Do Financial Downturns Encourage Animal Guardianship?
Since 1988, the percentage of U.S. households with companion animals has risen significantly. This trend has persisted even as birth rates fell between 2008 and 2013. While it remains unclear how the two trends are connected, the authors of this study argue that companion animals are playing an increasingly important role in their guardians’ lives and families.
Indeed, as many as 90% of animal guardians in the U.S. view their companions as part of the family. Living with a companion animal may be especially beneficial during times of financial strain, according to the authors. Research consistently shows that animals provide emotional support, and people who find themselves without work during an economic downturn have more time available to spend with their non-human companions. However, there isn’t a lot of research to show the impact of major financial downturns on overall animal guardianship rates.
In this study, the researchers looked more closely at the impact of the 2007-2008 financial crisis on companion animal guardianship in U.S. households. Did the crisis actually increase companion animal guardianship? Furthermore, the authors were interested in understanding variations depending on an animal’s species.
The researchers used data from the American Time Use Survey (ATUS), which asks a representative sample of U.S. adults to record their primary activities over a 24-hour period. The researchers used the survey data categorized as “care for animals and pets (not veterinary care)” to determine which households had companion animals and which did not, and they created a variable for the proportion of households with companion animals. Then they compared two trends: first, how the proportion of U.S. households with companion animals changed between 2003 and 2018; and second, how it would have changed between those years if the 2007-2008 financial crisis had not occurred.
To predict the trend in companion animal guardianship if the crisis had not occurred, they separated households with companion animals into two subgroups: households with children and households without them. Animal guardianship trends were similar between these subgroups before the financial crisis, and the researchers assumed that the crisis would only affect animal guardianship in households without children (editor’s note: it was not entirely clear in the study why the authors made this assumption, or whether this assumption was grounded in research). With these justifications, they were able to determine the effect that the financial crisis had on overall animal guardianship rates for child-free households.
The researchers found that the proportion of child-free U.S. households with companion animals increased by 13% in response to the 2007-2008 financial crisis. The crisis’s effect on companion animal guardianship was statistically significant and therefore unlikely to be due to chance. Additionally, they found that U.S. households continued spending more money on companion animals following the crisis, but that this trend was limited to households with three or fewer members.
Notably, the researchers also found that the number of cats and dogs in American households trended upward between 2000 and 2017, including after the crisis, while the numbers of companion fishes and birds did not. The authors claim this could be because dogs and cats are more likely to be viewed as “child replacements” than fishes or birds, although more research is needed to justify this suggestion.
The researchers suggested several factors that may have influenced more animal guardianship, including increased leisure time as a result of unemployment rates and a greater need for emotional support. If it is indeed true that the financial crisis encouraged families to choose animals over having children, the authors also attribute this to cost — it’s much more affordable (and less time-consuming) to keep an animal than to raise a child.
In general, the results of this study should be interpreted with caution. While the financial crisis may have encouraged animal guardianship, there isn’t enough evidence to prove that households specifically substituted companion animals for children. For example, there may be other variables driving animal guardianship and reduced birth rates. Animal advocates should also be aware that this study didn’t account for animal relinquishments. In other words, while financial downturns may encourage people to take in animals, it’s unclear how many people surrender their animals under the same circumstances.
Nevertheless, this study’s findings are significant for animal advocates because they suggest that future financial crises may increase the percentage of U.S. households with companion animals. Knowing this possibility, advocates can plan ahead to encourage adoptions and responsible animal guardianship. Focusing on how companion animals can provide emotional support and framing them as family members may also be beneficial if the goal is to encourage guardianship.