How to Start a Pet Business

If you love all the creatures of the earth, starting one of these pet-related businesses might put you on the path to success.
How to Start a Pet Business
Image credit: Dog Breeds Puppies

Editor's note: This article was excerpted from our Pet Businesses start-up guide, available from Entrepreneur Bookstore.

When you think back to your childhood, is there a warm and fuzzy memory of a four-footed or winged companion in whom you confided your deepest secrets? Do you gaze into pet-store windows and vicariously tickle the puppies under the chin? Or have you ever considered buying a sweater for your horse, some galoshes for your cat, or some Armor All for your armadillo? If so, then you understand what it means to be a pet lover-and that's probably why you're interested in starting a career in the pet-care industry.

As you no doubt know, we Americans are in love with our pets. In 2004, we spent $34.5 billion on our cats, dogs, birds, fish, horses and other pets, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association (APPMA). In 2005, that figure is expected to jump by another $1.4 billion, continuing a decade-long trend of pet-spending increases.

This is good news for aspiring pet-care business owners like you. No matter whether you're interested in providing hands-on pet care or selling pet products like toys, food and treats, the prospects for success in a pet-care business are excellent.

"The strong growth in the [pet-care] industry demonstrates what an important role pets are playing in the lives of Americans," says Bob Vetere, APPMA COO and managing director. "They have become a part of the family. Spending across all sectors, from pet food and veterinarian care to toys and treats, reflects what lengths we are willing to go to for our pets."

It's not hard to figure out why pets are so pampered and integral to people's lives. They bring us joy, they love us unconditionally, and they even lower our blood pressure and give us a sense of well-being. They also fill the aching void left when children leave the nest or a spouse dies; for childless couples, a pet is "someone" on whom to lavish affection and gifts. Many people consider their pets their "kids," and even relate to them better than they do to people!

This love of pets is also often the reason why people decide to start pet-care businesses. "We started our business with the intent to help animals and to point people in the right direction to help animals," says John Zambelli, owner of, an online pet-food business in Elmwood Park, New Jersey, that specializes in all-natural pet food. "By feeding pets properly, you give them a good shot at a healthful life. This type of business was the right thing to do for us, and we knew the money would follow."

In the Pet Businesses start-up guide, you'll find the advice you need to start one of five different types of pet-products and pet-service businesses that are in demand today: pet sitting/dog walking, dog training, pet grooming, pet-food sales and upscale pet products. Each of these businesses can be started as homebased enterprises with a fairly low financial investment. Two can be started as strictly internet businesses to really keep costs low. And all of them can be launched and run successfully by the owner, without any assistance from employees-at least until the time comes when you want to grow and expand the business beyond what you can personally handle.

Read on for a look at the five types of pet-care businesses discussed.

Pet Sitting/Dog Walking
If you are charmed by all things furred, feathered and finned, this is the profession for you. As a professional pet sitter, you will care for people's pets while they're away, either for the day or for longer periods of time like during vacations or business trips. Pet sitters play with their charges, feed them, brush them, and possibly give them medication or injections. They often offer other services to make life easier for their customers, like cleaning up accidents and changing cat litter boxes, bringing in newspapers and mail, watering plants and taking out trash.

Dog walkers take pooches out for their daily constitutional one or more times a day, either individually or in small groups. In some cities across the United States, like New York, dog walking alone can be a booming business. But it's actually more common for dog walkers to offer additional services, including playing with and feeding pets, bringing in newspapers and mail, and turning lights on and off.

Both pet sitting and dog walking are still in their infancy as recognized professions. According to an industry expert, only 3 percent of households nationally use a pet sitter or dog walker. Even so, that adds up to 50 million to 60 million visits annually, according to the same source-and that number is on the rise. In fact, the outlook for pet sitters and dog walkers has never been better. Some estimates put the number of bonded and insured pet-sitter businesses nationwide at 10,000 (regrettably, there are no stats on the number of dog walkers).

The field is wide open, so now is a great time to jump in with both paws.uh, feet!

Dog Training
Part instruction, part psychology, the field of dog training requires great people skills as well as a love of canines. Dog trainers will tell you that you're not just training the pooches-you're also training the folks who live with them. So you have to be able to talk to them kindly, deal with them patiently and reinforce their behavior-then do the same with their furry friends. While a background in psychology can be helpful, a true love of both people and pets and a desire to help them goes a long way to ensure success in this career.

While there are no statistics on the number of dog trainers in the country because the profession is not licensed, the Association of Pet Dog Trainers has about 5,000 members. And with an estimated 74 million dogs in America, there's lots of room for good trainers to enter the field.

Pet Grooming
From bathing and clipping to tying bows and cleaning ears, the nation's approximately 50,000 to 70,000 pet groomers do more than just change pets' appearance-they also make them feel better both physically and psychologically. The loving touch of a groomer can calm a skittish pet, reassure a frightened pet, and make a well-adjusted pet wriggle with pleasure. In addition, groomers are often the first to notice that a pet has a skin condition, ear mites or other medical issues that should be brought to the attention of a veterinarian.

In addition to having a true love of animals and enough physical strength to lift big boys and girls onto grooming tables and into tubs, groomers must be behaviorists who know how to handle biters and scratchers. They also need the same kind of patience and good humor when relating to pet owners, so a general love of humankind is a necessary trait for a groomer.

Demand for pet groomers is expected to rise 12 percent by 2010, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics., the industry's largest internet resource, reports that career opportunities are nearly endless because there are more than 4,000 dogs and cats for every U.S. grooming business-making this a great time to be considering this field.

Pet Food/Treats
Whether it's brick-and-mortar or virtual, a pet store that specializes solely in pet food and treats can be a great moneymaker. Many pet owners today are willing to spend top dollar to buy the best of everything for their "fur children," including food and treats. Your challenge, then, is to find a niche, such as all-natural food products, and offer a wide assortment so you can position yourself as a leading provider of these items.

And you'll have plenty of products to choose from. There are all-natural (that is, human-grade) foods, specialty foods for diabetic pets or pets with kidney problems, and raw-food diets, as well as food for pet birds, livestock and exotic animals like snakes. There are even bakeries that specialize in making dog biscuits and other tasty treats. In addition, some pet-food stores choose to stock other pet-related products, like collars and leashes. Whether you should do so, too, depends on how much you can afford to sink into your inventory and how much room you have to stash the products until they're purchased or shipped out.

According to statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 15,890 pet and supply establishments in 2001 (the latest year for which data is available), with sole proprietorships numbering 7,945. The Census Bureau doesn't capture information about how many of these establishments are internet-based, but you can be sure that no matter how many there were then, the number is growing now because an online store is such a cost-effective way to start a pet-food business. There's virtually no building overhead if you work out of your home, and it's possible to make arrangements with manufacturers to drop-ship product (that is, arrange shipping directly from the manufacturer to your customer) so you don't even have to store and ship the product yourself. All you need is a merchant account to accept credit card payments or a PayPal account, and you can ship products all over the world.

The cost to establish a site-based store obviously is higher, but it may be the right choice for some. By specializing in one type of product, you can keep the store fairly simple (basically, four walls with shelves). The key will be to find a good location and the right product mix, as well as a great staff to assist you when it comes to keeping the business running.

Upscale Pet Products
The urge to splurge on pet clothes, toys and other goodies has been around for a while now. But ever since Hollywood starlets started carrying their pooches around in designer bags and tucking them in to sleep under silk comforters on custom-made beds (and getting press for doing so), the upscale pet-products industry has exploded. Doting owners can now adorn their pets with rhinestone tiaras, pearl collars and cashmere coats. They can wheel them around in luxury strollers or tuck them into glove-soft leather totes.

As with a pet-food business, it's possible to sell products to the public entirely through a website. But you could also sell exclusively to retail outlets like pet boutiques or pet stores. Or you can open your own retail location. If you establish a store and your product mix is truly exclusive and expensive, you'll probably be more successful if you open in a resort area, in or near an upscale neighborhood (can you say, "Rodeo Drive?"), or in an exclusive mall. The rent in the locations may be very pricey, but it will be worth it when you reach people with a lot of discretionary income and the desire to lavish it on their best friend(s). Some of these business owners choose to manufacture the products they sell, which you'll find out later isn't as difficult as it might seem. "Manufacturing gives you more control," says Exton, Pennsylvania, pet-product manufacturer Joyce Reavey. "I know I won't run out of inventory, and I always know what the quality is like. That's important to me."


How to Start a Pet Business

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