Pet owners want to be masters, not servants – which is why we value dogs more than cats

Cat videos may rule the internet, but dogs possess mastery of their owners’ hearts – at least if spending is any guide.

Dog owners spend US$240 a month caring for their pets, compared with $193 for cats, according to the 2017-2018 National Pet Owners Survey from the American Pet Products Association. The extra money goes primarily toward vet visits and kennel boarding, but dog owners also spend more lavishly on treats, grooming and toys.

My new paper, “Dogs Have Masters, Cats Have Staff,” shines some light on why.

A cat would never let its owner do this. Reuters/Andrew Wong

A growing market

Americans are spending more on pet care as an increasing share of U.S. households own an animal.

A little over two-thirds of all U.S. households own at least one pet, up from 56 percent in 1988, the first year of the National Pet Owners Survey.

And almost half of households own a dog, while just 38 percent have a cat. Generational trends suggest this divergence is likely to grow, as millennials are more likely to adopt a canine, while baby boomers tend to be cat lovers.

This is resulting in a growing market for pet-related products and services, which hit an estimated $72 billion in 2018, up from $46 billion a decade earlier.

A willingness to pay

My study builds on earlier research showing that dog owners are willing to spend more on their pets than cat owners – including to save their lives.

One reason suggested was that dog owners had stronger bonds to their pets, which prompted them to spend more on things like veterinary care.

My research uncovered a key factor indicating why dog owners feel more attached to their pets: Dogs are famously more compliant than cats. When owners feel in control of their pets, strong feelings of psychological ownership and emotional attachment develop. And pet owners want to be masters – not servants.

Like other marketing researchers, my work uses “willingness to pay” as an indicator of the economic, rather than emotional, value owners place on their pets. It shows – and compares – how much pet owners would pay to save their animal’s life.

Dog owners are willing to pay twice as much as cat owners for a life-saving surgery. AP Photo/Angie Wang

Who’s in control?

So I carried out three online experiments to explore the role of psychological ownership in these valuations.