Young Man Walking His Dog at a Park | Woodruff

Think Outside the Crate: Using Psychographic Segmentation to Reach Pet Owners (Part 2)

When it comes to U.S. pet owners, one size definitely does not fit — or describe — them all. And depending on your business, products or services, you may not want to market to the entire pet-owning universe, either — it’s just not an efficient use of your marketing dollars.

As we discussed in a previous post, using multiple approaches to market segmentation is valuable when marketing to U.S. pet owners. In this post, we’ll discuss which variables may be the most helpful when segmenting an audience as diverse as U.S. pet owners.


Demographic segmentation, which uses readily identifiable, objective and quantifiable traits, is a good place to start for any pet owner-oriented marketing initiative. In addition to traits such as age/generation, gender, marital status, ethnicity and nationality, you will also want to consider the type of pet owned (i.e., dog, cat, bird or small mammals). Promoting dog-specific products to cat-only pet owners isn’t a good use of your marketing dollars.

Pet-owner demographics is one of the more widely researched areas of pet products marketing. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), American Pet Products Association (APPA), Packaged Facts, Euromonitor and other research organizations monitor trends in the U.S. pet population, its ownership, and pet owners’ attitudes and buying habits. Their market research has found that pet ownership varies by age, ethnicity, income and gender, in addition to geography and psychographics. Their research has also revealed that pet-owner demographics are shifting, despite the fact that the number of U.S. pet-owning households has remained constant in recent years.

Consider age/generation demographics. A lot has been written about millennials and baby boomers as pet owners. That isn’t much of a surprise given that both generations are large, diverse, pet-owning groups of people who care deeply about their pets. However, there are significant differences in how these two groups of pet owners think, feel and behave. That means age/generation is still a key demographic variable to consider when marketing to pet owners. Sure, pet-owning millennials have surpassed baby boomers as a percentage of U.S. pet owners, but boomers still control a majority (about 70 percent) of U.S. disposable income. And both groups are credited with driving growth in dog ownership.

Another notable shift in pet owner demographics can be seen through the lens of household income. Dog and cat ownership has increased since 2008 and subsequently flattened out, according to Packaged Facts’ data, with most of the increase coming from households with dogs — which are more expensive to keep than cats. What’s interesting, but not necessarily surprising, is that pet ownership has grown among households with incomes of $75,000 or more. This may support or even fuel the ongoing premiumization of pet products and services. At the same time, pet ownership among households with incomes below $50,000 has dropped, which points to a need for quality, affordable pet care products.

Psychographic Factors of Pet Owners | Attachment, Interaction, Human Substitute | Woodruff

So while some marketers may argue that demographic segmentation is out of fashion or “old school,” there are plenty of reasons to include key demographic factors as part of your overall pet owner segmentation strategy. But consider demographics a starting point and not the only approach to your market segmentation efforts. Then, depending on your products, services and distribution channels, layering geographic and psychographic variables overtop will be appropriate.


Packaged Facts’ report Pet Population and Ownership Trends in the U.S.: Dogs, Cats and Other Pets, 2nd Edition found that where pet owners live matters when it comes to dog and cat products. That’s because how pet owners view their pets and the criteria they use when deciding which pet products to buy are closely tied to whether they live in urban areas, suburban or outer suburban locales, or rural areas.

More specifically, these groups have widely different views about pet health and nutrition. Urban pet parents are nearly twice as likely as rural pet owners to agree that their pets have special nutrition needs (45 percent versus 24 percent), and they’re even more likely to be concerned about their pets having food allergies or intolerances (51 percent versus 22 percent). Urban pet parents are much more likely than rural pet owners to agree that natural/organic pet products are often better than standard national brand products — regardless of the presence or absence of scientific support. Urban pet owners are also more likely to acknowledge that fear of pet food contamination and product safety are key concerns that influence their pet food purchases.

Shopping habits differ significantly between pet owners living in urban, suburban and rural areas, which likely reflects the choices available to them as well as their preferences. Almost two-thirds (63 percent) of urban pet owners buy pet products online compared to about one-third (32 percent) of rural pet owners, according to Packaged Facts. And when it comes to brick-and-mortar stores, more than half (52 percent) of rural pet owners purchase their pet foods at Walmart, compared with 37 percent of urban pet owners.


Psychographics, which considers the psychology of consumer behaviors, isn’t easily measured or determined like demographics or geography. However, psychographics can provide deep insights into why consumers buy the products and services that they do. The internet and social media have made getting these insights easier than before.

The psychographic factors of greatest value when segmenting U.S. pet owners are measures of the human–pet relationship. Basically, pet owners are divided into groups based on their attachment to, attitudes toward and relationship with their pets. Three dimensions of pet ownership can help segment pet owners’ buying behaviors:

Attachment describes the degree of affection that exists between an owner and his/her pet.

Interaction is defined as the two-way partnership in which both owner and pet adjust their behavior to that of the other. It also includes the owner’s willingness to incorporate pets into his/her life and the pet’s role in the owner’s social network.

Human substitute refers to the role a pet plays in the owner’s life (e.g., substitute for a child, spouse or friend).

As a group, American pet owners in general are passionate about their furry friends, regardless of their age, income or geographic location. Not only do they see their pets as members of the family, but some owners view their pets as extensions of self and help their owners form their identities.


Although dog owners vary widely in their relationships with their dogs, American dog owners are increasingly more involved with their dogs than ever before. This increased devotion has translated into several major trends, including humanization and continued growth in pet-related spending. Dogs — and pets in general — are being used to meet human needs for companionship, friendship and affection as we become more disconnected from each other. (Thank you, technology!) And because dog owners are more likely to anthropomorphize (or humanize) their pets than are cat owners, the relationships between dogs and their humans have been studied more than those of other pet species.

In a 2012 study, Boya et al.1 used shopping-related behaviors that focused on the effort and money dog owners were willing to spend to divide dog owners into a strategic segmentation scheme. Three distinct groups of dog owners resulted from the analysis:

  • Strongly attached owners believe strongly that price is no object when it comes to their dogs. They spend lots of money on special products, choose their vehicle based on owning a dog, buy premium food and make frequent visits to their veterinarians.
  • Moderately attached owners agree with most of the dog-related variables used in the survey. However, they don’t agree that price is no object and they don’t allow dog ownership to influence their vehicle purchases.
  • Basic owners appear to be concerned only with meeting their dog’s basic needs, although they do take their dogs for regular veterinary visits.

Research has also shown that dog owners, more than any other pet owners, use pet-related consumption to form their personal, social and emotional identities. Consider the pet food industry and specifically, dog food. Human food trends have historically influenced pet food, and we see evidence of that influence today. Trends such as “natural,” “free from,” functional ingredients and sustainably sourced protein aren’t just driving human food products, but they’re also driving pet food development. In addition, research has found that U.S. dog owners are more likely to buy healthy food for their dogs than for themselves, are more likely to be brand loyal in dog food versus human food, and are less sensitive to dog food prices than to human food prices.2 So it appears as dogs have become more humanized (or anthropomorphized), so has the dog food buying process.

Within the past 12 to 13 years, U.S. pet owners in general have become even more serious about their dogs’ health than their own.2 The 2007 melamine and cyanuric acid contamination scandal, the jerky treats contamination scare, and now a potential link between certain dog foods and dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) has dog owners scrutinizing the quality and ingredients in their dogs’ food, carefully checking food ingredient lists and doing more research of dog food brands. All of these issues have also eroded pet owner trust and brand loyalty.

Given the influence of pet humanization on dog food buying behavior, psychographic variables related to dog owners’ relationship with their dogs can be used as a basis of meaningful market segments. Boya et al.,3 building on their previous research, found three distinct segments of dog owners in which dog owners rated their relationships with their dogs in terms of dog-oriented self-concept and anthropomorphism. Dog people strongly identify with their dogs, define themselves in terms of their relationship with their dogs and treat their dogs like people. Dog parents still anthropomorphize their dogs, who are part of the family, but are less likely to define themselves in terms of their dogs. Pet owners see their dogs as pets who are part of the family but are treated distinctly differently than are children. These dog owners are least like to humanize their pets.

The researchers then analyzed the criteria each group of dog owners used when choosing and buying dog food. Dog people put the most importance on health/nutrition, quality and freshness of their dogs’ food. These dog owners were also concerned about how the food tastes to their dogs and how much variety their dogs are getting in their diets. Dog parents placed importance on health/nutrition, quality and freshness, but their ratings were significantly lower than those of dog people. Finally, pet owners put the most importance on health/nutrition and quality, but assigned significantly lower ratings than dog parents.

Ultimately, the studies referenced here support the use of psychographic variables — the strength of the human–animal bond — to segment the diverse universe of U.S. dog owners. Adding in pet owner psychographic variables where appropriate can help you and your marketing team better understand exactly who your audience is and create products, services and communications that resonate with them. If you’d like to know more about how we can help your brands, drop us a note or give us a call.


  1. Boya UO, Dotson MJ, Hyatt EM. Dimensions of the dog–human relationship: A segmentation approach. J Target Meas Anal Mark. 2012;20:133-143.
  2. Tesfom G, Birch N. Do they buy for their dogs the way they buy for themselves? Psychol Mark. 2010;27:898-912.
  3. Boya UO, Dotson MJ, Hyatt EM. A comparison of dog food choice criteria across dog owner segments: an exploratory study. Int J Consum Stud. 2015;39:74-82.