Are Pets Only for the Rich?
In some ways pets are a luxury. To be able to afford food for a pet, you must first be able to feed, clothe and house yourself. But on a global scale, pets are only partly a sign of wealth — whether people have companion animals seems to depend also on culture and nationality. That explains why there is very little correlation between the richest nations and those with the most companion animals.
The ten countries with the most family dogs are:
1. United States
6. South Africa
The ten countries with the most house cats:
1. United States
7. United Kingdom
Contrast those with the list of the ten richest countries (based on gross domestic product per capita):
6. United Arab Emirates
7. United States
8. Hong Kong
The only overlap between the lists of nations with the most pets and those with the most money is the United States. That means that on a global level, the number of companion animals is not a reliable predictor or sign of wealth.
This is because having companion animals requires not only money, but also a cultural affinity for and understanding that they are relatable, emotional beings who can be members of a family. In countries that traditionally view non-human animals as a means to an end (i.e. dinner), no matter how much money people have, they will not be spending it on cats. But where there is a cultural belief that people can have worthwhile relationships with animals, more disposable income will probably mean more family pets.
That is the case in Brazil, which comes in at number two in total number of dogs and at number five in dogs per capita. Interestingly, these aren’t just any dogs — it seems that Brazilians have a particular affinity for the smaller members of the species. “Members of Brazil’s rapidly urbanizing middle class are working more, earning more,” and living in “tiny apartments.” They ”have nearly 20 million small dogs at home—more per capita than any country in the world.”
It is no coincidence that dogs are so popular in Brazil, because “Latin America has a long dog-owning tradition: Some pups were even found buried with their Inca owners around Machu Pichhu. Today, four Latin American countries—Chile, Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico—rank in the world’s top 10 for household penetration. The average home in those countries is more likely to have a pooch than not have one.” They may not have as much cash on hand as Norwegians or the Dutch, but as opposed to members of those populations, they choose to spend what they do have on their dogs.
So having a pet isn’t a perfect predictor of wealth, but there is some correlation. Take dog food as an example. The five countries where people spend the most on dog food per dog are all comparatively affluent: Norway (in the top ten), Switzerland, Australia, Sweden and Austria. “Higher incomes mean people can actually afford to have pets—not to mention feed them pricey kibbles, send them to groomers and kennels, buy them toys, and flaunt them in dog shows,” Quartz.com observes.
On the other hand, people don’t have to be wealthy or live in rich countries to have pets. China is in the top ten lists for both dogs and cats, but the Chinese don’t spend much feeding their companion animals: 98 cents a month per dog, compared to $11.49 in Brazil and $53.22 in Norway, the biggest spender.
One economics professor, M. Shahid Alam, seems to think that people spend too much on their pets — or perhaps he is just frustrated by the enormous wealth gap between affluent and poor countries. He compared the amount of money Americans spend on their cats and dogs to the income of individuals living in low income countries. “The American dogs and cats enjoyed a much larger advantage in their living standards over many individual [low income countries].”
In other words, an American dog is likely to have more money (in the sense that people spend money on the pet) than the average Sierra Leonean, Tanzanian, Nigerian, Bangladeshi, or Pakistani.
Photo credit: Raif Nau