Land of pampered pets

Dog­topia looks to cash in as Amer­i­cans spend ever-in­creas­ing sums on their an­i­mals

Houston Chronicle - - BUSINESS - By Ileana Na­jarro

Tucker the gold­en­doo­dle cadges hugs from the at­ten­dants. Jin­gles the black and white dachs­hund sticks to the side­lines but wags his tail when friends ap­proach. And ev­ery­one gives Moab, the “cool kid” white West High­land ter­rier, his space.

At the Dog­topia dog day care and spa cen­ter in Hyde Park, pups romp, eat, nap and learn new tricks un­til their “pet par­ents” come to pick them up after work.

“We’re of­ten com­pared to a chil­dren’s day care fa­cil­ity,” said Julie Dow, the cen­ter’s gen­eral man­ager, paus­ing to let Sam the barking minia­ture sch­nauzer know she would get the toys out in a minute.

Over the last 15 years the pet in­dus­try has seen con­sis­tent eco­nomic growth thanks in large part to what ex­perts call the “hu­man­iza­tion of pets.” As more pets are treated like full-fledged mem­bers of the fam­ily, if not sub­sti­tutes for chil­dren, their own­ers are more will­ing to in­vest in the well-be­ing of their furry, feath­ery and scaly com­pan­ions.

U.S. con­sumers spent more than $60 bil­lion last year on pet prod­ucts and ser­vices and are fore­cast to spend even more in 2016. Mean­while, Phoenix-based Dog­topia is look­ing to ex­pand fur­ther into the Hous­ton mar­ket with 20 to 25 new fran­chises in the next few years. It plans to ex­pand to 400 across North Amer­ica by 2021, up from 44 now.

“It’s kind of a per­fect storm hap­pen­ing at once in terms of de­mand for dog­gie day care,” said Alex Samios, Dog­topia’s vice pres­i­dent of fran­chise de­vel­op­ment.

While food and vet­eri­nary ser­vices are ex­pected to be the largest spend­ing cat­e­gories, the Amer­i­can Pet Prod­ucts

As­so­ci­a­tion noted that pet ser­vices, in­clud­ing dog day care, are ex­pected to see the most growth in spend­ing this year.

Dog­topia CEO Neil Gill es­ti­mates there are about 14,000 in­de­pen­dent dog day care providers in the U.S. He said his com­pany’s ex­pan­sion into Hous­ton, in par­tic­u­lar, is driven by de­mo­graph­ics. The re­gion boasts a high house­hold in­come, and 41 per­cent of house­holds own dogs.

The city is also re­garded by pet liv­ing ex­perts like Kristen Levine as a hub for in­no­va­tion in dog day care in large part be­cause there are so many baby boomers and mil­len­ni­als here.

“Baby boomers get credit for bring­ing pets from the back­yard into the bed­room,” Levine said.

Levine, who is based in Florida, has seen the dog day care in­dus­try trans­form from sim­ple ken­nels in the 1950s through ’70s, to the day care cen­ters of the ’80s and ’90s, to the “life­style cen­ters” that in­clude train­ing and ex­er­cise reg­i­mens.

Though boomers and wealth­ier folks re­main the largest de­mo­graphic of pet own­ers, mil­len­ni­als are catch­ing up. More mem­bers of this younger gen­er­a­tion choose to start fam­i­lies later in life or forgo hav­ing chil­dren al­to­gether. Pets are prov­ing to be a pop­u­lar sub­sti­tute.

As the num­ber of dog day cares con­tin­ues to grow, Su­san Briggs, a Hous­ton-based pet in­dus­try ex­pert, has noted a si­mul­ta­ne­ous growth in pet own­er­ship as peo­ple feel they can han­dle own­ing a pet with a day care to help.

“The pet in­dus­try is def­i­nitely one that just keeps grow­ing and ex­pand­ing,” Briggs said.

Dur­ing the 2008 re­ces­sion, even as peo­ple spent less on travel and other nonessen­tial ex­penses, Samios saw no ma­jor drop in the dog day care in­dus­try. Even if some cut down the num­ber of days their dog would stay at a day care, they didn’t cut day care al­to­gether as their dog be­came ac­cus­tomed to cer­tain fa­cil­i­ties and staff. Prices at Dog­topia in Hous­ton range from $33 for a one-day visit to $475 for a full month of un­lim­ited use.

“It’s a sticky busi­ness where loy­alty pays off,” he said.

Dow noted that one client moved to The Wood­lands but con­tin­ues to bring the dog to the Hyde Park site ev­ery day.

For its Hous­ton and na­tional ex­pan­sion, Dog­topia is rolling out a day care 2.0 model with a fo­cus on im­prov­ing trans­parency of its ser­vices and train­ing of its at­ten­dants.

Ed­u­ca­tion of at­ten­dants in dog day care is key for Briggs, who runs Crys­tal Ca­nine and Dog Gu­rus, com­pa­nies that work to men­tor small busi­nesses in the pet in­dus­try.

With eas­ier ac­cess to run a dog day care fran­chise to­day, and a lack of na­tional cer­ti­fi­ca­tion stan­dards, Briggs is work­ing to im­prove the safety of dogs in such fa­cil­i­ties as she doesn’t see the in­dus­try slow­ing down any time soon.

“I don’t think we’ll ever go back to the days when Fido was left out­side,” Briggs said.

Karen War­ren / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

Julie Dow gives some lov­ing to a ca­nine vis­i­tor at Dog­topia on Waugh. The na­tion’s con­sumers spent more than $60 bil­lion on pet prod­ucts and ser­vices last year, and they are fore­cast to raise that amount this year.

Source: Amer­i­can Pet Prod­ucts As­so­ci­a­tion Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

Karen War­ren / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

Ian Radogna cra­dles a small dog at Dog­topia. Forty­one per­cent of house­holds in the area own dogs.

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