Our Evolving Relationship With Pets – From Companions to Family Members and Beyond

Last year, Americans spent $11 billion just on pampering their pets with toys, costumes and – yes – even strollers. Among those Americans, Millennials seem to be directing the latest boom. Supposedly a result of their reticence towards ‘real’ relationships and even marriage, they are getting pets like crazy – and treating them more like their own babies than previous generations. Tip: the person who writes and publishes What To Expect When You’re Expecting to Get a Cat or a Dog could quickly join the ranks of millionaires.

It’s not just man’s best friend who is adding to the pet industry’s coffers. In the U.K., according to the Pet Food Manufacturer’s Association, the number of pet cats in the country has risen by 500,000. Currently in the range of eight million in the last year alone, up from 17.1 per cent in 2016 to 18.3 per cent in 2017, cats are taking over. Again – and this might just be the result of business’ fascination with this ‘new cohort’ – the numbers are climbing thanks to Millennials. And, according to recent U.K. studies, those Millennials getting cats are almost overwhelmingly men – men who, perhaps, find it easier to have a relationship with a cat than another person.

That’s the key word in the pet industry: relationships. When it comes to our furry (and feathered) friends, relationships seem to drive every pet purchase. So, what are those relationships founded on? And how, considering that pets don’t make the best participants around the consumer co-creation table, can leaders in the pet industry understand those relationships in order to design innovative new products and services for pets?

First, they need to define the big buckets of relationships. Second, they need to understand where the most traction is occurring in them as ‘trends’ today. And third, to differentiate themselves from the pack (pun intended) they need to look to what might be outlier or even older relationships to tap into the unknown, unmet and unarticulated needs, desires and opportunities for pet innovation. At Gemic, we see four big buckets of relationships:

Animals as companions

We love our pets like best friends, especially our dogs. We all know that, and we all know just how important that love is to our lives and how it manifests. Depending on the personality and activities of the human in this ongoing relationship, that love and feeling of friendship likely emerged because we saw our dogs as fun, intelligent, protective, helpful, strong, somehow attractive and/or a constant source of company when we were alone. In fact, we’ve loved them like best friends for so long that as far back as 3000 BCE, at a site in Kentucky, we were burying dead children with dogs to ensure that they were not lonely and were well taken care of in the afterlife.

But what if this companionship isn’t based on any of those reasons but, instead, on the simple fact that our furry friends are, well, furry. According to John Bradshaw, an anthrozoologist at the University of Bristol’s Veterinary School, the real reason that we feel so connected to our dogs is an ancestral throwback to the good feelings that we get when we stroke and groom their fur. His theory suggests that because we lost our own early hominid fur some 1.6 million years ago, petting our dogs not only feels ‘natural’ to us but provides us with feelings of comfort and pleasure. While we do not consciously recognize them as such, we love our dogs because they remind us of our lost selves.

Animals as family members

If the 91% of Americans polled and the 88% of Australians are any indication, we also love our pets as family members. Consider these factors: they live inside our home, we give them names and we don’t eat them. That means that they live in the same social space that we do, that our naming endows them with very human attributes, and that we distinguish them very clearly from the rest of the animal world. In doing so, we blur the species boundaries between us and them, a practice that first emerged in 18th Century Britain when dogs, like children, became a common part of households. And our reverence for them as family members continues after they leave the home.

According to University of Tennessee zooarchaeologist Darcy Morey, the oldest convincing case of dog domestication is from Bonn-Oberkassel, in Germany, from about 14,000 years ago. Unlike the previous companion puppy, this dead dog was buried as part of a human double grave. Typically, in every land mass but Antarctica, dogs were buried by themselves. But because this dog joined its human in the afterlife and was placed in a ritualized way in position to provide maximum comfort – and because other dogs at the time have been found with grave goods – we believe their status was that of family.

Animals as social actors

If culture can be understood as a collection of shared understandings that arise out of face-to-face interactions, then dogs are part of it. As humans pursue routines that express and solidify their relationships with dogs, they create an interspecies culture that enables interaction not only with their dog but with society at large. That’s right. Dogs are social actors. Our ownership of them, depending on the level of expense they require, denotes social privilege. From big & mean to cute & cuddly, their temperament denotes a certain identity symbolization by their human. Their presence on walks – whether we are walking with them or accompanied in a wheelchair – gives us more opportunities to meet and talk with other people (and their dogs) more frequently. And perhaps most importantly, because they assist us in receiving significantly more social acknowledgement than when we are alone, they allow us to self-define ourselves, to perform ourselves in public.

Dogs symbolically represent the social identity of their owner and extend those social situations in which they attempt to define themselves. Whether we refer to them as friend, buddy, baby or ‘family member’, dogs are our significant other. Incorporated into our own social networks, they actively facilitate our social lives, they are a key part of what and how we communicate, and they enable the kinds of social experiences that, as pet owners, we value very highly.

Animals as living tools

Some scholars have suggested that dogs probably domesticated themselves, initially living on the fringes of human settlements and then adapting to co-exist with people inside the home. From their perspective, this initial relationship was likely based on their opportunity to pick up food scraps either directly from us or our ancient garbage dumps. From our perspective it was likely an opportunity to study and learn about animals. And with that learning, we learned to use them.

In the 14,000 or so years since their domestication, dogs have been invaluable to us: warning us of predators, protecting us from them, helping us track down that night’s dinner and making sure we don’t get lost out on our adventures. They get us to places. They help us find food. They give us a better chance of not getting eaten by the neighborhood lion. In short, they are functional friends, and were it not for the fur factor we love, we probably would not have fed them and let them live with us unless they did something valuable for us.

It is here where we believe that some truly interesting innovation opportunities in the global pet market lie today. It’s not that we are suggesting a return to our hunter-gatherer past or that we abandon our loving and fruitful relationships with pets in favor of turning them into our Jobs-To-Be-Done servants. No, we love our pets just as much as the next person. What we are suggesting is that companies in the pet market might be better served and better serve the humans that pay for their products and services by focusing their innovation efforts on something just a little off to the side of the mainstream pet zeitgeist and its fixation on the themes of companion and family member.

This is where almost every pet innovation plays. Recently, our companions and furry family members have been introduced to DogVacay (Air BnB-type kennels with doggy sitters), Pet Chatz (a Skype-like solution to interact with your pets while you’re at work), FitbBark (health wearables to track sleep and activity levels), Raw Bistro (a service providing 100% grass-fed, free-range organics) and Pretty Litter (litter that changes color to notify you of potential cat health issues). These and many other pet innovations fall into the categories of pampering, nurturing, interacting, intervening or otherwise acting on behalf of your pet to improve some part of its life. While they will certainly make owners feel better for taking care of their pets, few of them function for the benefit of the owners.

What would it mean for a company in the pet market to structure its innovation efforts on the theme of Animals as Living Tools? Given how most players are focused on Animals as Companions and Animals as Family members, it could mean a very distinct differentiation from competitors and, hopefully, real function, value and meaning for consumers.

If we were to return to the origins of our relationship and treat Pets as Living Tools, what might the market offer? Well, here are just a few thought starters.

The Tail Charger

One way of using our dogs productively and ethically, without making them feel any discomfort, would be with the help of a portable charger that could be attached to our furry companion’s tail. Let’s have a closer look at how this seemingly silly idea could work in practice.

Solar panels are currently the only feasible option for the effortless charging of portable devices when on the go. The issue is that the most affordable options are less effective in climates where the sun hides behind the clouds for most of the year. An alternative is a device that allows us to create small volumes of electricity through the kinetic energy of vibrations. The most popular option on the market is currently in the form of a hand-crank. However, the main issue with this solution is that it’s not as convenient as it could be – and that’s where our beloved dog comes in. Why get frustrated with endless rotating when the happy tail is already waggling around furiously right next to us? A Velcro strap-on device is all you’d need to stop putting that valuable rotation power to waste. Of course, the casing would ideally be waterproof, to avoid any accidental damage caused by an unexpected, excited jump into a nearby river.

The benefits to this innovation are simple. Firstly, there’s the time that we save when we don’t have to worry about rotating the crank ourselves. Secondly, while it may not seem like a big deal, using hand-cranks can actually be pretty tiring. If we let the dog do the job for us, the saved energy can be spent on an even longer hike in nature – feeling safe with the knowledge that if we get lost and let the night catches us, a flashlight or a phone can show us the way back. Our companion can happily roam free even longer, in turn making our batteries even fuller. Everyone wins.

Pet Talk

We know they are highly intelligent. We know that they communicate well with each other and not so badly with us. Well, what if that intelligence and communication was available to us beyond the sounds we’re familiar with and their body language and demeanor?

Soon, it might be. Con Slobodchikoff, professor emeritus of biology at Northern Arizona University and CEO of pet-tech Animal Communications – a company whose motto is “Blending science with empathy for all living beings” –  is developing a dictionary of dog barks by collecting and interpreting videos of dog vocalizations. In theory, an app like Siri could then translate an owner’s simple words into woofs and barks, or translate a dog’s woofs and barks into English. While the project is still in its infancy, the possibilities are totally mind-blowing.

Imagine being out for a walk with your dog, your phone buzzes and the message from Rover up ahead is: “Snake!” Or that Rex announces that, after hours of the two of you searching, he’s found your lost child. Or, if you are so inclined, Bowser becomes the most valuable member of your weekend hunting party because he’s always the first to locate (and tell you about) a nice 12-point buck. Or, in an evolution of how today’s therapy dogs assist their owners, Mikey’s vocalizations clearly warn you of seizures, low blood sugar or even impending cancer.

Franken Pets

A genome-editing technique called CRISPR – Clustered Regularly Interspace Short Palindromic Repeats – allows scientists to modify DNA by cutting out undesired genes and inserting new ones. It’s relatively cheap and has potential applications in medicine, agriculture and animals. With the first embryos ready this year, scientists have already used it to insert synthetic woolly-mammoth genes into elephant cells, although nobody is certain whether the result will develop into a living animal. They are even looking to grow beagles with double the typical muscle mass to produce a super pup.

While the ethics of this approach are, perhaps, shaky at best, you can bet that if it works, somebody will be all over it. And if ethics are really your sticking point, ask yourself about the generations of gene manipulation we’ve already engaged in with our pets through the selective breeding that has maintained pure breeds for so long.

Should CRISPR prove effective, the possibilities for a pet market that can stomach this science will be huge: faster dogs, more aggressive dogs, cuter dogs and so on. Dog owners will compete among themselves to produce the biggest, brightest and best.

Match Maker

A variety of studies illustrate how dogs help us facilitate human social connections. On walks and at the park, they are an effective mediator in helping us to meet and socialize with other humans. So, what if your dog could smell human pheromones, interpret them in the same way a human might, and be able to suggest good partnerships or make a mate match?

If that sounds a little far-fetched consider this: the apocrine gland produces scents that convey social information through pheromones. That’s why dogs like to sniff crotches. Recent studies have found Australian shepherd dogs picking out cows that have just ovulated to assist farmers in breeding; Law Enforcement trainers recount how their dogs are able to distinguish people in a high state of fear or arousal through scent; and bomb sniffers are not just looking for the scent of bomb-making material but for the nervous sweat deposited on the bombs by those who made them.

So if dogs can so accurately detect pheromones, could they not be trained to pick out specific cues about the human they are sniffing and – perhaps through a translation app – convey information about that human to their human? Like, “Hey Bob, I’ve met a nice, calm, gentle lady over here that I think you might like.” Combined with their ability to visually read human emotion by focusing on the left side of our faces – a fact pointed out by Daniel Mills at the University of Lincoln that other animals do not do – pups already have a pretty accurate read on the humans in their midst.

While the training and technology that would enable such innovations to see the light of day might never arrive, that does not discount the opportunities that lie within the theme of Pets as Living Tools. For thousands of years, dogs have been our extra-somatic tool to help us expand the resources we can exploit. There is no reason to think that now that we are out of our caves and rarely in the neighborhoods of giant grizzlies that we no longer require our tool companions. Only the tasks have changed. And if, as many have suggested, pet ownership in its current form is unsustainable in our growing, urbanized populations, it might only be those pets that have a secondary value that we will be able to afford.

And we might consider affordability, especially with robots right around the corner. As a social technology themselves, our dogs could well perform better than our robots in helping us through our lives. They provide a good example of what robots need to become: lots of varieties, multiple purposes, various formats and a uncanny attunement to our human needs.

Unraveling the 21st century household

It is a common refrain to hear how Millennials are killing countless industries. From cars to casual dining and beyond, this is supposedly the disruption generation. Nowhere are these changes more evident than in the domain of the home.

In countries where home ownership has long been a cultural dream like the USA and Japan, young adults aren’t buying homes at the same rate that they were only a generation ago. Even in countries that place less importance on home ownership like France and Germany, consumption patterns around the home are still changing: younger adults simply aren’t buying the things that people have traditionally bought to use and consume in their living spaces.

This new economy of the home has to do with global sociological shifts. Around the world, notions of who makes up a typical household and how those people should relate to one another are changing dramatically with significant impact on consumption patterns. This means that any company in the business of ‘home’ should keep track not just of how taste is changing, but of how sociological factors are recreating households and daily life on a systemic level.

The 20th century symbolic home

Ideals of the home and household are different around the world, but much of the housing built since the turn of the 20th century has certain generalizable themes. Most of this housing was built after WWII. Located at the edge of cities, it facilitated particular roles for the people who inhabited this space together. Incorporating cultural and national differences, global industrialization meant that men and women, who in many cases had previously divvied up outdoors agricultural labor, now had roles that were more starkly defined by space. Men worked outside of the home in factories and offices for wages and salaries. Women’s labor was transformed into indoor, unpaid chores. Children ate, watched, wore and played with whatever their parents provided for them. This model of the nuclear family is often presented as having ancient roots, but it actually came about in a particular historic moment that wasn’t as far back as most people think.

20th century home design around the world emphasized the idea that the home was the space of the nuclear family. In American suburbia, the open plan allowed the woman of the house to watch her kids while cooking dinner. British semi-detached terraces transformed the front of each housing unit into a public space, while preserving the back as the inner sanctum only open to family members. Japanese postwar apartments solidified the boundaries between different families’ living spaces, eliminating many of the amenities that neighbors would have previously shared. With these global changes in housing, the household itself transformed. Domestic models that had previously incorporated intergenerational relatives living together and using public facilities, morphed into the model of a nuclear family with mother, father and several children living under one roof, buying and consuming products as a single unit.

In addition to the structure of the home itself, homeware products also embodied these same social ideals. In Euro-America, you received registry gifts of kitchen appliances when you got married and bought suites of furniture when you moved into your first house. In Japan, you bought a second set of ‘fine’ tableware when you began hosting social occasions as a couple. All of this symbolized that the nuclear family was supposed to be a single consuming unit, with one underlying set of tastes and preferences. This domestic model has persisted for a long time, but around the world notions of what comprises a home and a household are changing once more. And with these changes are coming significant shifts in patterns of consumption.

What’s next?

In recent generations, this model of one nuclear family=one household=one consuming unit no longer applies to much of the population. Around the world, women increasingly work outside the home like men. Young adults are moving to city centers rather than remaining in the suburbs. Today, well over half of the world’s population lives in urban areas, and experts expect that proportion to increase to two thirds by 2050, driven mostly by people under the age of 35. This mass migration means that young people are leaving behind the typical life-stages that characterized the last 50-100 years. And that means that they’re leaving behind the ideals of home that accompanied them.

Urban young people today increasingly live first with flat-mates, then a series of romantic partners, before finally settling down. In Euro-American countries this trend has become the norm. In the EU, over half of co-habiting partners are unmarried, and nearly a third of all households are single. It’s also rapidly becoming that way in Latin America and Asia. In Japan, for example, living together before marriage has gone from being a significant taboo to commonly accepted in a very short span of time. Even the act of “settling down” doesn’t necessarily look like what it used to: in many cases couples don’t make that final traditional step of marriage, or they choose to forego having children. Or, increasingly in almost every country of the world, people live as adults without being part of a couple at all.

The rise of the room-mate family

The sociologist Laura Miller writes that the 20th century home presented a vision of the household as not only “a domestic alliance” that took care of its members’ needs, but also “as a group of people who enjoy one another’s company and share leisure pursuits.” That concept is changing. People now live with flat-mates and other non-related adults for a long chunk of their lives. Often this living arrangement lasts so long before marriage that even when they do eventually move into a new home with a spouse, they continue to buy their own things and consume as their own unit rather than part of a joint couple.

This is happening on a global scale. Marketing professor Jagdish Seth studies this phenomenon in India as well as the USA, and he has labeled it the rise of the “room-mate family.” Today even when people do live as part of a traditional nuclear family, the father, mother and children probably have their own tooth paste, shampoo, meal time and television programs. Social media means we’re more connected than ever, but we’re also—as far as consumption goes—more independent than ever as well.

We often hear that the world is becoming more hectic, careers more fragmented, livelihoods more insecure. This means that people want their home to offer some sanctuary and stability for their increasingly frazzled lives. It’s not where you entertain or invite outsiders (at least not often.) You go out to socialize—a demand that is being met by the exponential growth of high-end restaurants and bars around the world. If the 20th century home was a space for “family togetherness,” then the 21st century home is a space where household members practice their own rituals of relaxation and recharge, preparing for the challenges and pressures of the outside world.

What does this mean for those in the business of ‘home’?

The household may no longer be a single unit of consumption, but homes are still the site where a lot of consumption takes place. We buy products for our homes that last a week, and other products that last a decade or more. All of these products—durable, perishable and everything in between—need to be designed, manufactured and marketed with these new household formations in mind.

What are the most durable products we buy for our homes? Let’s take possibly the most prosaic item of all: the bathroom sink. As a thought experiment, what are some of the ways that this common object is designed and marketed for a specific household structure? What are some of our key assumptions about how people who live in the same home relate to that feature and each other?

In many places, there is an idea that home owners care about their homes while renters are not invested in making the space feel like their own. Even in the case of Germany, where 60% of households rent rather than own and where tenants may very well live in the same unit for many years, landlords prefer to keep fixtures and features as simple and impersonal as possible. When people own homes and renovate their bathrooms, they are presented with an array of individualized, personal touches that they can bring to their sinks. But as a renter, there are few options for making an apartment feel like its theirs. Why the difference? Why the assumption that renters are not as concerned with making their mark on their living spaces? Let’s foreground the modern household with its adult urban co-renters who buy their own brands and don’t easily accept the generic: how can we provide these perpetual renters with ways to make a house a home, and a bathroom sink feel as suited to their needs as to the owner’s? What innovations could solve this problem?

At the other extreme, what is one of the most disposable household products? If I take washing powder as an example, what are some of the ways that this product has been developed and marketed for the 20th century nuclear family? The large bottles and boxes that this product comes in invoke the self-sacrificing mother working for all the other members of her family. Could smaller units of washing powder, suited to the specific needs of each household member’s clothing and skin, translate into a more relevant product for the consumer?

As a last case study, let’s look at a product with a mid-range lifespan in our homes: tableware. This is another great example of something geared towards a very specific consuming unit. If for many people the home has become the space to recharge on your own rather than the space to display the nuclear family’s taste and preferences, and if space is becoming more and more limited, how is this affecting the demand for pieces designed for out-of-the-ordinary entertaining? What tableware products would suit the needs of a modern room-mate family? These consumers may still be future-thinking and want to invest in long-lasting tableware, but it has to be a product that they can really imagine using.

So, what to do if you are in the business of ‘home’? Companies and industries that used to rely on customers associating their brands with certain domestic ideals need to study emerging sociological trends that characterize the ‘typical’ household, develop products for that entity, and work to communicate to their customers that they understand this transformation by building meaningful, representative life-worlds around their products that their customers can relate to.

The new home designs that emerged in the 20th century were responding to emergent ideas about who comprised a household, what those people wanted from each space, and how they would ideally relate to each other. Today those patterns are changing once more. Businesses and brands that want to stay relevant to the various commercial aspects of the home need to keep these sociological and symbolic questions close. They need to think beyond superficial trends and address the larger issue of the new, often surprising ways that people choose to live in their domestic space.

Image by Annie Spratt