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America's Pet of the '80s Is a Product of the Meow Generation

October 05, 1987|KEITH BRADSHER

More cats than dogs are becoming Americans' best friends.

In 1980, there were an estimated 46.2 million dogs kept as pets in the United States and just 36.9 million cats, according to an annual study of a 7,500-household panel by Stanford, Conn.-based MRCA Information Services, a market research firm. Now cats outnumber dogs, 57.8 million to 49.4 million.

"The switch to cats as pet of choice in many households as opposed to dogs is an important trend that's been going on for about five years or so," said Steve King, assistant counsel for the Washington-based Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council. Cats are growing in popularity because they can be kept in smaller homes and don't have to be taken for time-consuming walks, he said.

What is convenient for singles living in apartments may not be beneficial for pet accessory and pet food manufacturers, however. Sales of cats and related products by the nation's pet stores totaled about $92 million last year, unchanged from 1985, according to a March survey by Pet Supplies Marketing magazine. Pet store sales of puppies and canine products came to $491 million last year, up from $425 million as pet stores captured part of supermarkets' share of the dog food market. "If you buy one litter (box), that's good for 15 years," editor David Kowalski said.

Cat food sales have been growing recently at a rate of at least 4% a year, according to studies by the Pet Food Institute in Washington. But cats typically eat less than dogs. Nationwide dog food sales totaled $3.453 billion in 1986, compared to cat food sales of $2.166 billion, said John Maxwell, a pet food analyst for Furman Selz Mager Dietz & Birney, a Manhattan investment bank.

Couple that with a growing fad for smaller dogs and, "If I were a dog food manufacturer, I'd be very concerned," MRCA account executive Warren Deason said.

A spokesman for Ralston Purina said the St. Louis-based company, which sells about half the country's dry dog food, expects the nation's dog population to start rising soon, thanks to the growing number of new households being formed.

Experts seeking to explain the tabby trend cite the rise in single-person households, a move to apartments and condos and a growing popularity of travel coupled with an unwillingness to worry about Fido during trips.

"A cat is an easy animal to take care of rather than a Doberman," said Keith Bonner, president of Anaheim-based ASU, one of Southern California's largest distributors of pet supplies. Sales of cat-related products are up 50% to 60% this year, he said.

Cats are also easier to leave at home when masters go on trips. "With a waterer, a self feeder and a litter box, you can go away for a weekend," said Tom McLaughlin, executive director of the Western World Pet Supply Assn.

Dog lovers need not despair. More American households still own dogs this year--37.2%--than cats, 30%, by MRCA estimates.

"More people own dogs; it's just the cat people own more cats." Deason said. The average dog-owning household has 1.5 dogs, while 2.1 cats share the average feline household, he explained.

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