The pet care boom during the pandemic

One of the biggest industry growth stories in the last 22 months has been pet food and services, and it shows no sign of slowing down

December 11, 2021 09:50 am | Updated 11:39 am IST

Rashi Narang, co-founder of Heads Up For Tails, with her dog Sara

Rashi Narang, co-founder of Heads Up For Tails, with her dog Sara

When a blind cat went missing in a Mumbai neighbourhood, the owners called Annukta Ganjoo, an animal communicator. With the help of a photograph, she connected telepathically with the animal and found the petrified feline on top of a concrete platform. The only clues to her location: a “mental image” of a well and five coconut trees. Searches came up empty, until someone recalled a well in the neighbouring colony. “And there, beside a garbage bin, she was sitting on a platform above a drainpipe. Next to her, five coconut trees,” Ganjoo tells me on a Saturday morning call. “These are the moments when I gain confidence in what I do,” she adds. Though she no longer takes on lost cases (“they drain me too much”), the pastry chef communes with dead animals and helps pet parents across the country decipher their companions’ needs.

Animal communicators Sai Charan and Annukta Ganjoo

Animal communicators Sai Charan and Annukta Ganjoo

The same evening, I speak with Sai Charan, a Bengaluru-based software engineer. An animal lover and avid hiker, he became an animal communicator in April 2020 — inspired partly by a video on South African interspecies communicator Anna Breytenbach. He saw Breytenbach on YouTube, and wanted to connect with his pets (a cat, two dogs, three birds and a turtle). Since then, he has helped locate several lost pets (he gets four to five cases a week, both lost cases and others), and consults with animal rescue groups. When I call him, he’s just finished a mission. “A streetie that a rescuer was feeding went missing. Since they didn’t have a photo, I went to the location to communicate with the landscape, and I realised that the BBMP [the civic body] had picked him up for sterilisation. When we went to their office, he was there.”

Quick, simple... and yes, mine are one of the many raised eyebrows that greet anecdotes like this.

Ashish Anthony, founder of Just Dogs

Ashish Anthony, founder of Just Dogs

Rise of the pet parent

But scepticism aside, animal communication is one of the many jobs that have been gaining popularity during the pandemic. As people stayed home, they adopted four-legged and feathered friends and exotic companions (everything from snakes, turtles and bearded dragons to Capuchin monkeys). This has led to a boom in pet care and pet-related services — much like the tech boom of 2020 — and shows no signs of flagging.

“Pre-pandemic, pet care was just another business. But that’s not the case anymore,” says Ashish Anthony, founder of Ahmedabad-based Just Dogs. “It’s no longer cool to call someone a dog owner; they are pet parents.” And pet parents need a strong ecosystem to help them be one. So, there are new apps and labs popping up now, trainers and behaviourists, groomers and nutritionists, pet food deliveries and raw meat subscriptions.

Aashish Mehrotra, who chronicles fun times with his pooches via #borktales on Instagram, is glad of this development. He adopted his second dog, Heidi, in April 2020. “She is a proper pandemic puppy,” he laughs. “Last year, she saw only two people [he and his partner Shweta]. “There were no people, not even doorbells ringing. Unlike her older sibling, Lucifer, she was very anxious to go out [for a walk, or to the vet],” Mehrotra adds.

Aashish Mehrotra with Heidi and his partner Shweta

Aashish Mehrotra with Heidi and his partner Shweta

So last December, when Heidi fell ill, he didn’t want to cart her around town. He relied on an app, PetKonnect, that offered vet services online and also helped him with pet insurance. Since then, he’s kept his eyes peeled for other online Samaritans. Lizzy’s Delicious (@lizzys.delicious) is one such discovery. “It is like a dabba service for dogs. Started in November 2020, they offer lovely meals and flavours such as pork pumpkin apple, steak and vegetables, which is so different from what is available in the market.”

The Bengaluru effect

The more people I talk to, a pattern emerges. While start-ups are launching across the country — think Delhi-based DannyDoo Pupcakes (@dannydoopupcakes), which offers gluten/grain-free gourmet treats, or Mumbai’s Carni Kitchen (@carnikitchen) that provides raw meat-based diet plans for dogs — the hub seems to be Bengaluru. All phone calls lead back to the city where pet boarders, groomers and trainers are mushrooming, and services such as dog walking (@bangaloredogwalkers) and dog sitting are picking up as people head back to the office. This isn’t surprising, says Anthony. “Because of the weather, it is the biggest breeding centre in India. It also has the highest pet penetration in the country.”

Pet adoption is on an upswing

Pet adoption is on an upswing

Take Supertails. The four-month-old digital platform for pet care and supplies announced a pre-Series A funding round of $2.6 million in July (actor Deepika Padukone is an investor). The one-stop pet care platform — “which provides pet supplies along with high-quality digital services such as healthcare and online training” — aims to provide what’s “lacking in the lives of new pet parents”, co-founder Varun Sadana has been quoted as saying.

A friend points me to other pandemic babies. Ever since my friend brought home a terrier-indie rescue with multiple health issues earlier last year, he’s been relying heavily on some of these new-age start-ups. Canine Craving, which offers 100% natural treats and chews, is a go-to. Though the company launched mid 2019, the pandemic was “the trigger”, says co-founder Sundeep Dhar. “We grew by 300%!” Dhar, originally a chef by education, had started developing supplements and dehydrated bones because his dogs — Casius, a boxer, and Bailey, a golden cocker spaniel, both rescues — have several health problems. Later, he quit his job at Wipro, where he led the procurement service line, to take his home experiments to a national market.

Sundeep Dhar and Swagata Paul of Canine Craving

Sundeep Dhar and Swagata Paul of Canine Craving

“The time was right. During the pandemic, we saw a major shift. There was more awareness among pet parents as people began going online to research what’s good for their pet. They started breaking out of the mafia of Pedigree, Royal Canin and the like [still the big players in the Indian pet food market], and began moving to things like a completely grain-free diet, which we champion.” (Proponents of grain-free believes that soluble carbohydrates can lead to several problems in dogs.) Today, Dhar retails on HUFT and Supertails, where his products often sell out the moment they are listed. “Anything unconventional that’s come up has come up over the pandemic,” he says, pointing to services like Meat Story (@themeat.story) that offers customised raw meat subscription plans or Pawfectly Made (@pawfectlymadeforpets), which offers vet-certified meals.

Malvika Manjunath and (right) Clare Pachuau at A Tiny Groomer

Malvika Manjunath and (right) Clare Pachuau at A Tiny Groomer

Corporates switching lanes

This has also meant an influx of new, and often surprising, talent into the Bengaluru pet pool. Clare Pachuau, 37, quit her job as a trainer at Hewlett-Packard to learn to be a groomer, and this July, she opened A Tiny Groomer in Madiwala, one of the oldest localities in Bengaluru with a strong middle and upper middle class population. “I’ve always wanted to do something with animals, but I didn’t know how to do that and make money. Then a friend introduced me to grooming,” she explains. The demand is very high, she notes, perhaps because despite work from home giving people more time with their pets, longer work hours mean they can’t do everything they want to. And pet parents don’t mind spending money (between ₹1,800 to ₹3,000 for a grooming session) to get it done. “People across demographics — from first-timers to older people — visit, and I’ve been grooming mainly Shih Tzus, Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds, Poodles, and cats like Persians and Himalayans.”

Also read |Pet care: cashing in on the boom

For others like Malvika Manjunath, it was a feeling of discontent that made her switch gears. The 38-year-old quit her high-profile job at Apple to become a full-time dog trainer this July. “The pandemic made me pause; it allowed me take a measure of where I am in life and what I want to do going forward,” she says. “I’d reached a point where it was less about the money and more about doing something I would enjoy.”

Having worked in California for more than a decade — “and experiencing life there with a pet and coming to India and seeing how they are here” — she felt desi pets deserve much better. She trained with Anvis Inc, a pet services company in Bengaluru, and is now a full-time employee with them. “I really enjoy my role because, besides training, I’m also involved in Anvis’ growth, striking deals and collabs. So the Apple side of me is still alive,” she says, adding that life’s a lot more fulfilling now and, of course, fun.

A dog trainer at work

A dog trainer at work

Where have the trainers gone?

Where there’s an up-tick in interest, however, there’s always a down side. (Let me not get into the heartbreaking rates at which pandemic pets are being abandoned as WFH ends. That’s a whole other story.) A point of concern is the sheer number of people getting into pet care. “When something scales really quickly, there is that want to be part of the hype. So, it is still something that many are doing in their free time, or as a passion project. I don’t see depth [in many of the start-ups],” says Rashi Narang, co-founder of premium pet care retail brand Heads Up For Tails.

Lack of training is a worry, as is the absence of a regulatory board to keep things in check. “It is a scary boom, especially in grooming, boarding and training. A lot of people who are not qualified are getting into these industries just because they are pet lovers,” says Leena Balak, a veteran Bengaluru-based groomer. “And I am seeing a lot of neglect.” Preeti Narayanan, a certified trainer with Anvis and co-founder of Happy Tailz (which makes board games for dogs), agrees.

Pet accessories from HUFT

Pet accessories from HUFT

With the growth of e-commerce and the onlining of education (how to become trainers, for instance), many are launching platforms without the prerequisite experience. She’s come across several start-ups that are running training courses based on databases of information that can fit any query, irrespective of what an animal’s individual needs are. “And this is worrisome,” she says. “[Faulty training] can feed into the loop of pets being abandoned because new pet parents can’t handle them. It used to happen before, and now it is going to get worse.”

Building a community

What is needed in India today is a focus on creating a pet parent community, on educating the consumer. As Manjunath puts it, abroad, there is a well-educated support system around pets — be it through trainers, retail stores, or just dedicated pet spaces. We need the same here. Big brands such as HUFT, Wiggles and Just Dogs are attempting this, as are players like Anvis. Maybe there’s a way to bring all their varied experiences and expertises together? Challenging for sure, but one can hope.

Strengthening the base

The big players are not staying idle amidst the start-up boom. They are using the opportunity to double down on what they are best at. HUFT, which raised $37 million in August, is focussing on building its online profile (widening the catalogue and tapping different customer segments) and expanding its retail footprint. “As we have many India-first products, physical stores are important to enable more discoverability,” says Narang, adding that eight new stores are coming up by December, including in Delhi, Bengaluru, Kochi, and Mumbai. “We are seeing a demand for spas, so all our stores will have one. And we are also co-locating with vets in a few places to see how that will go.”

Others like Just Dogs are strengthening their hyperlocal presence, too. Anthony — whose company made ₹70 crore in revenue in 2020-21, and is aiming for ₹100 crore this year — says he is adding to his 42 retail outlets across western and southern India, and is also tying up with warehouses that are compliant with food storage regulations to ensure his online offerings can reach customers without any hitches.

Anushka Iyer, founder-CEO, wiggles.in

Anushka Iyer, founder-CEO, wiggles.in

Meanwhile, Wiggles, which just raised $5.5 million, is being extremely proactive. Last year, they launched India’s first pet sanitiser and, within 72 hours of the lockdown, rolled out Smart Vet, a vet consultation service via video call. “Gen Z and millennials are dominating the pet market, and Wiggles is created for them,” says Anushka Iyer, the 20-something founder of the Pune-based pet preventative healthcare brand.

Her recent products, such as Stripzy, probiotic strips that melt in your pet’s mouth, or Cocotail, a healthy drink for dogs and cats made with coconut, chicken broth, and turmeric, are tuned into the new pet parents’ demands. “People are not afraid to experiment now, which shows the market is evolving.” In Iyer’s expansion plans, tier 2 cities will feature strongly, as will a focus on healthcare. “We will be channelling the funds to launch new products in the pharma and food space. We are eyeing the small animal market as well [think turtle food, which is in the pipeline].”

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