44% of Millennials See Their Pets as Starter Children, and That’s a Big Opportunity for Brands

The fur baby economy is real

Selfies with your pet are always a good idea. Getty Images
Headshot of Sami Main

Millennials are putting off marriage and starting families later in life, but there’s one big milestone they’re right on track for: their first pet. To many adults ages 20-36, these furry creatures are much more than cute companions—they’re starter children.

A recent study from business solutions agency Gale found that 44 percent of millennials see their pets as “practice” for the real deal, with 21 percent citing that as the main reason for welcoming an animal into their homes and another 23 percent saying it was at least part of the reason. And The Washington Post reported last year that three-fourths of Americans in their 30s own a dog and over half own a cat.

Marketers say they’ve noticed that the perception of pets has changed with this generation—and they can take that animals-as-kids perspective to the bank. Here’s what millennial pet parents told us they want from brands, including customization, convenience and quality:

Mollie McGill, 26, and Patrick Sullivan, 29, are proud parents of Cooper, 2. They celebrate Cooper’s every milestone, from birthdays to obedience class graduations.

“In all choices we make, we understand she is part of that equation,” they wrote in an email to Adweek. “We put her interests before our own, and we’ve never seen her as ‘just a dog’ or a temporary part of our lives.”

We think that because we treat Cooper like she is a child, we’re inherently prepared for one,” they said. “Most of the traits we’ve acquired over the last 18 months are those that parents develop as well. The research, the planning, the worrying, the borderline obsession with this living thing and the overwhelming amount of love you feel for them.”

After being disappointed with many of the dog food options available on the market, the couple ultimately chose a brand based on the quality of ingredients and delivery options. In fact, McGill liked the company so much that she left her job in advertising to become the lead designer for Ollie Pets.

The couple looks for brand voice, values and high-quality products before bringing them to Cooper.

A study from Wakefield Research recently noted that for millennials, it’s essential that products are BPA-free, made of organic or natural materials and hypoallergenic. In fact, 86 percent of millennials who responded feel that natural food is vital for their pet.

Brands that feel customizable, more tailored, and don’t require us to go to the store every week are super appealing to us,” Cooper’s parents wrote. “We like brands that feel modern and fresh, and especially ones that have some kind of a ‘feel good’ component to them, like a give-back to shelters.”

Jam Stewart, director of corporate communications at Mars Petcare, said millennials are passionate about their communities. This summer, the parent company of brands like Pedigree and Whiskas launched a program called Better Cities For Pets to show people what a pet-friendly city could look like.

“There’s a growing demand to take their pets out to public places with them, as they would their children,” Stewart noted. “Since more and more people are moving to cities, especially millennials, we’re working to ensure those cities are equipped with more pet-friendly amenities and policies.”

Meghan Foreman, 26, also looks for pet care products that can be delivered to her door. Chewy, which delivers food, treats, toys and other supplies, had a tagline that stood out to her: “Where pet lovers shop.”

“Pet brands need to connect with pet owners on a deeper level to differentiate,” said Foreman. “I was drawn in by specific messaging and quality of product and stayed because I felt a connection to the brand based on mutual love of my dog, and all dogs, really.”

Foreman also considers her dog to be her baby and thinks this experience has prepared her for the “real deal” down the line thanks to the specific routines, checkups and preferences she now takes into consideration.

“Obviously there will be bigger challenges as a parent to a human baby,” she said, “but for now, my fur baby keeps my hands full.”

@samimain sami.main@adweek.com Sami Main is social editor for Adweek, where she posts Adweek content onto social platforms and looks for creative ways to communicate what's new.