Exclusive Research

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  • 1 in 4 dog owners, equal to at least 2.4 million Brits, fear their vet judges their pet care – 1.8 million cat owners feel the same way
  • The average dog walk lasts 40 minutes, which may not be long enough for more active breeds
  • The majority of dogs (53%) are left alone for 4 or more hours per day – longer than the maximum recommended time
  • It’s only when leaving their dogs alone for 7 hours that the majority of people feel guilty
  • 16% of millennials leave their dogs alone for 7 or more hours, longer than any other age group. They also worry the most about their vet’s opinion of their care
  • Forty percent of dog owners and 30% of cat owners don’t realise their pet is overweight or obese

Each of the U.K.’s 17 million1 dogs and cats has a unique personality and its own particular preferences and needs. Most of us know the basics of keeping our pets happy, such as making sure they’re well-fed, frequently-walked and not left wanting in the belly rub department (some cats may vary). But how many of us are unknowingly falling short in how we care for our four-legged friends despite our best efforts, either due to our busy lives or simply not realising what it takes to keep our pets healthy and happy? 

We surveyed 1,000 dog and cat owners to find out how we love our pets and sometimes let them down.

 

While your vet checks your pet’s nails, are you biting yours? One in four dog owners (27%) in our survey said they worry their vet personally judges them for how well they look after their dog. Applied to the entire population of the U.K., that means there are at least 2.4 million dog owners who fret about their visit to the vet.

Cat-people were slightly less likely to be concerned, with 1 in 5 cat owners (equal to about 1.8 million people) saying they feared the judgement of their vet.

Older pet owners are less likely to worry their vet judges them

To dig a little deeper, we compared levels of vet paranoia between generations. Baby Boomers (aged 54 - 72) were the least worried about their vet’s opinion of them (16% and 17% among dog and cat owners respectively). Millennials, on the other hand, were almost twice as likely to worry their vets judge them. Twenty percent of cat owners and 35% of dog owners aged 22 - 37 admitted they felt uneasy about their vet’s opinion of their canine or feline parenting skills. 

We wondered if older people are likely to have older dogs. If so, perhaps their pooches have lived long enough to make them feel like they must be doing an okay job. But the age of the dog (or cat) made no difference to the guilty feelings of its owner. Instead, it seems our lifestyles could be the cause of our concern, as dog owners said not giving their pet enough exercise was their number one reason for feeling guilty about how they look after them (33%), followed by inadequate companionship (28%).

To see if we’re right to worry about our pets’ exercise or if the problem is all in our heads, we asked our dog owners to describe every detail of their pets’ typical ‘walkies’.

 

Regular exercise isn’t just important for dogs, it’s essential for keeping them happy and healthy[2]. Walks keep your dog’s brain active and also help relieve stress. Unfortunately, for some dog owners, walkies can have the opposite effect. A long day at the office or a downpour of rain can mean a walk is too stressful to bear. According to our results, although most dogs get at least one walk each day, 1 in 5 doesn’t. That’s 1.9 million mutts who wait at least 48 hours between walkies.

The average dog walk lasts 40 minutes, which is roughly equal to a 2-mile stroll (based on an average walking speed of 3 miles per hour). However, with 2 out of 3 dogs unable to walk to heel, some owners might be dragged a bit further. 

Pounding the pavement – 250,000 dogs never walk on grass

Whether a 40-minute walk on average is best for your dog depends on their breed2, age, fitness and personality. For a Yorkshire Terrier or English Bulldog, 40 minutes per day could be just right. However, particularly active breeds such as Border Collies and German Shepherds could benefit from 2 or more hours of daily exercise. We found very little difference in average walk duration by dog breed. German Shepherds were walked for an average of 42 minutes (versus a recommended 2+ hours), which was only 10 more minutes than Shih Tzus (32 minutes versus a recommended 20 minutes).

Despite most of us walking our dogs once a day, we may not always be going the extra mile they need. Many of us would like to do more but feel unable to – 7 out of 10 dog owners would like to give their dogs more interesting walks. Once more, millennials are most likely to wish they could up their game, with 82% saying they’d like to make walkies more varied and stimulating, compared to 39% of Baby Boomers. 

We found a link between average walk duration and the level of guilt pet owners feel about their dogs walks. People who feel guilty about their dogs’ level of exercise walk them for 10 minutes less per day on average than those who don’t feel any guilt.

To avoid the same negative feelings, some cat owners are willing to bear the bemused and suspicious expressions of onlookers – 1 in 3 has taken their cat for a walk on a lead or would be willing to give it a go.

Most dog owners know the feeling of coming back from an energetic walk with their dog (probably covered in mud and carrying several oversized sticks they can’t bear to part with) and feeling that they’ve cleared their pet’s ‘walk debt’. They can relax for another day without feeling too guilty. But how long can we actually go before our consciences are overpowered by the shame of keeping our pets locked up indoors?

 

The longer we leave our dogs home alone, the more guilty we feel about the quality of companionship we offer them. When we leave our dog alone for an average of 1 hour per day, 1 in 8 of us feels guilty. The number increases every hour longer we’re out of the house. It’s at the 7-hour mark that the majority of owners feel guilty about leaving their dogs alone. Millennials, stuck in the office or otherwise out of the house for long periods, are the most likely to leave their dogs alone for more than 7 hours at a time (16%), whereas Baby Boomers are the least likely (5%). In fact, nearly 1 in 5 Baby Boomers said they never leave their dog alone...at all. 

Dogs Trust recommends3 that dogs aren’t typically left alone for more than 4 hours per day because they get bored, stressed and, put simply, they miss you. In fact, if you have a full-time job and the dog would be left alone all day, you usually can’t adopt through Dogs Trust. Nevertheless, our results show that the majority of dogs (53%) are left alone for 4 or more hours per day, despite Dogs Trust's recommendation. As mentioned above, it’s not until the 7-hour mark that most dog owners feel bad about how long they leave their canine companions. 

It’s less common to think of cats being under-exercised – there’s even a term for those that never venture outdoors: house cats. But owners could be underestimating their cats’ desire for adventure. One in 20 cats never shows an interest in going outside, but a much higher proportion of 1 in 5 cat owners never lets their cat go outside. Of that group, most people said their pet was an indoor cat, but other reasons included a fear it could be hit by a car (12%) and worrying their neighbour might steal it (8%). 

When our pets are at home, they’re safe from the outside world, but after a while, the stress can lead to separation-related behaviours. These are signs your pet is going stir-crazy and would do anything for a bit of adventure.

 

Constantly begging for food was the top problem behaviour reported by our dog and cat owners (24% and 29% respectively). This behaviour is an understandable by-product of our pets’ animal nature, although there are ways to train a dog to not beg at the table4 (again, cats may vary). 

Other troublesome behaviours could be signs your pet has separation anxiety from leaving them alone for too long. One in five people told us their dog barks excessively, equal to around 1.9 million dogs across the U.K.

Missing equals messing – 950,000 dogs do their business indoors

Messing indoors is a problem for 11% of dog and cat owners, which can be a sign of improper training if it happens when you’re at home but could signal separation anxiety if it occurs more often while you’re away. Giving your dog some exercise just before leaving him or her alone for a bit can help prevent them from feeling bored and anxious in your absence. 

It can also be worth researching subtler signs your pet might be feeling unwell. For example, only 31% of dog owners we polled knew that yawning can sometimes be a sign a dog is feeling stressed. 

You don’t have to be a pet whisperer to notice more obvious signs your dog or cat isn’t as well as they could be. One of the clearest warnings they’re unhealthy is if they’re overweight.

 

Pet obesity is classed as a disease in dogs just as it is in people. The difference, of course, is that dogs don’t choose what they eat – we choose for them. Vets estimate that pet obesity is on the rise5, with more than half of dogs and almost half of cats estimated to be overweight. 

It’s one thing knowing your dog or cat is overweight, but it’s arguably worse if they’re overweight and you have no idea. Forty percent of the dog owners and 30% of the cat owners we surveyed don’t realise their pet is overweight or obese. 

Some people have tried to help their pets battle the bulge – 29% of dog owners and 20% of cat owners have put their pet on a diet at some point to manage its weight.

Summary

Our dogs and cats are members of the family, but because they can’t verbalise their wants and needs, it can sometimes be easy to overlook some of the ways we could make them happier and healthier. 

The fact that 1 in 4 dog owners and 1 in 5 cat owners worry their vet judges their quality of care shows many of us know we’re letting down our four-legged friends or fear we might be. Our results suggest it’s our lifestyles that are most likely to get in the way. Young professionals who are cash-rich but time-poor find it the hardest to walk their dogs as often as they should and keep them company at home. It’s made many millennials splurge on gadgets6 and treats for their pets such as ‘pawsecco’ and foam mattresses, but getting the basic welfare needs right is most important, including companionship, exercise and diet. 

And if you can’t tick every box yourself, think about getting a helping hand. Dog walkers and pet sitters are more popular than ever, with some services7 allowing you to view a GPS map and slideshow photos of your dog’s walk.

Methodology

We surveyed 1,000 dog owners and cat owners in the UK in November 2018. We asked pet owners to describe how they care for their dog or cat and tell us their main concerns about the care they provide. Dog or cat owners who had more than one pet were asked to focus on the pet whose name came first alphabetically, to randomly select from their pets without biasing their responses towards pets they are most or least concerned about. Estimates of the number of dogs and cats in the UK shown in our results were calculated based on cat and dog population size estimates from PFMA’s Pet Data Report 2018, as well as estimates on the number of households that have a pet plus number of pets per household. To estimate how many pet owners don’t realise their pet is overweight, we compared responses from our survey takers with cat and dog obesity rates published in PFMA’s Pet Data Report 2018.

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Sources

  1. https://www.pfma.org.uk/_assets/docs/annual-reports/PFMA-Pet-Data-Report-2018.pdf
  2. https://www.petmd.com/dog/wellness/evr_dg_exercising_with_your_dog101
  3. https://www.dogstrust.org.uk/help-advice/factsheets-downloads/factsheettimeforadog05.pdf
  4. https://pets.webmd.com/dogs/guide/begging-table-dogs
  5. PFMA’s Annual Reports from 2011 to 2018: https://www.pfma.org.uk/annual-reports
  6. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/oct/27/millennials-pampered-pets-pyjamas-cakes
  7. https://www.standard.co.uk/tech/dog-walking-rover-london-how-to-use-a3888826