COVID-19 has, and is, impacting us all. The virus hit like a bolt out of the blue, causing a lot of uncertainty and issues for so many throughout society. But what impact has COVID-19 had on the pet industry?
It has felt very surreal at times. We’ve seen people clamouring for puppies, enthused by their newfound time at home that they can now embrace the dream of having a dog in their world. We’ve seen many owners worry about the onset of separation anxiety that all this time together may cause. And we’ve seen some types of pet businesses thrive while others buckle under the strain.
Pet businesses such as product makers may have benefitted from the puppy boom, and the onslaught of stay at home rules resulting in owners crying out for enrichment toys and activities to keep their pets entertained and out of mischief. But pet service type businesses have seen a much more devastating impact.
The pandemic has meant frequent changes of rules for businesses like pet sitters, dog walkers, and groomers. There has been an awful lot of confusion, upheaval, and changes throughout the last year.
We take our guidance as an industry mainly from the Canine and Feline Sector Group (CFSG) who have been putting together guidelines approved by DEFRA. Still, they are just guidelines, which has led to some disparity in operations across the country.
Pet sitters, home boarders, catteries, and kennels typically take care of dogs, cats, and other small animals while their owners are away on holiday, for work, or for special occasions. The pandemic hit the UK in March, having a profound impact on all businesses of this kind.
The Easter holidays and summer holidays are two of the busiest periods for pet sitters and boarders. The long weekend in April is usually a time that many families take the opportunity for a short break, and summer is, of course, both holiday and wedding season. A sudden nationwide lockdown meant that holidays and big celebrations both in the UK and abroad were cancelled left, right, and centre – totally wiping out income for many in the industry.
Some pet care businesses had to close permanently, and some managed to keep afloat despite an entirely unparalleled dent in earnings.
Following the initial lockdown, there have been various restrictions and rebounds into lockdowns on both a regional and national level. As a company operating across the country, we have supported our franchisees to try and adapt and leverage income by focusing on dog walking, dog daycare, and gardening services.
Having a diverse range of services and a solid support system is invaluable when the curveballs just keep coming.
The pandemic has also impacted dog walkers and daycares, but to a slightly lesser extent than home boarders. During the first lockdown, many dog walkers and daycares shut up shop, extending services only to key workers and those who were shielding or self-isolating and unable to walk their dogs.
When lockdown eased the first time, dog walkers and daycares began to rebuild their businesses. Many lost clients during the first lockdown due to clients working from home and no longer needing the service, and in some cases, clients own redundancies or uncertainty around income.
However, with all the puppies that had started their lives in new homes, new clients were waiting and keen to get their little one’s socialised and out in the world. So, many dog walkers and daycares who had lost clients but had managed to keep their businesses going had an influx of new bundles of fluff needing pet care services.
With so much of the country working from home, there is no doubt that demand for dog walkers and daycare was impacted, but there was still a demand for services.
With the Tier system and Lockdowns 2 and 3, there were protocols that professional dog walkers needed to follow; distanced handovers with clients, disinfecting vehicles and equipment between walks, and solo walks for any dogs exposed to a self-isolating or infected household.
These protocols were written by the CSFG and made a lot of sense, but it has to be said that delivering individual or 1-2-1 walks for a dog who is usually on group walks is not without issue. The client is used to paying a rate devised based on walking multiple dogs at the same time. When that dog now has to be walked for the same amount of time alone, plus additional sanitisation procedures, the client’s cost has to increase, or the walker has to accept a loss.
When we initially entered the third national lockdown, dog groomers were allowed to remain open but only for emergency and welfare needs. There was great debate among the industry about what that actually meant. If a dog isn’t groomed regularly, it will become a welfare issue, but where do you draw the line?
Just two weeks after lockdown 3 began, guidance was changed and it was announced on 11th January 2021 that dog groomers could open for welfare reasons only. This means your dog can now only go to the groomers if your dog is excessively matted or a vet recommends they attend.
DEFRA updated the Pet Business Guidance, as did the CFSG, stating that “routine grooming can be delayed without affecting the pet’s welfare. Until the national lockdown is eased, it should be put off.”
The impact of this on dog groomers is having to completely shut up shop in most cases. We will wait to see what financial relief will be offered to support businesses in such a position.
Pet shops have been allowed to remain open throughout the pandemic. Since they sell pet food, they are, of course, deemed essential. Despite this, their income will undoubtedly have been affected with many people choosing to order online rather than visit their local pet shop.
Vets are without question essential for animal welfare, but again, this is not an area that hasn’t felt some effect of the lockdowns and restrictions of 2020 and beyond.
Vets have remained open throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, with extra protocols in place to keep staff and customers safe. In the initial lockdown, vets were allowed to see patients on an emergency-only basis.
Most vets have not been allowing humans into their practices to reduce the risk of exposure to the virus. This has been stressful for some pets and owners and is hard on the vets, nurses, and reception staff too.
The PDSA set up a telephone consultation line in March 2020 to help meet the demands of a huge increase in people and animals needing the help of reduced fees veterinary care. Between March and November 2020, they undertook 500,000 telephone consultations, reducing the number of face to face vet visits required.
Despite the increased demand and need for services delivered by the PDSA, their income dropped by £3 million a month in 2020 because all fundraising events had to be cancelled, and their charity shops were closed during lockdown.
There are so many concerns about the pandemic’s impact on the hundreds of cat and dog rescue charities across the UK. Dog and cat rescue charities have found their income radically affected in the past year. But the lasting impacts of this outbreak are far wider spread than that.
Battersea Dogs and Cats Home undertook a research project to look at the impact of COVID-19 on our pets and the organisations there to support them. Their initial findings were that the pandemic adversely impacted 95% of their respondents from within the sector.
With so many people desperate to bring a dog or cat into their lives during this pandemic, there has been an upsurge of 94% in the number of pets imported from overseas. This raises some concerns about the breeding of these puppies and kittens and the control of diseases that have been previously well managed or eradicated in the UK.
Battersea Dogs and Cats Home also reference the increase in domestic violence reports, and we know that there is a correlation between domestic abuse and animal abuse.
Perhaps one of the most concerning impacts on rescues and our pets is yet to be seen in its entirety. One outcome of this pandemic, which we cannot ignore, is the increase in unemployment and financial difficulties faced by many. Sadly, this will lead to people being unable to care for their pets due to affordability, work demands, or even homelessness.
One of the main reasons pets end up at Battersea is because of housing problems; there is a massive deficit in the number of rental properties that allow pets.
You can read the full report from Battersea Dogs and Cats Home here.
We have and will continue to do our bit to work safely so that we can all play our part in stopping the spread of COVID-19. It’s been a difficult time for so many, but I think we can all unite in the feeling that our animals have made it all a lot more bearable.
With the upsurge in pet ownership, we know that demand for pet care will rise dramatically in the near future. And there will be an abundance of opportunity for those who wish to work with animals to fulfill their dreams and deliver excellent welfare first care. Now that is certainly something to look forward to!