Upscale Pet Meals Proliferated within the Pandemic—Now They’re Plunging Homeowners Into Debt

One of the more colorful features of pandemic living is the renewed importance consumers are placing on dogs and cats.

Given the abundance of emotional support that pets provide, it’s no coincidence that Americans have wanted to reward these worthy companions with toys, treats and a growing number of high-end pet foods. As Adweek reported in August, brands of “human grade” dog food continue to multiply, with newcomers like Hungry Bark and Sundays for Dogs joining slightly more established brands including The Farmer’s Dog, Ollie and NomNomNom, Inc.

But treating pets like people can be more expensive than many had reckoned, at least according to recently released research from LendingTree. Last month, the mortgage brokerage polled 2,000 pet owners and discovered that 47% of them—more than one in three Americans—have been in debt over their animal companions. That figure represents a substantial rise from the 36% in that financial predicament last year.

While there are a wide variety of expenses associated with owning a pet—everything from grooming to walking to, of course, veterinary visits—it’s clear that food (especially the kinds of designer foods enjoying a moment right now) take a significant chunk out of household budgets. According to the American Pet Products Association (APPA), Americans are forecasted to drop $99 billion on their animals this year. And while vet care is a big chunk of that ($29.3 billion), food took the biggest bite of all at nearly $37 million.

In February, APPA announced that Americans’ surprisingly high spending on pet food was being driven by products such as toppers (products added to traditional foods to boost nutrition and flavor). The organization added that “the increase in subscription pet food delivery programs also added to the success of this category.”

Data compiled by Atlas five years ago showed that while average boxed pet food cost owners $2.28 a pound, premium foods were significantly more expensive at $3.66 a pound for organic food and $12.08 for the kind of raw foods that have become trendier (and costlier). Earlier this year, one veterinary nurse in Boulder, Colo., calculated that feeding her mid-sized dog a raw diet cost her $90 a month.

Overall, LendingTree’s survey found that 34% of owners report spending more on their pets during the pandemic.

While it’s easy to presume that Gen Z owners would be the ones most likely to fall into debt over indulgences like pet clothing and fresh-delivered fare, it’s actually Gen X that’s most in trouble here. A surprising 66% of Gen X admitted to having gone into debt over a household animal, with millennials not far behind at 48%. Gen Z and the boomers had the least incidence of red ink over pets, at 40% and 23%, respectively.

Despite the obvious fiscal liabilities of keeping a cat or dog well clothed and fed, owners don’t seem to regret the commitment. LendingTree’s survey found that nearly half of owners are currently thinking about getting a second pet.

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