Pandemic puppy shortage shows market going to the dogs—in a good way
Naama Bloom helped usher an era of frank and funny feminine-care marketing last decade with the launch of HelloFlo and its humorous videos. She sold that business years ago, but her knack for being in the moment has just followed her now that she’s in one of the businesses most buoyed by the pandemic—puppies.
Now as chief marketing officer of PuppySpot, a marketplace that vets breeders and arranges air and ground transportation for puppies, she has a warning for America’s growing dog-loving masses: Get your orders in by October if you want a puppy by Christmas.
Bloom hesitates to use the phrase “puppy shortage,” but she wouldn’t be exaggerating if she did. The pandemic has stoked demand for dogs, particularly puppies, like never before. People working at home and doing their best to be socially distant have been turning to pups for companionship. And demand has been rising even as responsible dog ownership and spay/neuter practices limit supply in recent years. Not only are breeder pups getting scarcer, but so are rescue dogs.
“All the dogs who have been placed in the past six months have created this incredible crunch,” says Bloom. “When you’re planning to get a dog as a holiday gift, you need to think in advance. This isn’t like two-day shipping from Amazon.”
PuppySpot doesn’t work with puppy mills, so it hasn’t told breeders to step up breeding because of COVID-19 but to continue following ethical protocols, Bloom says. “But when the dogs come on the site, they get sold almost right away.”
Usually dogs that PuppySpot sells for the holidays are born around now and get listed in November, Bloom says. But she’s recommending anyone who wants to be sure to have a puppy to look in October instead.
Most of the demand for puppies comes from major urban areas on the coasts, Bloom says. But most of the breeders are in the interior of the country. And besides spurring demand, the pandemic has made transportation harder.
Many airlines have stopped handling puppies and other live animal cargo during the pandemic plunge in air travel, she says. And if a surge in COVID-19 cases later in the fall leads to more severe travel restrictions, that could keep people from flying or driving to get puppies. So PuppySpot has built its own private air charter and ground transportation network over the past six months.
People pay up despite recession
None of this comes cheap. A golden retriever pup on PuppySpot currently goes for around $3,999, a beagle for $2,399, plus $799 for health certificate and travel on either.
People aren’t balking at purebred prices even in the maws of a deep recession, as the American Kennel Club is seeing registrations running 10 percent higher than a year ago, says Brandi Hunter, VP of communications.
Of course, this is the higher end of the market, but puppies, and dogs generally, are in short supply all over.
Dog adoptions at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty for Animals of Los Angeles are running at about twice the rate of a year ago, with puppies in especially short supply, says Madeline Bernstein, president of the organization. Certain breeds such as poodles and golden retrievers are always hard to get, too. And while puppies are in shorter supply, cat adoptions also have been on the increase during the pandemic, she notes.
While many people in California will look elsewhere for dogs, she says the preference of Angelenos for small breeds (think “purse dogs”) means the area gets more than its share of them as rescues, too, and is a net exporter of chihuahuas and the like as a result.
Even before the pandemic, people have been getting more responsible about spaying and neutering, and adopting rescue dogs is harder than it used to be. People can expect lengthy applications, requirements for veterinary references, and scrutiny before a rescue organization hands them over. Reputable breeders, too, are also picky about who gets the pups, Bernstein says.“One of the ways you can tell an ethical breeder,” she says, “is that you’re more vetted than they are.”
Scams and subterfuge have made the market very difficult to navigate, Bernstein says. Scammers on Facebook and Craigslist are taking cash upfront for dogs that don’t exist in many cases, she says. And because of California laws to restrict puppy mills and pet-store sales of animals, some disreputable breeders have tried setting up non-profit faux rescue operations to sell their pets, she says.
But the good news is that once people get puppies, they tend to keep them, Bernstein says. While she’d feared a surge in returns and surrenders amid the pandemic, the economic toll it has taken and the effects of COVID-19, that hasn’t happened. In fact, her group's return rate on adoptions and fosters is down substantially to around 8 percent from 10 percent normally.
Numerator, which tracks online and offline sales using a mobile panel that it also surveys regularly, finds only 37 percent of dog owners got their dogs from breeders or pet stores, while 33 percent adopted them from pounds or rescue organizations, 29 percent got them from friends or family, and the rest either as puppies or strays.
Numerator finds 9.7 percent of the households buying dog food from March through May were new to the category, a step up of about 8 percent from new-to-the-category households a year earlier. That still represents millions of new households and puppies, given that about half of U.S. households, or 66 million, have dogs, according to the firm. (The AKC pegs the number higher, at 72 million.)
Either way, interest isn’t waning. Petfinder, the leading search site for rescue dogs, has seen traffic surge 79 percent compared to a year ago to more than 19 million monthly visits on average for the March to August period, according to SimilarWeb, with August traffic remaining at near record highs of 20 million. Traffic to eight other leading sites for finding rescue dogs was also up 23 percent to 21.3 million monthly visits since the pandemic. Google Trends shows searches for puppy adoption hit an all-time high in April, and while the searches have dropped some since, in September they are still running about 38 percent above the prior year.
No signs of belt tightening
While a recession would normally put a tighter leash on what is very much discretionary spending, there’s no evidence dogs are getting any less of the budget.
Numerator finds one thing people seem unwilling to cut back on, regardless of their level of economic comfort, is spending on pets. For example, in looking at spending on dog treats, the most discretionary category of purchases, the firm finds people at all levels of its recession segmentation model, including the “scared and struggling” and “life on pause” groups, are spending at least as much as they did a year ago on dog treats, with other groups spending 7 to 8 percent more.
Dog owners spend an average of $498 annually on dog supplies through offline and online stores, Numerator finds. And premium fresh food is growing faster than any other segment. Repeat purchase rates for brands, including pricey Blue Buffalo, are at or ahead of repeat rates for cheaper private labels.
The AKC’s surge in purebred registrations is just more evidence.
“Anecdotally our breeders are telling us they have waiting lists a mile long,” Hunter says, and she believes the companionship factor is beating any economic concerns.
“Dogs are your greatest comfort,” she says. “They’re the best part of being home.”