets and their parents?

Wendy and LuckyDiamond will be speaking about the Future of Pets in contemporary society at the H+ Summit, sponsored by Humanity+ and the Harvard College Future Society at Harvard University on June 12th. Please visit www.animalfair.com for more information (and a 20% discount)

A disputed number of thousands of years ago, man met the creature that would come to evolve into his best friend. I imagine that this was a tenuous, uncertain meeting of two deeply compassionate beings not entirely sure what to make of each other. What most likely started as an uneasy alliance, the terms of which were likely bartered for with scraps of meat and affectionate nuzzles would eventually blossom into the multi billion dollar pet industry of 2010.

Surely early man and proto-Fido could not have anticipated this outcome. As technology replaced the utilitarian function of our pets, their role in our homes, place in our families, and value in the world have shifted dramatically. No longer do we rely exclusively on dogs to provide security or aid in the hunt, nor do we explicitly need our cats to perform pest control in our grain silos. Now, 90% of Americans cite companionship as the primary reason for becoming pet owners. Modern technology, and the evolution of the family unit have created a posh environment for pets of the contemporary era, but where will we go next? What will be the place and function of our pets in the future? Will we meet Canine 2.0 or a cybernetic future feline, or will our pets take on an increased importance as a link back to the organic in a world cluttered with technology? One thing is certain: dogs have been domesticated and they aren't going anywhere.

As of 2010, the pet industry grossed a whopping $48 billion. This is an absolutely astronomical number. With 62% of American households owning at least one pet (up from 56% in 1988), and 37.2% of families owning dogs and 32.4% owning cats (thus 7.6% must own at least one of each) Americans have embraced their pets as members of their families. Growing trends such as the celebration of pets' birthdays with puppy parties and feline fiestas have created an entire luxury market of paw pampering products that will have your furry friend barking for more.

Our pets even seem to ward off the crippling effects of the recession. Although the industry was slightly bruised, people still spent more on their pets in 2009 than any other year, and 2010 is already looking like it will eclipse that number. You can blame it on a rising GDP, inflation, or any other economic theory, but the fact of the matter is that pet parents have an insatiable desire to spoil their unconditionally faithful four-legged companions. In fact, it is predicted based upon current trends that the pet industry will continue to grow at a rate of at least 3.8% per year. This means that in ten years, we are looking at a 70 billion dollar industry. While our attachment to our pets may come as no surprise to any proud parent of a wet-nosed bundle of joy, this number is almost unfathomably large, especially in comparison to the measly $17 billion dollar industry associated with our animals in not-so-distant 1994. This is a number of necessity. Food, shelter, a few toys and Vet visits, not a number that represents a growing, evolving, and diverse industry the products of which ranging from functional to frivolous. To date, that number has nearly tripled, and if things continue as projected it will have quadrupled by 2020.

The pet industry is absolutely booming. In addition to pet boutiques filled with teacup-sized outfits, gourmet treats, and plush toys, the pet industry has taken to the Internet where adoption websites, pet loving communities, and industry giants like Petco and Petsmart have carved out a hefty niche for themselves. A pet is no longer auxiliary to a family. In fact, in some cases our pets have become the nucleus of the family. As the baby boomer generation and their children continue to age, the silence of an empty nest is being replaced the patter of paws, and couples without children have turned to a more inter-species approach to creating a family. It is clear that the company of a wagging tail is entirely irresistible, but the conversation becomes more interesting when we begin to examine why we feel, now more so than ever, so uniquely bonded with our pets. Can we isolate the importance of their role in our lives? Are pets just another means by which we enhance the quality of our life, or does that miss the true heart of the issue?

Dollars, however, are not the only numbers that have experienced exponential change in the pet industry. The amount of life extinguished in well-meaning animal shelters has plummeted almost as quickly as we have been able to spend on our pets. With 12 million homeless animals facing euthanasia annually in 1999, and a much slimmer 5 million in 2010, the future looks bright as it is projected that by 2020 this number will fall to 2 million. While, at least in the immediate future, there will always be pets in need of love, the number is dropping as we become more devoted and responsible pet parents.

Scientifically, there is evidence for the medical benefits of owning a pet. James E. Gern, MD, a pediatrician at the University of Wisconsin-Madison writes in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology that children who grow up with pets in their homes have a 14% fewer chance of developing pet allergies or asthma than children growing up without pets. Furthermore, he asserts that a pet in the house helps to develop a child's immune system, as the pet will expose the child to menagerie of microscopic creatures that they would not meet in a strictly human household. Furthermore, research by Dr. Karen Allen at the State University of New York at Buffalo found that owning a cat or dog lowered blood pressure in individuals suffering from hypertension. This data, coupled with the use of pets in hospitals and nursing facilities as therapy for patients, and the educational value of caring for an animal for children prove that while we are no longer bound to our pets for increased chances of survival in a prehistoric world, we are none the less inseparable and maintain a certain level of symbiosis. And while there will surely continue to be a medical facet to the benefits that our pets provide to us as we continue into the future, the relationship is still colored by companionship. We have grown to crave this connection psychologically, without calculated thought; instinctually, we desire to stroke and cuddle and curl up on the couch.

The desire for animal contact is best seen when turning to the citizens of Tokyo, arguably the most outwardly futuristic place on the planet. The Japanese people historically are no strangers to puppy love. However, the modern constraints of extremely competitive, expensive, and cramped city real estate that often prohibit animal tenants has precluded many people from joining the ranks of the world's pet parents. In response, "kitten cafes" have recently sprung up and have been met with wild success as urban dwellers clamor for a moment's peace with a kitty companion. These cafes charge an hourly rate for admission, and offer general coffee shop fare a la carte. The tea and snacks however are a mere convenience and take a back seat to the cafe's "staff" of ready-to-cuddle cats and kittens. Reservations are highly recommended, since the cafes find themselves at capacity on a regular basis. In a similar vein, an hourly rent-a-dog service offers those in search of a doggie date the opportunity to take one of their pups out for a walk much like an actual dog owner would do. Although these services may seem a bit kooky from a pet privileged perspective, the driving sentiment behind such businesses is our love for pets and our longing for a kiss and cuddle.

While it should by now be abundantly clear that people love their pets, the modern world has shown that we have adopted an equally beloved companion in technology. With our phones practically glued to our hands and the Internet constantly streaming through the air that we breath, there is no denying that we are gaga for gigabytes. The human race spends 500 billion minutes per month on Facebook alone, 4,000,000 cell phone calls are active every second, 75 million people tweet their business with some regularity, and you would practically deforest the planet trying to print the content of one day's worth of emails. With wireless revenues 250 times greater in 2009 than they were in 2000, the world has gone digital. We text, and chat, tweet, post, communicate and interact in so many ways that would have seemed impossible even twenty years ago, but such changes in the way we operate come at a cost. While I am a staunch supporter of technology and our eagerness to embrace the digital era, it cannot be denied that every advancement in how we communicate creates a physical distance between us. Thus, although we are in constant contact with the entire globe we are physically isolated by our machines.

This is where the pets come in. As much as we might like to, we cannot interact with our pets from a mobile device (holding the phone up to your cats face while you listen for appreciative muffled responses doesn't count!) we are forced to be intimate and physical with our pets and as such we are drawn even closer to them. The less we interact physically with each other, the greater a certain void becomes. Humans are meant to have physical contact. It is a hugely important part of a child's development. Being held is a certain form of social conditioning, and although we all may have received the initial coddling, we have lost touch with the physicality of being human. In order to counteract the inherent feelings of loneliness, emptiness, or general off-ness that this void produces, humans will both consciously and subconsciously turn to pets for companionship in an even greater capacity. This is the future of pets.

We will always spoil our pets, and the industry will surely continue to grow and integrate with the technological conveniences that characterize the nature of contemporary living, but it is not the industry that accounts for our attachment. To have a pet is to know true love and to be truly loved. No text or email or call or tweet can compare to the affectionate warmth one feels when the cat decides it wants attention or the dog comes ambling to the door, thrilled that you simply came home. While the exact details of the future are obscured from most, one thing remains certain; pets will always be in the picture. Our pets keep us alive. They keep us grounded, they make sure that we know how to love and they won't settle for an affectionate text message. Our pets need our real physical attention, and that is the greatest gift that they can give us. In a hypothetical future when we all interact via screen and signal, every physically isolated human being can be expected to have a pup at their side or a kitten on their lap.