The little calico cat who sauntered into her Goa home in June last year was friendly: far too friendly for Divya Ravichandran. “She walked around exploring the place and climbed onto my lap,” recalls Ravichandran, who was petrified of cats then. “I remember calling out to my husband, telling him that there was a cat in the house and that I needed his help to get rid of it,” says the 37-year-old, with a laugh.
They managed to get the cat to leave that day, but she returned, over and over, familiarising herself with the house and the people who lived in it, effortlessly wriggling her way into their hearts. “She would plonk herself in a corner and go to sleep,” says Ravichandran, founder and CEO of Skrap, a Mumbai-headquartered environment sustainability firm. Finally, Ravichandran and her husband, Shreyas Srinivasan, adopted the cat, naming her Poee after the soft local bread baked by Goan poders. “She left us no choice; she just refused to leave,” says Ravichandran wryly.
Like Ravichandran, more and more young Indians are waking up to the pleasure of sharing a home with a dog, cat or, to a far lesser extent, small mammals, fish, birds, and even the occasional reptile. There are an estimated 32 million pets in India today, more than double the figure in 2016-17, according to an August 2022 report in Mint. Unlike the Boomers and Generation X, millennials and Gen Z don’t see their pets simply as kept animals: They are family. “India is experiencing a shift from pet ownership to pet parenthood. Earlier, pets were for guarding, or they were considered a part of the house but never a part of the family,” says Akshay Singhaniya, co-founder of Kuddle, a Bengaluru-based company which offers doorstep pet services, including grooming, veterinary services and walking. “Today, people spend more on their pets than on themselves.” Faisal Islam, the co-founder of Carry My Pet, a Gurugram, Haryana-based pet relocation agency, says something similar. “People don’t mind spending on an animal or taking time out for them when they start thinking of them as ‘kids’,” he says. “As an owner, you may or not bother. But as a parent, you are more inclined to care for your ‘kids’ in every way possible.”
The increased humanisation of companion animals means that young Indians today have no qualms about shelling out vast sums of money to transport their pet halfway across the world, buy imported grain-free food made of organic, grass-fed meat or schedule grooming appointments for their pets as frequently as they schedule a blow-dry or pedicure for themselves.
The rise in the number of pet parents is, in turn, fuelling the larger pet care industry in India, which research firm Market Decipher described in a 2022 report as “one of the fastest-growing pet care markets in the world”. The Indian pet care market size is valued at ₹74,000 crore in 2022 and is expected to reach ₹2.1 trillion by 2032, growing at a compound annual growth rate of 19.2%, according to the report. “I do feel there is a massive boom in the market,” says Bengaluru-based vet Champak Naik, adding that he has seen a rise in pet ownership, especially among the urban middle class. “Investment in pets is very apparent in the last couple of years.”
Singhaniya lists what he sees as the many reasons why India’s pet population and spending are increasing. Pet humanisation is the key driver, with people more likely to see their pets as equivalent to a family member, wanting to do the best for them. Also, increasing per capita income, nuclear families, delayed parenthood, peer-influenced adoption and work culture shifting to a work-from-home or hybrid model. Throw in the incursion of social media, which influences every narrative in today’s world, including the one around pets. “The community of people who genuinely care for animals has been built on social media platforms, especially Instagram,” believes Delhi-based Samriddh Dasgupta, chief marketing officer at pet care marketplace Heads Up For Tails (HUFT)). “It has been very helpful in multiple ways to push the narrative of kindness towards animals, adopting instead of buying, being kind to street animals, seeing pets as family and recognising their different needs.”
Social media is definitely changing how people acquire their pets, agrees Bengaluru-based Priya Chetty-Rajagopal, founder and managing trustee of the CJ Memorial Trust, an animal advocacy and welfare organisation. Without a doubt, there are still some people enamoured by the idea of “breed” dogs and cats like Retrievers, Beagles, German Shepherds, Huskies, Persians or Maine Coons, knowingly or unknowingly supporting an unregulated and unethical breeding industry, but animal adoptions are also going up. “Indie dog adoptions are the new cool,” says Chetty-Rajagopal, adding that younger people, the most active on social media, are playing a massive role in driving this shift. “The instinct to adopt is much higher,” she believes, pointing out that constant communication and awareness campaigns play a huge role in this.
What does all this say about the changing demographics, spending patterns of young Indians and the rise of urban loneliness? How did covid-19 fuel the industry’s growth? Is the pet care ecosystem evolving fast enough to meet the surge in demand for pet food, accessories and services? And most importantly, what lies ahead for Indian pets and the people who love them?
A child that will never grow up
In April last year, soon after a fresh wave of covid-19, Shreemoyee Moitra, 34, did something that changed her life: She brought home a dog. Moitra, who manages the Akara Art Gallery in Mumbai and grew up in Kolkata around dogs, was going through a divorce and wanted a companion. Looking after her dog, Doodle, single-handedly was challenging. “It is like having a child who will never grow up,” she says. But she has no regrets. “It has been a year and a half of Doodle. and bringing her home is the best thing I ever did,” she says.
Covid-19, according to several reports, fuelled the growth of the pet industry, at least temporarily, as more people, often alone through multiple lockdowns, considered bringing home an animal. Six out of 10 people felt encouraged to bring home a pet during the pandemic, says a 2021 study issued by Mars Petcare, with an advisory board of leading animal welfare experts, though many were later abandoned or rehomed.
Deeksha Suresh, a Bengaluru-based psychologist, a dog parent and an animal welfare activist, remembers witnessing this first-hand. “Pet adoption was a rage back then,” she says, remembering how she was inundated with messages about animals up for adoption. While boredom and loneliness drove the frenzy, leading to mass abandonments in the ensuing months, many people also discovered that “life was so much better with an animal”, says the 25-year-old.
The increase in the absolute number of pet parents in the country has certainly catalysed the growth of the pet care market. A July 2022 report in Mint states that India’s pet care industry is set to touch ₹10,000 crore by 2025. “The growth is led by factors such as rising incomes, nuclear families, and changing attitudes toward pets and pet owners,” Salil Murthy, the India managing director of Mars Petcare, told Mint.
What has also changed, according to Varun Sadana and Vineet Khanna, co-founders of the Bengaluru-headquartered online pet store Supertails.com, is the age and stage of life when people are choosing to adopt pets. Earlier, a pet would usually come home once you were more “settled” in life—think home, marriage, and children. That no longer holds true. “It once would have been difficult to imagine a 25-year-old immigrant in Delhi, Mumbai, Gurugram or Bengaluru having pets,” says Sadana.
In fact, the definition of “settled” itself appears to be changing, going by what Dasgupta says. Earlier, the thought process was that without stability, you should not get a pet, he points out. “But right now, stability simply means being able to take care of and love my pet.”
The new generation of pet parents, many of whom are in their 20s and 30s, aren’t just redefining the rules of pet care; they are reconsidering what family means. Gen Z and, to a lesser extent, millennials, who currently make up nearly 60% of the Indian population, are making very different life choices compared to the generations before them.
These are lonelier generations, for starters, many being migrants living away from families, alone or with flatmates. Marriage occurs later in life for many, and even when it does, many young couples—struggling with inflation and hectic jobs or simply trying to make sense of a capricious, fragile world constantly shadowed by the threat of climate change and political instability—choose to delay or not have children. Pets are a perfect addition to these new types of families.
Bengaluru-based Rijita Mukherjee, a PhD scholar who is researching pet parenting and interspecies families, wholeheartedly agrees. Families like these, where pets are a vital part of a household, are already a phenomenon in other individualistic cultures, she says. “A pet can be an essential support for many people,” she says, pointing out that a pet is often a reason to get back home at the end of a long day or wake up in the morning. Not only does owning a pet make you more physically active, it also helps mental health by lowering stress, releasing oxytocin and managing anxiety and depression. “We are realising the emotional and cognitive value of a pet,” she adds. “They have become a vital part of many families.”
When Varsha Patil started dating Rufus John, now her husband, in 2019, they were clear that they wanted to spend their life in a home filled with animals. So, eight months after they got married, in December 2021, they decided to bring home their first: a two-month-old grey and white kitten with mismatched paws and large mossy eyes that they named Peaches. “It was like bringing home a baby,” recalls the Bengaluru-based Patil, a 29-year-old doctor, who still remembers how scary and overwhelming the first night of Peaches’ arrival was. “She kept running away; we freaked out,” says Patil, with a laugh. But, by morning, Peaches’ inherently curious nature kicked in, and she soon began eating and cuddling up with the people who had chosen her. “She is tiny, but she takes up a lot of space and makes our house a home,” says Patil, who, at this point, isn’t thinking about children. “We, for me now, is Rufus, Peaches and I. I didn’t imagine this happening so soon and this intensely, but we are now a trio.”
The Chauvet Pont-d’Arc Cave, one of the most significant prehistoric sites in the world, believed to have been inhabited by early humans anywhere between 20,000 and 30,000 years ago, is known for its Palaeolithic art—a triumph of early man’s skill and imagination. But in the soft clayey floor of the cave, littered with vestiges of ancient hearths and animal bones, is another exciting find: the footprints of a human child walking alongside canine ones, belonging to either a very friendly wolf or a large dog.
The relationship between humans and dogs is a long-standing one, stretching all the way back to the prehistoric world: Palaeolithic and Mesolithic burial sites often contained remains of dogs buried with their owners. From the very dawn of civilisation, dogs appear to have been well looked after and valued for their ability to help with hunting and safeguarding home and hearth.
The cat-human relationship, on the other hand, was more complex, oscillating between deification, demonisation and tolerance for the creatures who kept the rodents away from foodgrain stores. Cats, all of whom have descended from the Middle Eastern wildcat Felis silvestris , were believed to have started lurking around human settlements in the Near East around 12,000 years ago, lured by the mice which infested ancient granaries, forging a symbiotic relationship with humans because it benefited both parties. Older societies, notably the Egyptians, appear to have had a deep reverence for cats, but by the Middle Ages, human feelings about the cat were somewhat mixed. While medieval Europe saw cats as the harbinger of plague and disease, the companions of witches and the devil, a narrative considerably shaped by the Catholic church, Islamic civilisations viewed them as ritually clean animals and treated them well. And though cat killings had died down by the 1800s, and they could once again venture out to keep away the vermin, the transition from friendly feral to favoured fur babies occurred only in the early 20th century.
Interestingly, the cat and dog’s different domestication trajectories continue to be reflected in adoption patterns even today. Many cultures, including our own, still have ambivalent relationships with cats, and dogs continue to be the most popular pets in the world. According to the market research website Research and Markets, the dog segment accounted for the largest revenue share of over 39% of the global pet care market, valued at $159.1 billion in 2022, with the rest shared by cats and other smaller animals.
Fido continues to be everyone’s best friend, but increased urbanisation, migration, development and shrinking spaces mean that people are beginning to see the magic of toe beans, purrs and cat loaves too. The cat-dog ratio differs considerably across countries: Asia and South America prefer dogs by far; it is relatively balanced in Europe and the US, with the former having a few more cats and the latter a few more dogs; dogs are prohibited in the Maldives, except for law enforcement purposes; and though over 40% of Kiwi households own a cat, the dog population is growing faster than the human population in New Zealand.
In India, the odds are definitely in favour of canine companions. Singhaniya, who conducted market research before opening Kuddle in 2022, says there are 30 million pet dogs and two million pet cats in the country. HUFT’s Dasgupta believes that while the actual number of pets may be a lot higher than the official numbers, there are certainly more dogs than cats overall, which is why there are more dog-focused offerings in the pet care space. And yes, certain categories, like accessories and grooming, are intrinsically more dog-dominated and likely to stay that way. After all, cats are rarely leash trained and are fastidious groomers (besides being famously self-assured and likely to scratch people who interfere with them too much, anyway).
But even though the dog market is larger, the cat market in India is growing faster. “A lot more people are adopting cats as compared to dogs now, especially in cities like Mumbai and Bengaluru, where space is probably a constraint,” Dasgupta says, adding that he sees a steady growth trajectory when it comes to cats. Supertails’ Khanna echoes this viewpoint. “The growth of percentage in cat parents is much higher,” he says. Sixty per cent of the brand’s customers are dog parents, while the rest share their home with cats. Part of the reason for this, adds Sadana, is that dogs, especially big ones, were seen as more useful as they safeguarded homes; also, Indians often harboured superstitions around cats, says Sadana, a cat parent himself.
Several accounts suggest the influx of young pet parents, especially Gen Z, has greatly influenced perceptions about cats. For starters, they are usually not burdened by the same superstitious beliefs as their parents and grandparents. But also, these young people, often first-time pet parents living away from family, find cats easier to manage. “The cat population is growing all across India,” agrees Parthasarathy Munusamy, CEO of Augie Pets India Private, a Bengaluru-registered pet care company founded in 2021. While cat products currently occupy around 17% of the total pet care market, he expects it to go up to 35% over the next few years. “The number of cat products is increasing in all the stores,” he says.
The road ahead
When Shatru T. adopted his first cat, Goldilocks, around 15 years ago, he found it challenging to get the best nutrition for her. A vegetarian, Shatru was completely dependent on packaged cat food. “There were so few options back then,” says the 51-year-old, who works in an IT company.
Today, Shatru, who shares a home with three cats—Bolt, Zuzu and Luna—and feeds over 30 stray cats in his locality, is spoilt for choice, as are his cats. Every cat, indoor and outdoor, is fed differently based on its tastes, preferences and medical conditions. “The market has changed so much over the years,” says Shatru, who spends over ₹30,000 per month on cat food.
Appreciation of pets as family will inevitably lead to emerging categories and behaviours that one cannot predict, agrees Dasgupta. Already, in a relatively short span of time, the Indian pet food market has changed.
For starters, there is now an Indian homegrown pet care brand, Drools, started in 2010 in Chhattisgarh, a subsidiary of the Indian Broiler Group, which recently added Australia to its list of almost 20 export markets. Mars Petcare, which opened its first manufacturing plant in India in 2008 at Siddipet, Telangana, has been expanding aggressively. In July this year, Nestle India acquired Purina Petcare India for ₹125.3 crore; the rise in pet adoption spurred the move, said the company in the filing. Even Supertails, which recently raised $10 million in Series A funding, is planning its own in-house food brand. Over the past couple of years, a number of international brands offering specialised, superior-quality, and yes, much more expensive dog and cat food brands have seeped into the market, including Farmina N&D, Orijen, Dibaq and Arden Grange. And budget options are growing too. “India’s demographics, compassion and non-culling policy mean that there is another under-served market: community animals,” says Chetty-Rajagopal, adding that while these animals do not come in the formal market category and occupy the very bottom of the pyramid, they are a volume market “of great relevance for feeders, rescuers and pet parents in rural India”.
Food is the fastest-growing segment in the pet care space, agrees Akshay Gupta of Pet Fed, a Delhi-headquartered brand that has been organising pet festivals across India where pets and owners can enjoy stalls, activities and workshops, since 2014. But the pet accessories, toys and fashion markets aren’t doing badly either, he says, even though “they are completely impulse-driven”. Even Ravichandran, a minimalist who lives a plant-based, low-carbon lifestyle and avoids purchasing things as much as possible, confesses that the only one who gets new things is Poee. On a recent trip to Istanbul, for instance, while neither she nor her husband shopped for themselves, they couldn’t resist picking up some treats and a harness for their cat. “She is the most spoilt cat ever,” says Ravichandran with a laugh. “Double income, one cat; what do you expect?”
Another pet care segment that is doing remarkably well is non-medical pet services, which include grooming, relocation, insurance, boarding and walking, among other things. “I see that getting more prominent as we go ahead,” believes Dasgupta. Also, adds Chennai-based canine behaviourist Saba Poonawala, increased focus on pet socialisation and mental health. “People are often more concerned about their dog’s mental health than their own,” she says with a laugh, adding that there has been a burgeoning of avenues—dog parties, playgroups and meet-ups—where dogs can meet others of their kind. For example, Moitra’s companion, Doodle, goes to a dog play group to socialise with other dogs, even attending dog birthday parties where she is often served dog-friendly cookies and cakes. “I put a lot of effort into giving her the best life possible, doing things for her that I don’t think existed back when I was a child,” she says, adding that she also enjoys visiting pet-friendly spaces in the city, with Doodle. “It makes life so much easier when you can take a pet along with you.”
While the market has certainly exploded and is likely to explode further, there are still some gaps. For starters, there are simply not enough vets or veterinary institutions. A May 2022 report in Deccan Herald estimates there are only 100,000 registered vets, certainly not enough for over 32 million cats and dogs, in addition to livestock and small animals. And with only 55-odd veterinary colleges in the country, the vet-to-patient ratio is always going to be inadequate.
Awareness is another lacuna in pet care right now, going by most accounts. “Education and awareness need to come into play,” says Poonawala. While people want to give their pets the very best and are willing to spend money on them, they don’t always know what is best for them, she adds. For instance, unruly behaviour in large dogs is more a function of parents’ neglect in training rather than the fault of the animal. Unlike childbirth and rearing, where new parents have mothers, aunts and grandmothers to turn to when they are flailing, most new parents are first-time ones who may not have had previous exposure to pets. “For the first time in your life, you have responsibility for another living being,” says Sadana, pointing out that this can be overwhelming and often leads to pet abandonment. He adds that brands nowadays are trying to bridge this knowledge gap by handholding their customers and using their social media accounts to drive information about pet care in India.
There is hope, however. “Are there enough facilities at this point for pets in India? Not yet, but it is growing fast,” believes Chetty-RajagopalThe presence of communities where new pet parents can turn to for support and advice does help. And yes, as Sadana says, younger people are more curious, in general, and don’t mind spending time and effort to make sure that their pet lives a long and healthy life.
Also read: Why you should spend more time with cats
Ravichandran remembers spending hours on end reading up on cats, reaching out to friends who were already cat parents, watching one YouTube video after another, notably those made by popular cat behaviourist Jackson Galaxy, and trawling online pet stores to buy the best food for her cat. “Our life revolves around Poee, and we probably give her too much attention,” laughs Ravichandran, who still cannot believe that a cat could have changed their life so much. But she has no regrets. “Sometimes Shreyas and I look at each other and ask ourselves what we did before we had a cat. She makes life so amusing and joyous.”