Dogs are more valuable than cats because pet owners prefer to be masters

Americans spend more on pet care because a larger percentage of households in the U.S. own an animal.

In 1988 the first year the National Pet Owners Survey was conducted, 56% of U.S. households owned at least one pet.

Just 38 percent of households have a pet cat, but almost half own a dog. This divergence will likely grow as generational trends indicate that millennials tend to prefer dogs, whereas baby boomers are cat lovers.

The market for pet products and services has grown from $46 billion to $72 billion, up by a staggering 10 years.

Willingness to Pay

My research builds upon previous research that showed dog owners were more willing to spend than cat owners, even to save them from death.

Dog owners are more attached to their dogs, and therefore spend more money on veterinary care.

My research revealed a factor that explains why dog owners are more attached to their pet: Dogs have a reputation for being more compliant. Owners who feel they have control over their pets develop strong feelings of emotional attachment and psychological ownership. Pet owners also want to be in control, not as servants.

My work, like other marketing researchers’, uses “willingness-to-pay” as a measure of the economic value that owners attach to their pets, not just emotional. It compares how much pet owners are willing to pay in order to save the life of their animals.

Dog owners will pay twice as much for a lifesaving surgery as cat owners. 

Who is in charge?

Three online experiments were conducted to investigate the role of psychological ownership on these valuations.

In the first experiment I asked cat or dog owners to describe their pet’s behaviour so that I could measure their psychological ownership and feelings of control. Participants were asked to imagine that their pet was ill, and then indicate the maximum amount they would pay for life-saving surgery.

Cat owners said that they would spend less than half of what dog owners were willing to pay in order to save their pets’ lives. Dog owners also tend to feel more in control of their pet and have a greater sense of ownership, which could explain the differences in spending.

Correlation does not imply causation. In a second study, I asked the participants to estimate how much money they would pay to save their pet’s life if I disturbed their sense ownership. This was done by asking the participants to imagine that their pet’s behaviour is a result from training received from an earlier owner.

The difference between the value of dogs and cats was reduced as expected by disrupting their sense of ownership.

The third experiment was straight to the point. Since owners love to control their pets, and cats are more controllable than dog, it asked: Do they value the cat or the dog for its own sake, or its compliant behaviour?

I asked respondents again how much they would be willing to spend to save their pets’ lives, but I chose randomly one of four scenarios. Participants were told that they owned either a pet cat or dog.

Participants said they would spend $4,270 on saving the life of their pet dog but only $2.462 to save their cat. This pattern reversed itself when the behavior of the pet changed. Dog-behaving cat’s were valued at $3.636, while cat-behaving dog’s were only $2.372.

The results show that it is the behavior of the animals that makes people pay.

People say that if cats behaved more like dogs they would spend more money. 

Master or servant

This study shows that dog owners are more likely to value their dogs higher because of psychological ownership.

People feel ownership when they believe they have control over their pet’s behavior. The research also distinguishes between the types of control most likely to stimulate feelings of ownership: it’s not only physical control such as being able drag an animal by its leash or pick it up. It’s more about the animal’s willingness to comply with their owner’s wishes.

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