Why the fall in cat and dog ownership?

There are deep joys in pet ownership that help improve society.

There are deep joys in pet ownership that help improve society.

The story today is that the number of cats and dogs that New Zealanders keep as pets has fallen. But why? And is it a problem?

A new Euromonitor International report shows the number of dogs had fallen from 696,000 in 2012 to just over 680,000 this year. That's a 2.3 per cent fall in five years.

The dive in cat numbers is even steeper: the number has shrunk by about 200,000 in that same five years and is expected to keep falling.

Meanwhile, people seem to be turning to smaller pets such as birds and reptiles.

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All of this is happening as the human population grows.

Now, cats and dogs are just as delightful as they've ever been, so why the fall?

The researcher quoted says busier lifestyles, rising urbanisation and an ageing population are all factors. 

The number of cats kept as pets in New Zealand fell by 200,000 in five years.

The number of cats kept as pets in New Zealand fell by 200,000 in five years.

That's common sense, in my non-statistical opinion. Look around: our neighbourhoods are getting denser, our sections smaller, our roads busier. Apartment living has rocketed in the past 20 years, and often apartments have too little room for pets, or there are rules banning them. 

People are waiting longer and longer to form families and "settle down", compared with a generation ago. So people tend to wait till later in life to find a family-type home with the space and fencing that's needed, and rocketing prices make houses harder to come by.

If home ownership falls and renting rises, then you're bound to see a fall in pet ownership. Very few rentals accept dogs, and most don't accept cats. That means a lot of people yearning to have a dog or a cat, but waiting till they can afford or find a suitable house.

As cat and dog numbers fall, smaller pets such as lizards are appealing to more people.

As cat and dog numbers fall, smaller pets such as lizards are appealing to more people.

So I do agree that long-term changes in the way we live are making cat or dog ownership a less practical option for many people. But I also think cultural shifts are a factor – changes in our thinking and in what we know and believe.

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I think we're deep in a decades-long cultural shift in our attitude to pet ownership that is making us less casual and more careful about it. There's a growing ethos of diligent, planned, informed pet ownership – and that's my gut feeling rather than a statistical analysis. Maybe you agree.

This shift is driven by welfare groups, advocates, trainers, groomers, vets, pet shop staff – all the people involved in the pet-care scene. Television shows and social media communities are important ways for the information and the ethos of diligent pet ownership to spread.

Cats and dogs can get along with each other as well as they get along with humans.

Cats and dogs can get along with each other as well as they get along with humans.

As a result, most of us are more aware of the long-term responsibilities of having a pet. We de-sex them. We don't impulse-buy. We know we have to plan for pet ownership, understand our pet's health needs, fill out the forms, build the fences, and accept the long-term costs and inconveniences.

The message doesn't reach everyone, sadly, and there's still too much negligence and cruelty. But I do believe that the general level of knowledge of pets has risen in the past generation, and that people realise pet ownership is not a doddle.

That means people are more deliberate and less casual about getting a pet. They'll get one rather than two, two rather than three. They'll make sure (and adopting agencies make sure) their home is suitable for a pet. They'll delay getting a pet till everything's right.

We're deep in a cultural shift in which pet ownership is becoming less casual and more careful.

We're deep in a cultural shift in which pet ownership is becoming less casual and more careful.

All those decisions will tend to mean fewer dogs and cats. But those pets, I hope, are better cared for.

One more thing. I think it'd be a real shame if our supposed "busier lifestyles" and dense cities start to exclude cats and dogs. There are deep, life-enhancing pleasures to be had in cat and dog ownership that I believe improve society. Each pet cat or dog raises the sum total of joy and depletes the stock of stress.

Those who know those joys won't join any kind of trend against cat and dog ownership.

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 - Stuff

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