Land of pampered pets
Dogtopia looks to cash in as Americans spend ever-increasing sums on their animals
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.
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.
Ian Radogna cradles a small dog at Dogtopia. Fortyone percent of households in the area own dogs.