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Owning a pet is a rapidly growing feature of households across America. And there’s an amazing trend within this trend: many people now put pets first when buying a home. Let’s examine how serious pet ownership has become, and some of the magnificent benefits that come with our beloved dog, cat, even birds and fish, when they come into our lives.

According to the American Pet Products Association, 73 percent of millennials, the segment of the population aged 18-34 years, currently own a pet. They are the primary pet-owning demographic, and are 35 percent of all U.S. pet owners (baby boomers are at 32 percent). Maybe this explains why, in 2016, spending nationwide on pet food alone went up 22.5 percent to a total of $28.23 billion.

In a survey by, something we don‘t yet see here on our East End was discovered, or at least confirmed: that millennials in most of the U.S. are today the largest, single segment of new home buyers, even as they bear the huge burden of student loan debt (see my July 2, 2016 column, Who benefits from crushing levels of student debt facing today‘s graduates?). This survey also shows that 89 percent of millennials who bought a home so far this year own a pet. Further, 79 percent of all homebuyers who closed on a property this year said they would pass up an otherwise perfect home if it didn‘t meet the needs of their pets.

Confirming this is Money Mag‘s article of July 27, 2017, (“Millennials Are Buying Home Because of Their Dogs“) sharing results of a wide-ranging survey by SunTrust Mortgage. They asked recent homebuyers why they were buying their first home. In response, their dog was the third most commonly cited reason, above children and marriage. Only the need for more living space, and the chance to build equity came above their pet dog. This same national survey discovered that fully one-third of millennials who had already purchased their first home said they were significantly influenced by the need for space to have a dog.

Among these and other sources, reports are common of pet owners‘ giving up a condo because a dog or cat is unhappy — and buying a house. The big thing with dogs is a good back yard and with cats, where their litter box will go. Owners with older pets express concern about stairs. And here‘s a factor to consider for Riverhead and similar downtown and village areas as they plan to attract young urban buyers who own no cars: in most other regions, increasing numbers of such buyers or renters seek neighborhoods with pet-friendly restaurants and nearby pet supply stores.

If you ask local brokers on the East End, as this writer did, about signs of these pet-conscious home-buying trends, they will tell you that they have not quite seen it yet, but are hearing more and more about it from “up-island” and throughout the Northeast. They add that most home sales in our neck of the woods are to working people or second-home buyers who are in the older-age demographics not as much a part of the pet-owning craze. They also notice anecdotally, however, the market research firm PackagedFacts tells us that aging baby boomers of today are more likely than previous generations to own pets.

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Another trend that attests to this rising priority for pets is that once millennials buy a house, they spend considerable money on home improvements for pets, such as pet doors, high fences, even basement pet-grooming facilities before their finished basement is completed. They often comment how they enjoy doing pet-friendly things together and that they hope to have children someday, but until then, caring for their dog or cat is both a joy and a good preparation for children.

Landlords in many regions of the U.S., according to CNBC, have been catering to this millennial trend for years, placing pet salons off lobbies in higher-end apartments and even off-leash dog runs on rental tower roofs. Back again to Riverhead, the hundreds of apartment units under (and soon-to-be-under) construction, though not in the high-end category, still reach for the millennial market. Hopefully these landlords will foresee the inevitable and be as pet-friendly as possible. Note the increasing popularity of off-leash dog parks in Riverhead and Calverton.

Even the science of pet ownership is driving its increasing popularity. A companion dog or cat provides real, measurable benefits to owners who suffer depression and other mental illness, according to BML Psychiatry‘s “narrative synthesis of the evidence” from 17 respected studies, posted online last February. Pets have been shown to aid in managing mental illness in “multi-faceted ways, especially in times of crisis.”

We are also warned of the psychological impact of losing a pet, as this writer and many readers have experienced. It is incredibly sad and heartbreaking. But the years of a pet‘s companionship give what professionals call a time of “intensively connected” relationships with their owners.

And so the pet-owning boom goes on. The Good News for Pets website tells us that 55 percent of U.S. households now own a pet. Particularly in the last 10 years, such households have increased by a conservative estimate of 9 million. PackagedFacts estimates there are over 67 million households with pets.

The increasing diversity of America‘s ethnicity is also a factor. The rising numbers in the Latino population and among multi-cultural consumers in the U.S. have much to do with this growth of pet ownership, not only of canines and felines, but also of caged birds. In fact, multi-pet households are on a dramatically rising trajectory of their own. In all, dogs are the most popular, followed by cats, and to a less degree, birds, aquarium fish and terrarium animals.

So it‘s no wonder that pet ownership is so much on the rise. It even reaches into guide dogs for the blind, the most common form of support animal. This form of pet ownership has started to move to aiding deaf owners, to diabetic alert dogs who recognize drops in blood sugar levels, and seizure alert dogs who can actually predict and respond to oncoming, epileptic fits. Studies as well have shown that pets at home are associated with lower rates of cardiovascular disease and even lower mortality. They motivate social support, physical activity, and the stress-relieving effects of animal companionship.

For those of you who consider whether to join this trend, and what breed of dog or cat to get, note that mixed breeds and rescue adoptions are generally as trainable as purebreds, according to the AKC. Mixed breeds may actually have an advantage with their lower incidence of genetic disorders compared to purebreds. And when it comes to purebreds, note that there are good reasons that the Labrador retriever has for several years been America‘s most popular breed.

In any case, consider the don‘ts governing pet ownership. Just some examples of the don‘ts with dogs: don‘t leave them tied up, outside or inside, and don‘t neglect to pick up after them; and with cats: to let them wonder freely outdoors is casting an invasive species into the wildlife environment, especially for songbirds. And don‘t neglect the patience and commitment to train them from the time they are puppies or kittens. Be sensible by getting familiar with the other “don‘ts” with pets. And weigh carefully about one negative aspect of pet ownership: for some, it can bring with it a practical and emotional burden.

Whatever you decide, for now, let‘s celebrate the surprisingly life-changing potential of the wonderful world of pet companionship.

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Greg has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He is a former Suffolk County Family Court judge, six-term Suffolk County legislator and commissioner of Social Services. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a board member of several charities. He lives in Jamesport. Email Greg