Why are we letting others do what we should be doing?

01 December 2015, at 12:00am

THE MERCURY COLUMN in which a guest columnist takes the temperature of the profession – and the world around

I WAS fortunate to have been invited to the recent launch of Pets at Home’s 2015 Pet Report and, as in the previous year, the report makes interesting reading.

This year’s focus is on the importance of pet ownership in childhood and, while we might all say we are pretty aware that spending time with pets is both entertaining and therapeutic for children, it’s easy to forget that today’s children are tomorrow’s pet owners – hopefully.

Various sources give different figures but we can be fairly comfortable with the idea that almost half of UK households have some form of pet and the PFMA suggests that our pet population currently numbers around 58 million.

Not surprisingly, around 93% of today’s pet owners also grew up with pets so we really need to encourage not just responsible pet ownership among the young but also the very concept of pet ownership with the benefits it brings if we are to see a healthy pet population once this generation of children reaches adulthood.

The Pets at Home report cites Professor Lance Workman, a psychologist from the University of South Wales, showing that pet ownership not only brings rewards through the aesthetically pleasing aspects of interacting with pets together with the comfort and companionship that pets bring, but also that they provide a valuable source of social interaction, and past research has shown that more than half of the British public believes that dog owners are actually friendlier than non-dog owners.

We also need to remember that interaction with pets increases the release of dopamine and serotonin so pets may serve as a therapeutic social resource too and we have seen really rather heartening results when some autistic children are teamed up with an assistance dog.

So, all in all, pet ownership is a pretty good thing both for children and society as a whole. Without putting too fine a point on it, should we be able to lean back with a passive smile at this point or might we consider that we have both a role and a responsibility to fly the flag rather more actively than has been the case in the past?

After all, might we not have something of a leadership role here or, more importantly, should we be engaging more readily with such a role? After all, if, as this report states, today’s children have a different pattern of ownership of their first pet from that of their parents, with more reptiles, more ornamental fish, fewer birds and 50% more small furries than in their parents’ generation, then that may have an impact on what we do and how we do it with both professional and business ramifications for the future.

Generational generalisations

Without doubt, today’s children will find it harder to buy their own house than our generation has found it – my apologies for such a broad generalisation to the more recent graduates who will already be finding it tough – and dog ownership is definitely more difficult nowadays in a working family, even if that family is able to own its own property and would not be precluded from doing so by a rental agreement. Perhaps it’s hardly surprising that dog ownership has fallen by 11% between the generations.

No one yet knows whether today’s children will choose to, or be able to mirror their parents’ desire to be pet owners but, statistically, if half the nation’s households currently have pets, an 11% drop in overall pet ownership would come straight off the bottom line in both pet population terms and in the dynamics of small animal veterinary practice.


The ISFM tells us that we have just around 10% pedigree cats in the UK so, by simple arithmetic, the remaining 90% must be moggies.

Experience tells us that moggies are usually hardier and less prone to inherited disease than their pedigree cousins, which may explain why, despite a rapidly developing interest in cats among the general population, the UK feline population appears to be static and their share of practice income is not generally rising in practices which do not deliberately engage with cat owners in schemes such as ISFM’s Cat Friendly Clinic programme.

Add to this an increase of more than 100% in the numbers of families choosing ornamental fish and it seems clear to me that the profession has a vested interest in becoming more engaged with and skilled at the overall promotion of pet ownership in today’s society.

What is less clear is how we might go about such a task and even if it is within our grasp as individuals.

I accept that our profession is both conservative and reluctant to step outside the boundaries which we have proscribed for ourselves but surely this is an opportunity for the associations which provide leadership to unify and empower their membership with resources and materials to allow us to play an active and orchestrated role in influencing tomorrow’s generation in an informed and positive fashion.

I applaud Pets at Home’s initiatives in both producing this second Pet Report and in actively seeking to advise and influence children and their parents in the best choice of the most suitable pet for their needs and capabilities.

It’s just I feel strongly that this is an opportunity the profession should have been taking more seriously and that we do ourselves little good in sitting back and allowing another retail sector to do what we could so easily be doing well ourselves.