By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker
Recent research suggests millennials (also known as Generation Y — people born in the early 1980s through the late 1990s) are very different pet owners than preceding generations. The research was produced by Pet Owner Paths and was sponsored by Merck (the veterinary drug manufacturer), Unfenced (an ad agency) and Kynetic (a market research firm).
A couple of trends the research revealed are that millennials are moving away from small dogs toward medium-sized dogs, and that pet ownership is becoming more balanced between men and women. There are more male dog and cat owners among millennials than previous generations.
In addition to comparing the habits of younger versus older pet parents, the researchers also evaluated decision-making differences between dog and cat owners, and differences when a pet is sick versus when it's healthy.
Millennials Are Now the Largest Demographic of Pet Owners
Per the American Pet Products Association, millennials are now the largest segment of pet owners. And according to the Pet Owner Paths report, compared to older pet parents, millennials are:1
- Investing more time in their pets, evaluating their needs more thoroughly and spending more money
- More likely to use veterinary products preventively rather than just as a treatment
- More likely to use products continuously versus intermittently
- More likely to get dental cleanings and use dental rinses
- More likely to see veterinarians as integral to their journey as pet owners
The report also states that for millennials, learning is a journey. Decision-making is "… a long, complex and often iterative journey" that takes substantially longer than it does for older pet owners. And the journey doesn't necessarily end with a purchase, either. According to the report, even after much research and evaluation, millennials often decide to keep looking to collect even more information to support a decision. They "… actively gather, curate and assess information from many, many sources."
Millennials Are Proving To Be Conscientious Pet Parents
The Pet Owner Paths report also asserts millennials are "… conscientious and poised to be excellent veterinary clients." They're more likely to involve their vet in their decision-making journey than older pet owners (57 percent versus 42 percent).
Apparently millennials are also more likely to follow their vet's advice (50 percent versus 31 percent of older pet parents), however, they're also more likely to consult other veterinary staff such as vet techs and front office employees. Older pet owners reportedly rely almost entirely on the veterinarian.
The most valued veterinary service for millennials is 24/7 chat or texting availability, and they are more likely to make contact using social media or email than older pet parents, and they are also heavy users of "on-demand information sources."
Interestingly, cat parents of all generations spend more time on the decision-making journey than dog owners. They're also more apt to go online for information, and to read pet product packaging. Millennial cat owners are also the most likely to use alternative communication methods (email, social media posts) to connect with their veterinarian.
4 Ways Pet Parents and Vets See the World Differently
Not surprisingly, the Pet Owners Path report also revealed some very important differences between the way (conventional) veterinarians and pet parents view pet healthcare:
1. Preventive healthcare. As I often point out, the conventional veterinary community views preventive care as spaying/neutering (the earlier, the better in most cases), annual vaccinations and parasite control drugs/chemicals. And many conventional vets firmly believe they are the ones who should be in charge in this area.
In stark contrast to the veterinary point of view, pet parents rightfully believe effective preventive care involves their animal companion's emotional well-being, exercise, nutrition, play and veterinary care, and they think they are the ones responsible for providing these things to their pet.
I wish more veterinarians would reject the traditional notion of preventive healthcare, which too often centers on revaccinations and chemical pesticides, and instead help their clients understand the value of a proactive approach to keeping their pets healthy.
Proactive medicine strives to identity potential health obstacles before disease occurs and intentionally creates wellness through wise lifestyle choices; the exact opposite of reactive medicine.
2. The veterinarian-client-patient relationship. Veterinarians believe it is up to them to dictate the terms of their patients' medical care and that clients (pet parents) should agree to follow their instructions, preferably without question. However, what pet parents want out of their relationship with their vets is a "… trusting bond with a significant care provider who knows and cares about the pet and participates with the pet owner to provide the best care."
In my experience, many vets don't make the grade here, because pet parents realize the typical traditional one-size-fits-all approach to their pet's health has significant limitations and can sometimes do more harm than good. When alternative or nontoxic options aren't even discussed, they naturally lose trust in the process.
3. The purpose of a veterinary visit. For veterinarians, the purpose of visits is to evaluate and determine the best course of action. For the pet owner, it's to get expert advice to include in the decision-making process. Another way to put this is that conventional veterinarians are trained to practice reactive medicine, whereas many of their clients are looking for a more proactive and integrative approach to not only healing their pets, but also helping them stay healthy.
Being proactive means being focused on initiating change rather than simply reacting to events as they occur. I use what I call the Three Pillars of Health as a proactive approach to wellness. These pillars (species-appropriate nutrition, a balanced immune system and a sound, resilient frame) form the foundation for your pet's health, quality of life and longevity.
4. Dr. Google. According to the Pet Owners Path report, veterinarians view the Internet as a "dangerous, misinformed competitor to the veterinarian's authority and client relationships." This is true — many vets absolutely despise "Dr. Google," whereas for pet owners, "it's an on-demand source of copious information that they can curate to be more informed as they make decisions."
There is certainly a lot of misleading healthcare information on the 'net, however, kudos to pet owners who want to gather their own data and advocate for their animal companions at veterinary appointments. Perhaps the question vets should be asking themselves is why so many pet parents feel the need to search for answers and guidance online.
Interestingly, the report doesn't emphasize millennials in the above discussion, so I assume these four points apply to pet parents of all generations. And this has certainly been my experience. The limitations and problems inherent in conventional veterinary medicine are a frustration to pet owners of all ages, and sadly, progress is excruciatingly slow.
The good news is more and more pet parents are becoming empowered, knowledgeable decision-makers and advocates for their four-legged family members, which is exactly what needs to happen if their pets are to receive the best medical care possible.