Pandemic-spurred loneliness and new-found time at home has supercharged the pet market. With experts predicting a welfare crisis, how can technology play a role in helping both new, and well-seasoned pet parents care, nourish and enjoy their pet pals?
In this article we explore the issues surrounding pet ownership, the rapid growth and potential crisis, along with predictions of technologies we expect to gain traction in the nascent PetTech market.
Earlier this year whilst on a walk between snow showers, our children spotted a scruffy ball of fur quivering in the bushes. Upon closer inspection we discovered the ragged fluff belonged to a scared, starved and semi-frozen kitten trying its best to convince us of how endearing it could be. What happened next was entirely out of my hands.
A month prior to this, during a slightly warmer walk, we stumbled across an adorable tabby kitten which the kids immediately fell in love with it, naming it JellyBean. Over the next thirty minutes I stood my ground saying we absolutely couldn’t “just take it home” because it was probably someone’s pet. I was not at all popular but felt I had done the right thing and taught a valuable life lesson to the kids – you can’t “just take” things you want.
Later that week, to my absolute horror I learned that, cats in this region are often not neutered or spayed, resulting in an abundance of kittens that many households simply can’t afford. As such, kittens are often left in the woods to “fend for themselves”.
Needless to say, when presented with the situation at the top of this article, there was no way we were letting that little scruff ball freeze to death in the snow, so we took it home. Months later it is healthy, happy and causing the normal havoc that an energetic kitten can be relied on for. However, the months in between were a trial of our patience, health and budgets.
Whilst my story of emotional spontaneity was not pandemic driven, there are millions of pets in homes today that are a result of uncharacteristic emotional and impulsive decision making in the face of the pandemic. The opportunities and challenges that this trend presents are the subject of the rest of this article.
In March, the BBC reported that 3.2 million pets were bought in lockdown, resulting in supermarkets warning of petfood shortage due to “unprecedented demand”. Sadly, however, the article also highlights that approximately 160,000 of the newly acquired pets had already been “given up”.
In a similarly worrying development, between the start of the 2020 lockdown and the following August, the RSCPA had received more than 400,000 calls about animal cruelty and abuse, with the charity warning of an impending crisis as new pet owners return to work. Additionally, between October to November 2020, the Dogs Trust charity reported 2,000 requests to rehome dogs.
Google published an insights report that drew correlations between consumer search behaviours through the pandemic and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Aligning with Masolw’s Level 3 “belonginess and love needs”, Google’s Phase 3 saw a spike in searches for pets in May 2020.
That’s a lot of people who’ve taken on a much-needed companion in the height of a pandemic. The big question is, how many of these homes will continue to enjoy and care for their new family additions once their lives return to some kind of normal? Is there anything that technology can do to help – yes.
According to an article in Computer Weekly, venture capital is chasing PetTech startups, seeing it as a nascent sector, and with good reason too.
In the US there were 89.7 million dogs living in households – that was in 2017, let alone today after the pandemic puppy boom. The UK’s pandemic pet growth of 3.2 million was a growth of almost 24%, taking the total of pet-owning UK homes to almost 17 million, which is almost 1 in 4 homes across the nation.
There are, of course, already a plethora of PetTech startups that cater for all sorts of needs:
However, the combined pandemic forces of rapid digitisation and pet ownership have stimulated digital demand for all manner of pet ownership, including purchases, training, maintenance, insurance, health and wellbeing and more.
We believe the PetTech market is ready for explosive growth and see potential in a number of exciting new directions.
On top of the pandemic drivers mentioned above, during the same period there has been a heightened environmental and sustainability (ESG) awareness.
The pet industry is known to have a measurable and non-inconsequential impact on environment and climate factors, from the livestock requirement for meat-based food products, to strip mining for cat litter, waterway bacterial pollution from waste and plastic pollution from carelessly discarded doggie bags.
Consumers are looking for responsible, sustainable solutions to care for, nourish, enjoy and protect their pets. As such PetTech solutions that aim for sustainability targets are likely to see eager uptake.
An unwelcome side effect of the puppy boom has been the rise in acquisition cost, theft and the black market. Whilst there are numerous track and trace types of services already available on the market, when prices are inflating the reward of circumventing these is high enough to justify the reward, meaning that accessory based locators such as GPS equipped collars are ineffective, and so too are more invasive trackers such as implanted chips.
We expect to see technologies that allow the public to track and trace animals through crowd-sourcing approaches. Additionally, we expect AI to be deployed in an effort to provide both better-than-human visual recognition of our canine friends as well as to identify locations in a similar fashion to recent innovations in the prevention of human trafficking, such as TraffickCam.
As noted in the expert opinions offered in the UK Government’s recent debate, charities and animal welfare experts expect the pandemic pet boom to decline into a welfare crisis. Accordingly, we anticipate space for PetTech companies to provide education, support and advice to help prevent and identify these cases, along with crowdsourced reporting for anonymous whistle-blowing.
Whilst our doggie pals might be quite comfortable at home with their human companions, it is well noted that many breeds require social interaction for strong mental and social wellbeing. Additionally, their humans will also be looking for opportunities to express post-pandemic freedoms socially.
We see an opportunity for community focused applications that promote human plus pet socialising. We might see these in the form of vetted (pun intended) group activities, curated walks and pet-friendly excursions.
Of course, there will also be growth in pet focused gadgets, like remote feeding devices with integrated two-way audio and visual so you can see when your pet is feeding, and doggie/cat doorcams allowing owners to open cat/dog-flaps only for their pets – think of it as a Ring video doorbell for your pets.
Other areas we expect to see growth in are insurance, televetcare, support groups, rehoming and adoption and, of course, nutrition.
A ubiquitous requirement of all of these will be outstanding mobile-first user experiences – something we pretty darn good at, to say the least.
A-Squared is a pet-friendly development agency in Brighton, with an appetite for innovative, compelling user experiences … with a bite!
So, if you are building technologies and applications for the benefit of pets (and their humans) and need a trusted partner to deliver something remarkable then look no further, get in touch today.