Can producers profit from the pet obsession?

People sometimes scoff at India where cows are considered sacred by most of the population. In Canada, dogs and cats have gradually been elevated to special status with both good and bad effects for agriculture.


I grew up with dogs and cats and I like both of them a lot. On a farm, they can earn their keep. Even an untrained dog can be an early warning system for someone or something entering the yard. Both dogs and cats can play an important role in rodent control. 


As a kid on a mixed farm, our dogs and cats mainly lived outside. There was no kitty litter to replenish and you didn’t have to walk the dog because he could get all the exercise he wanted. I remember shedding some tears when my favourite cat or a long-time canine friend died, but such was the cycle of life.


These days, in many homes, dogs and cats are treated like members of the family. In fact, they sometimes appear to receive more affection than the kids.


It’s a good thing we have free health care for human ailments so there’s money available to pay atrocious veterinary bills for companion animals. You can easily pay hundreds or thousands of dollars when a dog or cat is involved in an accident or ends up with a medical condition. 


Large animal veterinarians work darn hard for their money. On dogs and cats, vets can charge big dollars and laugh all the way to the bank. People love their pets so much they just pay whatever is required.


Geriatric pets with arthritis and incontinence are sometimes kept alive for years because the family can’t come to terms with ending the suffering. The next thing you know, employers will be required to allow bereavement time when an employee’s pet dies.


Many people enjoy a great deal of comfort from their companion animals. For dog owners, taking Fido for daily walks provides a reason for them to also get some exercise. 


However, you have to wonder why city dwellers want to own a large dog and often two or three.


Funny how the tree huggers and social do-gooders never rail about pet ownership. Wouldn’t the country’s carbon footprint be a lot less if there were a million fewer companion animals in the country? Think how poverty could be reduced if we weren’t paying the bills for as many dogs and cats. And what health risks exist in public parks from dogs urinating and defecating everywhere?


Instead of asking these sorts of questions, society continues down the path of humanizing our pets. Increasingly, you see people taking their dogs or cats with them on airplane trips.


This has ramifications for agriculture. One unfortunate effect is that people tend to extrapolate the special status of companion animals onto livestock. How can one animal be a member of the family while another type of animal type is raised for food?


A positive effect is the large and growing market for grains, particularly pulses within the pet food industry. Unlike the purchase of least-cost ration ingredients for livestock feed, pet food manufacturers want consistency for their increasingly specialized formulations and they’re willing to pay for it. 


The love affair with dogs and cats shows no signs of abating. If anything, it’s growing more extreme. Within agriculture, we might as well continue to work on ways to profit from this obsession.

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Kevin Hursh is an agricultural journalist, consultant and farmer. He can be reached by e-mail at kevin@hursh.ca.