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  • Plenty to Bark About: Pets are Big Business

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    We love our pets, and we’re proving it with our wallets. Meows and bow wows equal bigger bucks than ever before.
     
    The benefits of human friendships with the furry, four- legged set extend far beyond individuals and their pets. Our collective pet ownership and deep devotion to these companion animals have created a booming sector of the economy. Businesses making and selling pet products and offering pet services now comprise a still-growing $75 billion pet-care industry, according to a report released in May by Acosta, a consumer packaged goods sales and marketing agency. The study shows that 2020 pet food sales alone were already up more than six percent over 2019 and also noted that currently, more than 75 percent of Americans own at least one pet.

    In the last decade, expenditures on all of these animals have risen year over year, increasing the industry’s size from approximately $48 billion in 2010 to the $75-billion mark cited in the Acosta report. None of this is a surprise to Lauren Gold, owner of Camp Bow Wow, a Montgomery business that opened in December and provides luxury boarding, day care and grooming for dogs. In just a few months, Gold has witnessed firsthand River Region pet owners’ commitment to high standards of care. “Dogs are no longer viewed as just pets, they’re members of the family. We see this at Camp Bow Wow in how particular pet owners are about the quality of care they expect for their dogs,” she said. “Owners watch our live Camper Cams and enjoy seeing their furry family members make friends while at Camp” and “Pet parents” don’t stop there. Many pull out all the stops to pamper their pups, happily paying for add-on offerings like one-on-one enrichment time or a blueberry facial.

    Dr. Cade Armstrong, who has been a veterinarian for 17 years, with 15 of those at his practice Montgomery Veterinary Associates, agreed with Gold. “I most definitely see people being more willing to spend money on their pets,” he said. “Pets are considered by most owners to be part of the family. I think pet owners’ love for their animals and our ability to provide high quality diagnostic and treatment options is driving this growth.”

    Dr. Frank Aman has been a veterinarian for 10 years and started his practice, Partners for Pets with his partner, Dr. Steven Sirmon, two years ago. He offered some insight on what — in addition to affection—is fueling the increased spending. “For one thing, the number of pets in America has definitely increased, but there is absolutely more willingness to spend more on them, too,” he said. “With the development of online shopping, through Amazon, Chewy, etc., it is much easier to order things with the touch of a button. Also, young adults now tend to own more pets, and they tend to spend more on them.”

    The cost of the care provided by Armstrong and Aman has also gone up, alongside vet practices’ continually rising expenses. “Every year there is an increase in the associated costs with running a practice,” Aman said. “The products we sell, like heartworm prevention, always have a percentage of increase. Also, the new technology that keeps coming out gets more expensive.” He stressed the need for balance that these advances bring with them. “There is a challenge with trying to maintain excellent medical care and having the best equipment and keeping the prices affordable to the pet owner,” he said.

    Armstrong echoed Aman, calling the cost increases necessary for running a modern vet practice “significant” and also pointing to the impact of online shopping trends. “With the increase of online pharmacies, our margins on heartworm and flea/tick medicines have decreased,” he said. “The ever-increasing prices on in-house lab machines, veterinary specific computer software, and state-of-the- art equipment have made our job easier, but more costly.”

    Advances in medicine have also taught us how animals can positively affect our health. We’ve learned that early exposure to pets can decrease a child’s chances of developing certain allergies and even asthma. Many pet owners enjoy a more active lifestyle, due in large part to their pets’ needs and desire for activity, and therefore, have better heart health. The unconditional love our pets give us has mental health benefits, too.

    Several studies have shown that stroking and playing with pets can reduce stress and anxiety, since, like any enjoyable activity, it raises levels of serotonin and dopamine, the chemicals in the brain that have pleasurable and calming properties. This knowledge factors into many owners’ decisions to take good care of their pets, no matter the price tag.

    The desire to give pets their best is what motivated Gold and her husband to start Camp Bow Wow. “Dogs have always been a passion for my husband and me. To us, they’re family. We wanted an all-day play facility for our pups that prioritized safety and had cameras, allowing us to check on our fur babies while we were away,” she said. “We wanted peace of mind that they were happy, healthy and safe when we couldn’t be there with them. Since we couldn’t find a place like that in the area, we decided to create it.”

    “Every year there is an increase in the associated costs with running a practice,” Aman said. “The products we sell, like heartworm prevention, always have a percentage of increase. Also, the new technology that keeps coming out gets more expensive.” He stressed the need for balance that these advances bring with them. “There is a challenge with trying to maintain excellent medical care and having the best equipment and keeping the prices affordable to the pet owner.” - Dr. Frank Aman, Partners for Pets
     
     
    The Montgomery Humane Society: HELPING THE HELPLESS
    For all the love we give our pets, there are thousands of homeless and abandoned animals that don’t have the care and protection of an owner. Since 1953, The Montgomery Humane Society has stepped in to fill that gap. Lea Turbert, MHS’ Marketing and Development Manager, explains how it works and why its work is so vital.
     
    What is the MHS’s mission? The Montgomery Humane Society prevents cruelty to animals by operating an animal shelter for homeless, abandoned, and unwanted animals; by operating an adoption center for healthy animals; by investigating cruelty and abuse cases; and by educating the public in animal owner responsibility. We raise funds by four major events: The Dog U Tante Ball, The Catini, our Pet Photo Contest and gift wrapping.

    How can people help? First, by getting their pet spayed or neutered, adopting a pet from our shelter, participating in our events and donating monetary funds or materials like: bleach, newspaper, paper towels, toilet paper, laundry detergent, dish soap, canned cat or dog food. The community can also help by reporting any animal abuse.

    Tell us about a few lesser- known Humane Society programs. With our Pet Therapy program, we take our puppies to nursing homes, to hospice patients and or assisted living homes because animals can always put a smile on the residents’ faces.

    We also provide an Intervention program. When people are going through a hard time and are not able to get medical attention or food for their pets, we may be able to help.
     
    Our Community Cat program is where we help people trap feral cats living in their neighborhood by providing a humane trap. They then bring the cat(s) to us, and we will get them spayed or neutered and a rabies shot for free as long as the resident is willing to release them back to their neighborhood and care for them on a daily basis.
     
    Our Foster Program is where people foster a pet at their home until it is ready to be adopted. We receive numerous kittens and puppies whose immune systems cannot handle our environment, so foster families take them until they are ready to be spayed/neutered or recovered from an injury, heartworm treatments or other issues. This is truly a life-saving program!
     
    Our other programs I’m sure people are aware of but that I would like to mention are our Lost and Found, Adoption Center and Humane Education programs.

    What is MHS’ No. 1 need right now? Monetary donations, since we had to cancel two of our major fundraisers this year, The Catini and the Dog U Tante ball.
     
     
    BRING THE DOG ALONG
    “There are so many more opportunities for people to take advantage of to involve their pets in everyday life. Restaurants and event venues have slacked in a lot of areas allowing people to take their pets, and thus dog parks have become abundant to surround those venues for socializing and doggy breaks. I think people are relaxed at venues and gatherings when they can socialize and bring their pets.” - Jessica Hoagland, Sales & Marketing, Pet and Playground Products
     

    DON’T FORGET FIDO
    The capital city isn’t just cool for people, it’s cool with canines too. Check out these pet-friendly places that are happy to accommodate your four-legged friend.

    PLAY: The Hannah Daye Ridling Bark Park is a five-acre area located at Blount Cultural Park for pooch playtime with special designated areas for both large and small dogs. Or check out the Rotary Dog Park located downtown. It’s also got large and small dog sections.

    EAT: (Dogs allowed on dining patios.) These are a few Fido-approved favorites. Find a complete list at visitingmontgomery.com. 
    • The Tipping Point
    • Capitol Oyster Bar
    • Scott Street Deli
    • Mellow Mushroom
    • Taco Mama
    • Newk’s Eatery
    • Chicken Salad Chick
    • Vintage Café
    • Café Louisa
    • El Rey Burrito Lounge
    • Moe’s Original BBQ 
    (Editor’s note: Due to COVID-19, some restaurants may have suspended their pet friendly amenity temporarily, so we suggest calling ahead.)
     
      
    TODAY’S ANIMAL MD
    Today's veterinary medicine is dramatically different than it was 50 years ago, with many of the biggest changes taking place in just the last decade. Dr. Cade Armstrong explained what he’s seen in the course of his career. “Over the last 17 years, veterinary medicine has experienced so many medical advances,” he said. “When I first started practicing, digital radiology wasn’t around yet. The quality of ultrasound machines has also greatly improved. We even have access to MRI machines. The ability to diagnose and properly treat animals is increasing their average life span.”
     
    Dr. Frank Aman hasn’t been practicing as long as Armstrong, but he’s seen multiple shifts as well. “Technology has changed for sure. In-house bloodwork machines have changed things. We can now run certain tests in our clinic and have immediate results instead of sending samples to an outside lab,” he said. “This helps speed up the process of finding a diagnosis, plus starts treatment earlier.”
     
    In addition, the business side of operating a vet practice has evolved too. According to Armstrong, a notable recent development is the increase of corporate or group ownership of practices instead of independently owned practices. “Our practice is still independently owned, but corporate groups in all different shapes and forms have moved into our industry. It’s not really larger clinics purchasing smaller clinics. Corporate groups and private equity groups are buying up most of the larger clinics,” he said. “Some of these changes are good, and some are bad. Some corporate groups are better than others.”
     
    Aman was formerly a part of a local vet practice that was purchased by a corporate group and shared his thoughts on the pros and cons he experienced. “Most of the large practices in Montgomery are owned by corporate companies,” he said. “I believe that these practices still offer superb medical care for their patients. However, after going through one of these acquisitions myself at a previous practice, the culture in these practices often changes.”
     
    Armstrong and Aman pointed to how this trend affects the oldest and the youngest vets. “The previous model of selling your practice to your younger associate is virtually gone,” Armstrong said. “An individual cannot pay nearly what a private equity-backed firm can. In my opinion, most younger veterinarians will have a very difficult time finding ownership opportunities.” Aman stressed the benefits for vets ready to retire, but agreed with Armstrong on the issues now facing a fresh- from-school veterinarian. “For the older veterinarian, it provides an exit strategy,” he said, but added, “These large companies are making it increasingly difficult for young veterinarians to be able to buy an existing practice.”
     
    And starting one from scratch can be a scary proposition. “It is terrifying to start your own practice with all the unknowns. Will the clients come in? Can I afford it? Can I pay my employees?” Aman said. “However, starting a business from the ground up also gives you a lot of satisfaction.”
     
    COVID-19 Crisis: Impact on Vets
    “Veterinarians are considered essential frontline workers because we are the first-line defense between zoonotic diseases transferring from animals to humans. So, during the shutdown orders, we remained open to treat patients. However, we did cut back on elective procedures and had someclients cancel and reschedule appointments. We went to strictly curbside service. When you pull up, we walk out to the car and retrieve your pet and bring it in the hospital. After assessing the patient or completing vaccinations, we return your pet to your car. We are able to safely maintain a six-foot distance with the owners. This has allowed our at-risk clients to still bring their pet to the hospital to be taken care of.” - Dr. Frank Aman

    “Over the last 17 years, veterinary medicine has experienced so many medical advances,” he said. “When I first started practicing, digital radiology wasn’t around yet. That has been a game changer. The quality of ultrasound machines has also greatly improved. We even have access to MRI machines. The ability to diagnose and properly treat animals is increasing their average life span.” - Dr. Cade Armstrong, Montgomery Veterinarian Associates
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