Animal Companions and Marketing: Dogs Are More Than Just a Cell in the Bcg Matrix!

Andrew Aylesworth, Bentley College
Ken Chapman, Bentley College
Susan Dobscha, Bentley College
ABSTRACT - Pets are found in 58 million homes in the United States, and are a significant factor in the lives of many consumers. Marketers have begun to recognize the importance of animal companions to the lives and experiences of consumers. In this paper we present an organizing framework for the continued study of this relationship from a consumption point-of-view. We illustrate this framework with examples from the animal companion and marketing literatures, and suggest several research directions where consumer behavior scholars can make a contribution to the animal companion domain.
[ to cite ]:
Andrew Aylesworth, Ken Chapman, and Susan Dobscha (1999) ,"Animal Companions and Marketing: Dogs Are More Than Just a Cell in the Bcg Matrix!", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, eds. Eric J. Arnould and Linda M. Scott, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 385-391.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, 1999      Pages 385-391


Andrew Aylesworth, Bentley College

Ken Chapman, Bentley College

Susan Dobscha, Bentley College


Pets are found in 58 million homes in the United States, and are a significant factor in the lives of many consumers. Marketers have begun to recognize the importance of animal companions to the lives and experiences of consumers. In this paper we present an organizing framework for the continued study of this relationship from a consumption point-of-view. We illustrate this framework with examples from the animal companion and marketing literatures, and suggest several research directions where consumer behavior scholars can make a contribution to the animal companion domain.


Pets, or animal companions, are found in 58 million American homes; there are some 114 million dogs and cats currently living in the U.S. Consumers spend about $20 billion on them annually; the pet food industry alone accounts for approximately $7.5 billion (Murphy 1997) of that total. Interestingly, it was projected that in the Holiday season of 1997 approximately $5 billion would be spent on pets, suggesting that gift-giving during the holidays is not limited to human-human interaction (U.S. News and World Report 1997). Overall, the average lifetime cost of owning a cat is $8,665, while a dog takes a bite out of his owner’s wallet to the tune of about $11,581 (Eaton1994). Financial implications aside, pets are clearly an important part of consumers’ lives, and the interaction of pets and consumers has begun to attract the attention of marketing scholars. The purpose of this paper is to propose a framework for the further study of the animal companionBconsumer relationship.

Disciplines such as psychology (e.g., Wilson 1991), sociology (e.g., Sanders and Arluke 1993) and, of course, veterinary medicine (e.g., Arluke 1991) have expanded our knowledge about the meaning of pets to people. Belk (1988) first brought the issue of animal companions to the attention of consumer behavior scholars by suggesting that animals might serve as extensions of the self. Sanders (1990a) extended and focused this discussion of animal companions by exploring the ability of an animal to affect the social identity of the owner and the owner’s self perception, as well as how a person and his or her pet act as a unit in social interaction. Kropp, Smith, Rose, and Kahle (1992) examined how the values and lifestyles of pet-owners differed from those of non-owners, and concluded that a more thorough understanding of these differences could result in improved advertising techniques for pet products as well as for non-pet products. Spears, Mowen, and Chakraborty (1996) extended this line of inquiry with a systematic exploration of the advertising clichT about using "puppies and babies" to increase an ad’s attention getting capability. They concluded that animals are effective in marketing communications because they are (a) inherently likable (i.e., attractive "sources"; Hovland, Janis, and Kelly 1953) and (b) able to communicate a culturally defined meaning to the consumer.

In her seminal article, Hirschman (1994) brought the issue of "Consumers and Their Animal Companions" to the forefront of consumer behavior attention. In the article, Hirschman discussed the various roles animals play in the lives of consumers. She posited that animals can serve as friends, family members and/or, building on the work of Belk (1988) and Sanders (1990a), extensions of the self, and provided phenomological evidence to support these views. This work has acted as a catalyst to our research, and has been incorporated into our animal companion lifecycle framework in the consumption or "companionship" stage.

The increasing attention given to "animals as a consumer experience" by marketing scholars recently resulted in a special issue of Society and Animals edited by Sanders and Hirschman (1996). According to the editors, the key theme of this special issue is the object/being dichotomy of companion animals, which "casts animals as either objects to be used or beings to be interacted with" (Sanders and Hirschman 1996, p. 111). The papers in this issue (Belk 1996; Holbrook 1996; Gillespie, Leffler, and Lerner 1996; Stephens and Hill 1996; Darden and Worden 1996) examined different aspects of consumers’ relationships with their pets through the use of experiential approaches to the study of consumption (Holbrook and Hirschman 1982). For example, Gillespie, Leffler, and Lerner (1996) explored how the choice of a leisure activity (raising Rottweilers) changed their interactions with others in various situations (e.g., by changing potentially dangerous situations into relatively benign ones).

While marketers have begun to study the animal companion domain, we feel that this area is a fertile ground for research attention that remains largely untapped. We hope to further the study of animal companions and consumer behavior by proposing a conceptual framework that grounds the study of the animal companion lifecycle within a consumer behavior backdrop.

To this point, the majority of the research that has been conducted in this domain has been interpretivist in nature. We believe, however, that research from a positivist point of view can also add to understanding of this area. While the framework that we present is mainly from a positivist perspective, we firmly believe that the "choir" approach, as described by Arnould and Price (1998) and Ward (1997), is necessary to gain a more complete undestanding of this domain. As in a choir, with each voice adding to the beauty of the whole, each method used to study pet consumption will only serve to enrich our understanding.

Our framework is presented in Figure 1. Each stage of the framework will be illustrated with examples from the existing animal companion literature, which may serve as a starting point for consumer researchers interested in this area. Following the development of the framework, we will suggest some potential independent and dependent variables and apply these to future research directions and research questions.


The framework applies the traditional view of the consumption processCacquisition, consumption and dispositionCto pet ownership. In each stage, the human partner in the relationship makes several decisions, undertakes certain actions and has experiences that impact the future relationship between the human and pet. The framework provides a foundation for understanding how pets impact a consumer’s daily life and consumption activities.

The framework indicates that acquisition is followed by consumption which is followed by disposition. Acquisition decisions, such as which species or breed to adopt, will affect future consumption activities. For example, the decision to purchase a cat versus a dog has implications regarding the nature and frequency of play. Furthermore, a decision to purchase a golden retriever as opposed to a toy poodle also has implications for how the owner interacts with the animal. Consumption activities, such as the amount of play and everyday interaction, are likely to impact the disposition process. For example, relationships characterized by extensive positive interaction may influence the length and nature of the grieving process.



We have also included feedback arrows from consumption to acquisition and from disposition to both acquisition and consumption. The nature of the relationship between the human and the animal that develops during the consumption stage is likely to affect future acquisition decisions. For example, a close relationship may result in the consumer choosing another animal of the same breed. Or, a strained relationship due to an animal being too demanding (e.g., requiring too much exercise) may lead to the choice of a different breed or species. Finally, the disposition process is likely to affect future acquisition decisions as well as consumption activities. For example, a particularly difficult grieving process may result in the consumer choosing to avoid future relationships altogether in order to avoid the pain associated with the loss of a pet, or to avoid forming close relationships with his or her future pets.

The Acquisition Stage

Generally speaking, acquisition refers to the decision making process consumers go through when making an adoption decision. However, the decision to adopt a pet is only one step on the road to acquiring an animal. The prospective owner must also decide on a species (e.g., cat vs. dog; see Kidd and Kidd 1980), a breed (German Shepherd vs. Husky, or even pure- vs. mixed-breed, Driscoll 1995; the choice of physical characteristics such as toy breeds vs. large breeds, Harris 1983) and on the individual animal. The prospective owner must also decide from where to adopt (i.e., from a breeder, pet store or shelter).

Several researchers have investigated factors associated with pet keeping (e.g., Endenburg, Hart, and DeVries 1990; Marx, Stallones, Garrity, and Johnson 1988). For example, demographic variables that have been found to influence among adults pet ownership include age, size of the household, marital status, type of dwelling, income, presence of children, race, rural/urban residence, occupational prestige, and educational level. Paul and Serpll (1992) determined that age, gender, number of siblings, and parental attitudes were significant predictors of childhood pet ownership. Not surprisingly, childhood ownership of pets is a significant factor in adult ownership (Serpell 1981).

Psychographic variables have also been found to impact the likelihood of pet ownership. For example, Schenk, Templer, Peters, and Schmidt (1994) found that pet ownership among adolescents was positively related to expressiveness and independence and negatively related to achievement orientation and need for control. Other scholars have investigated the origins of attitudes towards pets in order to better understand pet ownership decisions (Hills 1993; Paul and Serpell 1992; Schenk, Templer, Peters, and Schmidt 1994; Serpell 1981). But, "attitude towards pets" measures have been unsuccessful in predicting pet ownership, as even people who do not have animal companions have a remarkably favorable attitude toward pets (Guttmann 1981).

The Consumption Stage

Consumption refers to the pet-related activities owners conduct during the lifetime of the animal. Over the course of the relationship, the human partner will make countless decisions that will affect his or her, as well as the animal’s, welfare and consumption activities. We have identified three key consumption categories: relationship, maintenance and medical. Relationship activities are the cornerstones of the animal-human bond; they are the everyday interactions consumers have with their pets. The amount of time spent playing with them, the care taken in training them, and how they are dealt with even when not the focus of attention will impact how deep the animal-human bond becomes. Maintenance activities include the decisions made regarding feeding, exercise, "day care," etc. Finally, medical activities are the decisions regarding the pet’s health care (e.g., the decision to spay or neuter a pet). These decisions are all interrelated, and the more we understand them the better we will understand the human-pet relationship and how that relationship affects, and is affected by, the consumer experience.

The first tentative steps toward understanding the relationship between people and their pets occurred with Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1913). Scholarly attention to this subject, however, leaned more toward understanding the biological underpinnings of the relationship, specifically the effect of pleasure and pain on animal behavior (Katcher 1981). More recently, however, it has been increasingly recognized that animals, and companion animals in particular, share an in-depth relationship with humankind. The dog’s status, for example, as "man’s best friend" has been recognized and this relationship has been studied to uncover its roots, its meaning and its consequences (Sanders and Arluke 1993).

Belk’s (1988) and Sanders’ (1990a) investigations of the extended self and Hirschman’s (1994) proposals regarding the role of animals in the lives of consumers (as friends, family members and extensions of the self) represent marketing scholars’ initial attempts to understand this relationship. Several of the articles appearing in the special issue of Society and Animals also bear on this issue. For example, Holbrook (1996) used auto-ethnographic techniques to uncover insights into how humans learn to live with nonhuman others.

Voith (1981) used case histories to illustrate the attachment people have toward their pets. She defined attachment as "an emotion or affective state that causes an individual to keep another in proximity or in frequentcommunication, and that results in physiological and behavioral responses by the former when the individuals are separated" (Voith 1981, p. 272). While it is not surprising to say that people become attached to their pets, it may be surprising to learn the lengths they will go to ensure that the relationship continues (e.g., spending large sums of money to treat a sick animal, putting up with an animal’s destructive behavior, even keeping the animal after it has been shown to be a danger to the owner and/or his or her children). Voith explored the reasons behind such strong attachments, such as an increased sense of well-being and love, and related them to problems owners may have with their pets, such as separation anxiety.

Several researchers have investigated how pet-owners interact with their pets and the sociological influence of the human-animal bond. Thirty years ago, Cameron and his associates (e.g., Cameron and Mattson 1972) determined that pet owners tended to have less healthy relationships with other humans, and concluded that pets were serving as surrogates to these socially isolated humans. This conclusion has been widely criticized (e.g., Hills 1989), but it did open the door to further discussion of the dynamics of the animal-human relationship. More recently, studies have found that pet owners are less lonely, bored and depressed, and more joyful and optimistic than non-owners (Horn and Meer 1984). Robins, Sanders, and Cahill (1991) found that entrance into a group was facilitated by the presence of a pet, and explored the process of joining the group. Gillespie, Leffler, and Lerner (1996) described how their definitions of "safe" and "unsafe" places and people changed depending on the presence of their animals. It has also been recognized that pets can be beneficial to their owners not only psychologically (e.g., Holcomb and Meacham 1989) but also physically (e.g., Jenkins 1986).

The Disposition Stage

Finally, the disposition stage addresses the processes and the consequences when the animal-human relationship is terminated. Termination of the relationship can come voluntarily for the human partner, in which case the human partner either gives the animal up to a shelter or other care-giver, or abandons the animal without alternate care available. Estimates of the number of animals handled by shelters each year in the United States range from four to fifteen million (Woolf 1997). Understanding this decision process may allow us to decrease its incidence. Termination may also be the animal’s choice, such as when an animal runs away. Or, termination of the relationship may be involuntary on both sides, such as when the animal dies or is lost. In this case, understanding the grief process, and the factors that impact it, might be especially helpful in understanding the nature of the consumer-animal companion relationship. In particular, this may affect future acquisition and consumption experiences.

It has been shown that the grief associated with the loss of a pet is similar to that associated with human death (Gerwolls and Labott 1994; Gosse and Barnes 1994; but also see Rajaram, Garrity, Stallones, and Marx 1993). Bereaved owners often feel that others wouldn’t understand the importance of the pet in their lives, and thus do not seek out the social supports that help us when our human companions die (Gerwolls and Labott 1994). Gosse and Barnes (1994) concluded that attachment to the pet, understanding from others, and other stressful events impact the grief outcome when a pet dies and that resolution of the grief requires the bereaved owner to get past the stage of fearing a new relationship and obtain a new pet.

Disposition of the animal can also include euthanasia. Euthanasia falls somewhere between voluntary and involuntary on the human’s part. A great deal of thought goes into the decision to put an animal "to sleep." In most cases, in the end, it is voluntary in the sense that the human decides that it is best for the animal, and therefore has it done voluntarily. It is involuntary, however, in the sese that the human wishes it were not necessary, and wouldn’t put the animal down if there were other options. Thus, the decision making process most closely resembles voluntary termination; but the aftermath and grief most closely resembles involuntary termination. Fogle (1981) explored the euthanasia decision: how it is made and how it affects the grieving process, and Arluke (1991) explored the effects of euthanasia on animal shelter staff. The disposition stage of the consumption experience has not received a great deal of attention in the consumer behavior literature, but it might be particularly relevant to further our understanding of the animal companion lifecycle. Stephens and Hill (1996) began an exploration into this area by interpreting textual data (epitaphs in pet cemeteries and essays written by pet owners) to explore consumer feelings at the end of the human-animal relationship. They determined that the unexpected death of an animal companion resulted in grief consistent with the loss of a close friend, and that some relief may be provided through good-bye rituals.


We have described what we believe to be a good conceptual foundation for investigations into how animal companions affect consumer behavior. We believe this to be an incredibly rich area for future research. Thus, this discussion is not meant to be exhaustive, but merely suggestive of some possible lines of future research. We now turn to each stage in the framework and propose future research directions and specific research questions.

Future Directions in the Acquisition Stage

Consider the breed decision (i.e., which breed of dog to obtain). Our understanding of the family decision making process may help to understand how this decision is made (and, a better understanding of this decision could help us better understand the family decision making process). For example, who is the decider, the influencer, and the user, and how do they interact? Other "actors" in the decision must also be considered, such as the ultimate caretaker (who, in many families, will be different than the person promising to be the caretaker in the acquisition stage). In addition, how breeds are categorized (e.g., excitable vs. calm, good with children vs. bad with children) no doubt has an immense effect on the breed decision. Using categorization theory, we could explore how these categorizations are made by consumers, and how they impact on the decision. What factors determine the categorization, and how do these factors interact with the individual’s lifestyle to determine which breed is selected. Further, using Belk’s (1988) theory of the Extended Self, we might be able to understand how different animals impact our perceptions of ourselves. Finally, social network theory as it applies to brand choice (e.g., Reingen, Foster, Brown, and Seidman 1984) might offer insights into how these decisions are made. By improving our understanding of the categorizations, how they affect our perceptions, and how others influence our choices we might be able to modify the process so that "unwanted" animals (e.g., mixed breeds living in the shelter) have a better chance at adoption.

An example of a key independent variable that might influence the acquisition stage would be past experiences with a particular breed or species. For example, having known a friendly Rottweiler may increase the likelihood of purchasing an animal with similar traits. Another key variable that may influence the acquisition process is attitudes toward pet companionship (e.g., a feeling of ownership as opposed to a feeling of friendship). In addition, attitudes toward pet companionship may influence the time spent making the decisions necessary in this stage.

Future Directions in the Consuption Stage

By building on previous research in these areas we will better understand how consumption decisions are made and perhaps how they can be altered. For example, what factors impact on the decision to spay or neuter a pet? Categorization and self-extension may again play a role in this decision. A male owner who sees his male dog as an extension of himself may be less inclined to neuter the dog. Examining these factors may lead to a better understanding of how people are persuaded to spay or neuter their pets, which in turn could lead to more effective appeals and, ultimately, a decrease in the number of unwanted animals.

Another potential area of research that would be particularly helpful to marketing practitioners would be to determine how pet food purchase decisions are made. Do vets play an important role in this decision? Does the price structure of the pet food market affect consumer perceptions of quality? Do pet owners that feed premium foods view such food as truly better for their pets, or is it possible that this is a form of "conspicuous consumption" in which we expect our pets’ consumption patterns to reflect upon us? Answers to these questions would assist marketing practitioners in the pet food industry to better market their products, as well as help us to better understand one aspect of consumers’ lives.

Pet health insurance represents an industry that is ripe for study. The number of medical procedures available to pets approaches those available to humans. For example, pets can now receive MRI and CAT scans (no pun intended), chemotherapy, radiation, tumor removal, hip replacement, organ transplants and pacemaker installation (Veterinary Pet Insurance and Benchmark Studios 1997). The cost of veterinary care has grown along with the increase in available treatments. The number of consumers who purchase insurance coverage for their pets is rapidly growing in the United States, and this industry is already well-established abroad. For example, in Britain, 12% of all animals are insured by their owners, and in Sweden 67% are insured (Croke 1998). This is a relatively new industry in the United States, and offers marketing scholars an opportunity to investigate the spread of a new service. What factors influence the decision to purchase insurance coverage? Some possibilities include the degree that the owner attributes mindedness to the pet (i.e., anthropomorphism, [Note that the subject of anthropomorphism is itself a very interesting and controversial one (e.g., Fidler, Light and Costall 1996; Fisher 1990), but a full review of the literature on this topic is beyond the scope of this paper.] Sanders 1993), Attitude toward Pet Companionship and past experiences with pet medical expenses.

Another aspect of the Companionship Stage lies in the everyday interactions we have with our animal companions and how those interactions affect other aspects of our lives. Scholars have begun to investigate this aspect of the consumption experience. For example, Robins, Sanders, and Cahill (1991) examined how pet ownership facilitated interactions with other pet owners at a public park and Sanders (1990b) investigated how we excuse the misbehavior of our pets to others. It would be interesting to determine how pet ownership impacts upon other aspects of consumers’ lifestyles, particularly their leisure activities. For example, does dog ownership result in less vacation travel and, if so, would more "dog-friendly" accommodations result in more travel? The answer to this question has the potential to improve the lives of the consumer and the animal.

An example of a key independent variable that may impact the consumption stage would be degree of anthropomorphism. For example, an owner that attributes humanlike qualities to his or her pet may visit the veterinarian more often, spend more lavishly and perhaps be less likely to board the pet at a traditional kennel.

Future Directions in the Disposition Stage

The death of a pet, and the grieving process and support from others the human receives, would probably have a direct impact on the individual’s and family’s decision-making process regarding the next cycle of consumption: the decision to acquire another pe. Researchers interested in this aspect of the human-animal relationship could explore how factors such as the level and character of interaction with the pet before death, the human’s attachment level to the deceased pet, the presence of other pets, the cause of death, and the passage of time affect the next adoption decision. The more we can understand this process, the more we can help consumers through it and increase the likelihood that they will decide to adopt again.

Belk’s (1988) characterization of pets as part of the extended self would seem to have a direct effect on how people deal with the termination of the relationship, whether the termination is through death, loss or voluntary relinquishment. People who view their pets as part of their extended selves or who tend to anthropomorphize their pets are probably less likely to abandon the pet, and more likely to suffer greatly from the loss of a pet.

Finally, many owners conduct rituals to mark the passage of the pet, much like rituals are conducted to mark the passage of a human. For example, the pet may be buried in a pet cemetery or the pet’s possessions may be collected and stored. It would be interesting to examine these rituals and explore how they help the consumer grieve and how they affect future relationships with pets.

Examples of key independent variables affecting this stage are degree of anthropomorphism and attitudes toward pet companionship. For example, the greater the degree of anthropomorphism, the more likely the owner will be to conduct burial rituals. The less the owner objectifies the animal (a component of attitudes toward pet companionship), the less likely the owner is to abandon the pet.


In addition to the potential outcome variables discussed in the context of the animal companion lifecycle framework, there are several other areas of interest to marketers that might be affected by the processes described within the framework. For example, one intriguing line of research, that promises to hold special interest for marketers, has been initiated by Budge, Spicer, Jones, and St. George (1996). They found that the presence of an animal, and the type of the animal, affects judgments of the owners’ characteristics. For example, men were rated as nicer, more stylish, and more active when they were paired with a cat than when they were paired with a dog, and these results were reversed for women. This somewhat surprising result may have direct implications on advertisers’ creative strategy, and investigation along these lines may help marketers craft more effective advertising messages. The effect of using animals in advertising on constructs such as attitude toward the ad, attitude toward the brand and memorability are areas in which both researchers and practitioners should have a keen interest. Spears, Mowen, and Chakraborty (1996) have begun inquiries into this topic, but there are many questions left to be answered. For example, how does categorization of the animal affect the effectiveness of the ad?

Attitudes toward the treatment of animals and animal abuse have also been explored (e.g., Gallup and Beckstead 1988; Rajecki, Rasmussen, and Craft 1993; Vermeulen and Odendaal 1993). Rajecki, Rasmussen, and Craft (1993) determined that reactions toward and feelings about animal research were dependent on how the animals were categorized (e.g., companion animals like cats vs. utilitarian animals like cows). Marketers could explore how these attitudes are formed and how they can be modified. It would also be interesting to investigate the various factions in the animal rights movements (e.g., animal rights vs. animal welfare; Harnack 1996) and how proponents of these viewpoints practice their beliefs and attempt to persuade others.


The potential research topics discussed here are meant only to further open the door to discussion of this under-researched area. Further, we see this area as benefitting from both traditional and nontraditional methods of consumer research. While recent efforts in this area of consumer research have been interpretive (Hirschman 1994) or postmodernist (Holbrook 1996) in method and philosophy, many of the research questions posed here could be served by traditional methodologies such as survey research. As discussed, this domain area would clearly benefit from the choir approach (Arnould and Price 1998; Ward 1997), wherein several methods can contribute to a fuller understanding of an issue.

It is important to point out that it is our belief that animals are sentient beings, not merely objects to be manipulated to serve our purposes. Not everyone shares this belief; indeed, an understanding of the "object-being" dichotomy among consumers would help us to understand more about several aspects of our relationships with pets (e.g., does this perception impact decisions made about spaying and neutering?). Hills (1993) has developed a scale that measures this perception and consumer researchers can build upon her work in our efforts to better understand these issues.

Increased knowledge of this animal-human relationship may help marketing practitioners employ animals more effectively (e.g., in advertising), but that is a side benefit of research in this area. The real benefit lies in a better understanding of consumers’ feelings about their pets, and thereby a better understanding of consumers themselves.

Animal companions are an integral part of many consumers lives; as such, study of our interactions with them may offer significant insights into the lives of consumers. By coming to a greater understanding of the relationship we have with our pets, we come to a greater understanding of ourselves as consumers. As this happens, our lives and those of our pets are enriched.


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