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Pet Ownership in the City
Animals and humans have long lived side-by-side—it is believed that dogs were first domesticated from wolves between 19,000 and 32,000 years ago, and cats about 9,000 years ago. Both have been a staple in the streets and domestic spaces of London since the city's foundation. These animals, though, weren’t the companions or accessories that they later became, but rather tools used to aid labour or travel, to herd livestock, catch pests, guard the home or, when times got tough, as food.
As the 18th century and industrialisation arrived, animals played less of a role in day-to-day work, but pets in the way we consider them today were still seen as a decadent frivolity, and were often the subject of satire at the expense of the upper classes. A cat or dog was still expected to earn its affection and a roof over its head by performing useful tasks. It was the Victorians who really turned this around, placing a newfound emphasis on domestic life as the metropolis grew around them. Indeed, it was this cultural shift that was responsible for turning Britain into the nation of pet lovers it remains to this day.
Home became a space to escape the hectic city and work life outside and focus on oneself and the family. This often entailed teaching children the tenets of care, commitment and kindness, and as such it was encouraged that children keep small animals to learn these skills. Pedigree dogs also became desirable as, like today, they were seen as a means of denoting social status at a time when class was increasingly key.
So animals in the home as more than just mouse catchers or guard dogs were popular, but many did not know how to properly care for them. Therefore, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) was set up way in 1824 which became the world's first animal welfare charity and still flourishes today.
Perhaps as a result of the sub-standard care these pets received, purpose built pet cemeteries were laid out such as that on the corner of Hyde Park, which George Orwell once called “the most horrible spectacle in Britain”. The burial ground is dotted with almost 1,000 miniature headstones dating back to the 1880s, demonstrating the esteem that many pets were held in, and, as per some of the inscriptions, the bizarrely human-like characteristics many attributed to them.
In the early 20th century more of an emphasis was placed on building relationships with animals beyond simply keeping them alive, and the building of more spacious homes in the new Metroland suburbs meant there was plenty of room for outdoor animals. At the same time however, the growing urban population living in higher density buildings were encouraged to bring in pets that liked living indoors or could roam unaccompanied like cats. As the century rolled on and crises hit, it became more and more common to keep pets, and by the 1960s sociologists were arguing that pets were needed to keep families together as the traditional nuclear family began to disband.
Despite the 21st century bringing with it increased mobility, remote working and holidaying, a rise in short term rentals, higher rents and smaller and smaller living spaces, pet ownership remains high in the city, and it certainly looks like keeping animals as companions is going nowhere.
Today the UK has a very high level of pet ownership, with approximately 50% of the country's adults owning either a cat or a dog, with more than 20 million registered cats and dogs in total. This number will have only increased as, quite understandably, people have looked for companionship and entertainment during the long and lonely lockdowns we’ve experienced this past 18 months.
When it comes to London, perhaps unsurprisingly given the density, lack of space, the high mobility and relatively young age of population, the city has a relatively low number of dogs compared to the rest of the country at 310,000, with only 9% of the city’s households owning one. This is contrasted with other regions such as the north east where 610,000 dogs live across 36% of households.
Interestingly, cats fare much better in London, likely because they are able to roam unaccompanied, are more adaptable, and are generally smaller and easier to take care of than a dog. While only 12% of households in London own a cat in the capital, which is comparable with the north east, the larger population means London boasts 580,000 feline friends while the north east is home to only 210,000.
This is all well and good—we know that Britain is a nation that goes mad for its pets, sometimes in rather peculiar ways, but what does that mean, not only to their owners, but to those who occupy, build, alter and legislate our cities?
For owners, many simply feel their pet benefits their life, with 90% saying they make them feel happy and 88% feeling an overall improvement in their quality of life as a result of owning a pet—we can only hope the other 12% give theirs away to a loving home. In London, 33% of dog owners with children say they would choose a pet-friendly area over one that was suitable for their children's education, and a whopping 65% of the same group said they would forego their dream home if it wasn't perfect for their dog.
Economically speaking, pets are also a boon for an area. While pet ownership is on average falling ever so slightly year on year (not including the past pandemic year), the pet food market is booming, growing and becoming increasingly dynamic and diverse as the interests of owners become more specific and animal health becomes better understood. It is estimated that just food for dogs and cats contributes £2.5 billion to the UK economy each year.
It is therefore incredibly important for those who transform and work in the city to understand the implications that certain pet-friendly neighbourhoods have for that and surrounding areas.
While it may be obvious, it is salient to note that pet owners spend an awful lot of money on their pets and will therefore be more inclined to purchase specialist products in specialist stores for a high premium, so localities with high levels of pet ownership will probably have a large number of diverse pet stores. If they don’t it probably won’t be long before they do. It has also been proven that pet owners tend to be better off, and so are keener to spend money in stores or eat out. Combined with the increased levels of happiness that studies suggest pet ownership brings with it, this means that individuals in high pet ownership areas are more inclined to spend in general.
A pet owner is likely to want to purchase more pets in the future, too, whether down to the loss of a previous animal or for another to keep their current pet company. As such animal breeders or pet shops may find these areas more viable than those with low pet ownership.
These areas are indicatively pet-friendly, potentially possessing larger homes with gardens, or more likely, a decent provision of green space, and those from outside the area may travel in with their pets to utilise these amenities. Should an area see a rise in pet ownership, local authorities or developers may consider including more accessible greenery in their future plans to accommodate and maintain those residents. Furthermore, pet owners, particularly those of dogs, are more likely to be accustomed to walking, whether it be with their pets or not, thus they can conveniently enter shops without having to find a space to park as a motorist, or lock up as a cyclist may. A commercial inhabitant reliant on passing foot traffic may therefore find an improved customer spend in these areas.
Further still, pet ownership is often indicative of a local population who are more likely to have been settled for a longer period of time and are probably going to stay put in the future, allowing the area to develop a much-needed sense of community, perhaps seeing the knock-on effects of that when it comes to local amenity provision. However, on the flip-side, landlords may charge higher rent for homes that allow pets due to the higher likelihood of wear and tear caused by them, so bear this (and many other things) in mind before introducing that spur-of-the-moment kitten to your flat, no matter how cute it may be.
The past few years has seen a significant change in lifestyles and how households are structured in the UK, which has had an effect on the populations of dogs and cats. The increase in populations which has arisen as a result of changes in laws and regulations governing ownership of pets, as well as the harmonisation of pet travel rules globally, has made it easier to relocate to the UK with your pet in tow.
It is against this backdrop that understanding the levels of pet ownership in an area is important. Reliable data on pet ownership will allow Londoners to identify pet-friendly neighbourhoods, so that they can make an informed decision about where to buy or rent with their pet, and indicate to business owners and those with the power to change cities what may be of benefit to those who live there.
That is why we have built our Pet Ownership metric into our WaInsight platform. If you’re keen to see how your neighbourhood stacks up then check it out for free at walulel.com.