Environment and Manufacturing & Technology

EYE ON THE PIE: Are we spending too much on pets?

February 19, 2007

"It's such a hassle, day after day after day," she said.

"What's a hassle?" I asked.

"Oh, you know," she answered, mixing her yogurt deep into the cereal. "Why," she continued without continuity, "don't you write about global warming? It's a very serious problem that they need to do something about."

"Who are 'they'?" I inquired.

"All the big guys," she said "the power brokers, the decision-makers and the office-holders, all of them."

"Pandy," I said politely, "global warming and other environmental dangers are very serous issues. But all those people you just mentioned will read about it only when they see that their power and wealth is challenged. It's the ordinary folks who have to be convinced, folks who still read newspapers, folks who could put pressure on politicians and businesses if they felt committed to finding and supporting solutions."

"Posh," she said with explosive emphasis. "You just don't want to admit how little you know about the subject."

"That's unkind, I said. "Plus, I have been busy thinking about how pets are absorbing more of our lives."

"Nice effort to get off the topic," Pandy sneered.

"Not at all," I insisted. "I'm just trying to put things into perspective. Sixty-three percent of U.S. homes have pets; 44 percent of those with pets have dogs and 38 percent have cats, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturing Association. There are 90.5 million cats (I have two of them) and 73.9 million dogs (I've got three of those)."

"So?" Pandy asked, fishing with her tongue for errant bits of cereal in her teeth.

"Well," I said, "the APPMA estimates that we are spending $38.4 billion on our pets, double what we were spending 12 years ago. APPMA reports that "many hotels across the country are adopting pet-friendly policies." Apparently, "mouthwash and an electric toothbrush for canines are routine" in doggies' beauty sessions. Consumers are buying "faux mink coats for cold-weather outings, feathered French day beds for afternoon naps, designer bird cages, botanical fragrances and ... a rhinestone tiara."

"That's just the extreme fringe of pet owners," Pandy said. "And what's it got to do with global warming, clean air, land preservation and healthy communities?"

"Are you listening?" I insisted. "Do you know what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency spends each year?" I didn't wait for a response. "The president's budget for fiscal 2008 includes $7.2 billion for the EPA. That's the fourth consecutive year with a cut in the EPA budget, down $1.2 billion (14 percent) from its $8.4 billion peak in fiscal 2004.

"The national budget is a statement about our preferences as a people. We are willing to spend only $7.2 billion on environmental protection, while we spend $38.4 billion on pets. Where is the public concern with the land, air and water we leave for our children and grandchildren? Even if you have no progeny, what kind of concern do you have for the earth on which our pets are supposed to live?" I concluded.

Pandora gave me a long look. "Well, if you put it that way, I see how pets are related to the environment. But aren't you asking for a lot of trouble if you demand that people give up their pets?"

"I'm not saying people should give up their pets," I said. "The question is, how much do we spend on them? Could we somehow tie spending on pets to contributions to environmental research and remedies? Right now, we spend $15.2 billion on pet food and $9.4 billion on veterinary care. Let's find a way to link our love of pets to our respect for the environment."

"I don't know, she said. "You could be letting something unanticipated loose into our society."

"Right, and it could be something good, something responsible," I concluded as we parted.



Marcus taught economics for more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU's Business Research Center. His column appears weekly.To comment on this column, send e-mail to mortonjmarcus@yahoo.com.
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