Pet Projects

5 ways to unleash profits in the $10 billion pet industry.
Magazine Contributor
9 min read

This story appears in the May 1998 issue of . Subscribe »

Fifty-nine percent of all American households have pets, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. This translates into $10 billion per year in revenues for pet-related businesses, and animal-loving entrepreneurs are discovering more and more products and services to keep the industry growing. Here's a rundown of five hot pet businesses to start now.

Karen Roy is a freelance business writer in Richmond, California.

Dog Obedience Training

Dennis Owens has been training dogs since he was a teenager. Unable to find an experienced trainer to apprentice with, he learned by working at an animal hospital, then volunteering at the local American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) until they hired him.

"Early on, there weren't a lot of people willing to share information, but that's changed," Owens says. The behavior lecture circuit is a lively place these days, and even Owens, with his 14 years of experience, still attends seminars. "Be open to learning what animal behavior is all about," the Cross River, New York, entrepreneur advises would-be trainers.

Trainers' success depends on their people skills. A good trainer must be an effective teacher and counselor; marketing, too, requires a personal touch. Owens gets most of his business through networking with local groomers and vets, and through the American Dog Trainers Network.

A budding trainer can start part time, teaching group classes in basic obedience for adult dogs. Owens charges up to $125 per hour for private consultations. But don't be tempted by these lucrative jobs until you know you can handle the aggressive dogs you're likely to encounter.

Dennis Owens, 31
Owensdale Dog Training Inc.
Year Started: 1995
Start-Up Costs: $5,000
1997 Sales: $35,000

Mobile Grooming

After 15 years as a veterinary technician, starting his own pet business was natural for Frank Weag, founder of Professional Mobile Groomers International in Union, New Jersey. When the vet he worked for retired, Weag bought a struggling mobile grooming business and turned it around--to the tune of $125,000 a year.

If you're starting from scratch, you have to build up to that income, says Weag, who charges $50 for a basic shampoo and clip and typically handles eight to 10 dogs per day. Making the rounds of vets' offices and pet shops to generate referrals is key to success.

Weag suggests keeping costs low by buying a used van; a converted van with fewer than 75,000 miles on it goes for about $15,000. Keep the van looking sharp, though, because it's a moving advertisement.

Cynthia Albritton, 24, owner of Albritton's Quick Clips Mobile Grooming in Montgomery, Alabama, used a $5,000 bank loan to buy a used van and a generator. A friend helped her cut a 50-gallon drum in half, mount it on a steel frame and lay down molding to make a bathtub.

Mobile grooming may be in its infancy, Weag says, but one visit to a trade show will convince anyone it's a rapidly expanding segment of the pet industry. In a world clamoring for convenience, that's no surprise.

Frank Weag, 56
Professional Mobile Groomers International
Year Started: 1997
Start-Up Costs: $25,000
1997 Sales: $125,000


Debbie Laughlin's Housecalls Pet and Home Services in San Ramon, California, specializes in providing the kind of in-home medical care pet owners usually handle themselves but don't want to ask a friend to do while the they're away. That can include giving insulin injections or providing after-care following surgery.

Almost all Laughlin's clients are referred by veterinarians. "Anyone who loves pets can be an expert at caring for them, as long as they have initiative and self-motivation," Laughlin says. Proof positive: Laughlin, who offers Housecalls as a business opportunity, has 11 licensees running their own businesses under the Housecalls name.

Laughlin charges clients about $15 per visit. How to learn the basics? She advises volunteering at an animal hospital and taking first-aid classes for pets. "Meet with the clients and watch how they handle the pets," she suggests. "Do the [procedure] exactly the way the owner does it." If you're not comfortable offering medical services, don't worry; there are plenty of pets who simply need to be fed, looked after and played with while their owners are away.

"People have to understand they'll be giving up their holidays and weekends [to run this business]," Laughlin warns, because pet-sitters work while the rest of the world plays. That also makes it a good business to start part time, but be sure you have a steady source of income while building a clientele. A reliable car will be your biggest expense. It's also a good idea to have backup, so plan on either working with a partner or hiring someone.

Debbie Laughlin, 44
Housecalls Pet and Home Services
Year Started: 1981
Start-Up Costs: $2,500
1997 Sales: $230,000

Dog Walking

Dog-walking is a slightly different service from pet-sitting. Clients consist mainly of busy professionals who want their dogs exercised during the workday. It's a great part-time business with fairly stable midday hours, Mondays through Fridays.

The sort of person who enjoys being a dog walker is someone who likes to drive and doesn't mind being out in all kinds of weather, says Christine Nehrenz, 28, owner of A Walk in the Park in San Francisco. Besides having excellent dog-handling skills, you'll need people skills and a vehicle large enough to hold several dogs.

Nehrenz recommends starting with one client and adding more as you gain experience. She now takes groups of mostly well-behaved dogs to a fenced park, charging $10 per walk for the first dog and $5 per additional dog in a household. Other dog walkers provide on-leash walks for several dogs at a time.

Nehrenz says the best marketing is a business-card-sized ad in the Yellow Pages. "You don't need that many clients to support yourself, and there's always room for another dog walker," she says. "I don't know anyone who has a hard time getting clients once they start advertising." Start-up costs are minimal, with advertising being the biggest expense, says Nehrenz, who started with $350 in 1996. She also recommends spending $50 to get your business bonded; it's a good way to gain credibility.

Nehrenz posted sales of $24,000 last year, working half time. She plans to expand her business by adding an employee and says another way to make more money is to also offer pet-sitting. "I know people who combine dog-walking with pet-sitting and make $40,000 to $50,000 a year," she says.

Lorraine Zdeb of the National Association of Professional Pet Sitters urges entrepreneurs not to jump into business before getting experience. "Learn how to handle animals by working at a kennel or a shelter first," Zdeb says. "It's not the money--it's the care of the animal that counts."

Christine Nehrenz, 28
A Walk in the Park
Year Started: 1996
Start-Up Costs: $350
1997 Sales: $24,000

Marketing Pet Products

Mail order company Legacy By Mail Inc. started in 1996 with $2,500 and a desktop-published catalog, selling two dog toys and a line of dog books written by co-owner Terry Ryan. In less than two years, the Kula, Hawaii, company--owned by Terry Ryan, 49; Bill Ryan, 52; Karla Kimmey, 47; and Larry Kimmey, 62--has expanded, adding its own products and becoming the exclusive distributor of several lines of pet treats and toys. A top seller, the company's Canis Obnoxious line includes T-shirts, polo shirts and sticky notes with cartoons of dogs smoking and wearing leather jackets.

Legacy's customers range from new dog owners to those who've been dog lovers for years, and include many instructors and pet rescue organizations; all told, customers shelled out $100,000 for the company's wares last year. Legacy reaches customers via a constantly updated Web site, a professionally produced catalog and quarterly postcard mailings.

Funda Alp of the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association says that although the pet products industry is competitive, there's still room for people with creative ideas and marketing know-how to grow successful companies. Many entrepreneurs start with just one product, often something they made for their own pets. A vital next step, according to Alp: attending pet trade shows, where pet-shop owners and buyers for big chains seek new products. Trade shows also give you a chance to check out new ideas; Alp says hot sellers now include handmade toys and natural treats.

"You have to be willing to do whatever it takes," says Karla Kimmey, citing her family's upcoming relocation from Hawaii to the mainland in order to take Legacy to the next level. If you've got that kind of commitment and a love for animals, you're sure to find plenty of start-up opportunities in the pet industry.

Terry Ryan, 49; Bill Ryan, 52; Karla Kimmey, 47; Larry Kimmey, 62
Legacy By Mail, Inc.
Year Started: 1996
Start-Up Costs: $2,500
1997 Sales: $100,000

For More Information . . .

Want to know more about pet businesses? Check out these sources.


  • Professional Mobile Groomers International, 936 Potter Ave., Union, NJ 07083; (888) 764-4123

Training and Behavior:


  • National Association of Professional Pet Sitters, 1200 G St. N.W., #760, Washington, DC 20005; (202) 393-3317;

Pet Products:

  • American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, 255 Glenville Rd., Greenwich, CT 06831; (203) 532-0000;

Contact Sources

A Walk in the Park, (415) 289-7930

Albritton's Quick Clips Mobile Grooming, (334) 263-2076

Housecalls Pet and Home Services, (510) 328-0500,

Legacy by Mail Inc., (888) 876-9364,

National Association of Professional Pet Sitters, (800) 296-PETS, (908) 707-1956

Owensdale Dog Training Inc., (914) 763-9608,

Professional Mobile Groomers International, (888) 764-4123, (908) 687-8868

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