Commentary: Pet owners want to be masters, not servants – that's why we value dogs more than cats

NEW YORK: Cat videos may rule the internet, but dogs possess mastery of their owners’ hearts – at least if spending is any guide.

A survey of pet owners found that they spent an average of US$2,883 in 2016 on 22 “common expenses” for their dogs, compared with US$1,926 for cats, based on an analysis of the data collected for the American Pet Products Association 2017-2018 National Pet Owners Survey. 

The extra money went primarily toward vet visits and kennel boarding, but dog owners also spent more on treats, grooming and toys.

A GROWING MARKET

Americans are spending more on pet care as an increasing share of US households own an animal.

A little over two-thirds of all US households own at least one pet, up from 56 per cent in 1988, the first year of the National Pet Owners Survey.

And almost half of households own a dog, while just 38 per cent have a cat. Generational trends suggest this divergence is likely to grow, as millennials are more likely to adopt a canine, while baby boomers tend to be cat lovers.

This is resulting in a growing market for pet-related products and services, which hit an estimated US$72 billion in 2018, up from US$46 billion a decade earlier.

A WILLINGNESS TO PAY

My study called “Dogs Have Masters, Cats Have Staff,” builds on earlier research showing that dog owners are willing to spend more on their pets than cat owners – including to save their lives.

Pet owners want to be masters, not servants (Photo: Unsplash/Matt Nelson)

One reason suggested was that dog owners had stronger bonds to their pets, which prompted them to spend more on things like veterinary care.

My research uncovered a key factor indicating why dog owners feel more attached to their pets: Dogs are famously more compliant than cats. When owners feel in control of their pets, strong feelings of psychological ownership and emotional attachment develop. And pet owners want to be masters – not servants.

Like other marketing researchers, my work uses “willingness to pay” as an indicator of the economic, rather than emotional, value owners place on their pets. It shows – and compares – how much pet owners would pay to save their animal’s life.

WHO’S IN CONTROL?

So I carried out three online experiments to explore the role of psychological ownership in these valuations.

In the first experiment, I asked dog or cat owners to write about their pet’s behaviour so I could measure their feelings of control and psychological ownership. Participants then imagined their pet became ill and indicated the most they would be willing to pay for a life-saving surgery.

Dog owners, on average, said they would pay US$10,689 to save the life of their pet, whereas cat owners offered less than half that. At the same time, dog owners tended to perceive more control and psychological ownership over their pets, suggesting this might be the reason for the difference in spending.

Pet owners want to be masters, not servants (Photo: Unsplash/Valerie Elash)

Of course, correlation is not causation. So in a second experiment, I asked participants how much they would be willing to pay to save their animal’s life after I had disturbed their sense of ownership. I did this by asking participants to imagine their pet’s behavior was a result of training it received from a previous owner.

As expected, disrupting their feelings of ownership eliminated the difference in valuation between dogs and cats.

Since pet owners like to control their animals, and since cats are less controllable than dogs, the third experiment went straight to the point: Does the owner value the dog or cat for its own sake or for its compliant behaviour?

To find out, I again asked survey respondents to describe how much they’d be willing to pay to save their pet’s life, but this time I randomly assigned one of four scenarios: Participants were told they either own a dog, a cat, a dog that behaves like a cat, or a cat that behaves like a dog.

Participants reported they would pay US$4,270 to save the life of their dog, but only US$2,462 for their cat. However, this pattern was reversed when the pet’s behaviour changed, with dog-behaving cats valued at US$3,636, but cat-behaving dogs only US$2,372.

These results clearly show that the animal’s behaviour is what makes people willing to pay.

MASTER OR SERVANT 

These findings establish that psychological ownership is a driving factor in dog owners’ higher valuations.

Pet owners want to be masters, not servants - why we value dogs more than cats (Photo: Unsplash/Alexis Chloe)

People feel ownership because they perceive that they can control their pets’ behaviour. This research even distinguishes the type of control that probably most stimulates ownership feelings: It’s not just physical control, such as being able to pick up an animal or drag it by a leash. 

Rather, it’s the animal’s voluntary compliance with its owner’s wishes.

No matter how cute and cuddly your kitties may be, they can’t compete with dogs when it comes to giving pet owners the sense of mastery they seek.

Colleen P. Kirk is assistant professor of Marketing at New York Institute of Technology. A version of this commentary first appeared in The Conversation.