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Coming soon: Spritzler Report for dogs!

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Americans Can’t Stop Pampering Their Pets—Companies Want In

Firms that cater to humans adapt to the animal world. Ultrasounds for tree frogs. Telehealth for Stella.

By Sharon Terlep, WSJ

Jan. 5, 2023 9:58 am ET

Attention, CEOs: If not enough people are using your product, maybe animals will.

“Have you seen the numbers? They’re staggering,” said Jenna Mutch, a vice president at portable-ultrasound maker Butterfly Network Inc., referring to the rush of Americans who have brought home pets since the pandemic began. About 23 million households did, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Spending to pamper them is one of a few areas of the economy managing to defy inflation and avoid a post-lockdown pullback.

As a result, some companies that normally cater to humans are high-tailing it to pets.

Ms. Mutch heads commercial development for a newly created unit of her ultrasound company that sells scanners for animals.

Adapting human products for animals can be complicated. There’s the matter of animals’ size. Also, their shape.

Butterfly’s ultrasound machines can scan things ranging from as small as the reproductive organs of tree frogs to chonky mammals, including polar bears, according to Ms. Mutch. “We have to be very versatile,” she said.

Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc. is adding hundreds of hotels where animals can stay the night. It offers virtual “pet expert teams” to address health and behavior issues they might have while traveling, teaming with Mars Inc., the parent of veterinary operator VCA and Pedigree pet foods.

Snack-bar maker Clif Bar & Co. this summer started selling a line of jerky treats for dogs. Global food giant Mondelez International Inc. took over Clif in August. More pets and growing demand for all-natural dog food prompted the move, a spokeswoman said.

Petco Health & Wellness Co. gets dozens of proposals from companies looking to adapt their products to animals, said Chief Executive Ron Coughlin. Not all the ideas are fully baked. He passed on bringing acupuncturists to the company’s stores.

Although some consumers struggling with inflation are cutting back on nonessentials, they don’t seem to put pet stuff in that category. Spending on pet food was up more than 18% in the last year, and spending on supplies rose 8%, according to Jefferies Research Services.

Mr. Coughlin of Petco is confident the spending will continue as Americans become ever closer to their animals.

“If you look at 100 years ago, pets were in the wild. Forty years ago, they’re in our yard, and 20 years ago in the house,” he said. “Now they’re in the bed.”

Rebecca Goldberg, a physician assistant in Manhattan, has a mixed-breed rescue dog named Stella. When it comes to pampering dogs, Ms. Goldberg is middle of the pack. Hers sleeps on a dog bed, eats kibble as opposed to fresh or human-grade food, and enjoys regular treats.

But Stella, 5, also has a high-end, Carhartt-brand vest to keep her warm outdoors. And lately, Stella has become a remote patient for a veterinary telehealth company called Pawp.

Ms. Goldberg signed up for Pawp as part of a temporary deal offered by T-Mobile. She gets free telehealth services for a year and pays $14 a month to cover emergency visits.

The deal was attractive, she said, because Stella has a sensitive stomach and a propensity to eat things she shouldn’t, a combination that made for frequent vet visits. “Having a veterinary clinic in your pocket is amazing,” Ms. Goldberg said.

Pawp’s founder, Marc Atiyeh, is a veteran of a few industries, none of them animal-related. Before starting Pawp he worked in fintech, finance and mobile analytics.

“There is definitely a flock of players getting into this space,” he said. “You’re getting folks who are veterans of human healthcare or personal finance.”

Peggy Roe, who oversees customer experience and new ventures for Marriott International Inc., said the chain in 2021 started noticing more people asking animal-related questions as they sought vacation lodging—“people asking, ‘Are hotels pet friendly?’ ‘What size dog can I bring?’ ”

Seeing the queries, the company surveyed customers, and of around 300 respondents, 85% said they had pets and more than half planned to travel with them. And not just dogs. Customers expressed interest in traveling with cats, birds and even fish.

“We have hotels that accept all kinds of pets—they don’t discriminate,” Ms. Roe said.

She took Riley, her newly acquired golden retriever, on a road trip, stopping at Marriott properties along the way. There were some worries. How would the stay go over with other guests—and with Riley?

“There was that anxiety,” she said. “Is this going to be good for my dog? Are our other guests going to be upset? Is the staff going to be nice?”

She realized it wasn’t enough to simply provide options for people and their animals. Marriott had to ensure the comfort of both.

“There are the people who love pets, the people who love pets and don’t want to travel with them, and people who don’t want pets anywhere in their space,” she said.

Under a partnership with Petco, Marriott will highlight home-rental properties that are especially well-equipped for pets. Travelers can buy products such as dog beds and bowls from Petco and have them delivered.

“Inflation or not,” Ms. Roe said. “People aren’t going to leave their pets behind.”

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