Why I wrote ‘Pet Nation’
America’s love affair with companion animals is now engrained in society. The millennial and Z generations have made sure of that.
In May 2018 I got a phone call from a nonfiction literary agent. My Manhattan brother knew Kitty Cowles and said she might call me. I was surprised, but I knew her credentials, so I also was intrigued. Her message was simple: Major New York publishers wanted a book written that told the story of how the culture of pets in America had radically transformed in just a generation. They wanted an insider’s account, hopefully readable, containing all the facts, figures, stories, controversies, humor and challenges. I qualified as an insider and signed a contract to write “Pet Nation,” which hits the streets Sept. 8.
The Back Story
I’ve been involved with the pet industry, mainly on the health care side, since 2005, when a microchip coalition hired me to lobby Congress. That turned out well. By 2010, I was devoting all my time to this fascinating industry, from helping veterinary colleges become accredited to lobbying legislatures and state veterinary boards, tackling animal welfare issues of interest to my clients, and looking down the road to where pets were heading.
The next 10 years provided a window for me to view, and in some cases shape, how the world of pets was no longer dogs and cats hanging around a house or yard, but rather a transformative force in American society, culture and, most importantly, the lives of hundreds of millions of people.
Everything about pets and their owners (or pet parents) has changed over the past generation: where pets sleep, what they eat, what they wear, where they go (for dogs it’s pretty much anywhere), their role in media commercials (stars, and almost omnipresent). The list goes on.
That’s the story I wanted to write in “Pet Nation”: what happened, how it happened, where it happened and why. Plus, the legal and political battles triggered by the spontaneous movement, its impact on human health, the economic consequences (huge), the reshaping of veterinary care and a peek at Pope Francis I’s disturbing views on pets.
I didn’t just write about cats and dogs. Chapter 8 leads with the extraordinary story of Florida Keys boarded specialist Doug Mader, DVM, treating a 19-foot python whose owner drove from Texas to Los Angeles one Christmas just to see if Doug could save Monty’s life. (He did, and dramatically).
Part of the story is the disbelief or skepticism of many veterinarians and industry leaders. They thought we were witnessing a fad rather than an order of magnitude change that will endure. Readers will remember the years 2010 to 2015, a period when many thought the sky was falling, that veterinary schools should shrink or close, and that the future looked grim. Many were conditioned to think that veterinary medicine was a side attraction — interesting but not too important in the broader scheme of things.
In 2020, when pet populations grew during COVID-19, we understand that pets and their care are at the center of American culture and society. There’s no turning back; pet nation is a force of its own.
We’re the Lucky Ones
Writing a book while managing a day job isn’t the easiest thing I’ve ever done, but it’s probably the most fun I’ve had since playing high school sports. I’m sure writing a novel is an amazing experience, but nonfiction means you have to get your facts right and have enough to say to last 320 pages. Learning to write “Pet Nation” was enlightening — make that a blast — and the book could have been twice as long.
We’re all lucky to wake up every day with a job in the world of pets, no matter which part of the narrative we touch. And it’s only going to grow by leaps and bounds and get more complex and rewarding. The fundamentals of the human-animal bond ensure that the value of cats and dogs will never diminish. The willingness of millennials to pay for quality pet health care almost without regard for the costs provides a bright future for the veterinary industry and its professionals. The astonishing fact that 62% of all pets are now owned by millennials and Generation Zers is even more reassuring.
Where we go next is the challenge I cover in the final chapter. If pets do make people and communities better, then we have a long way to go in structuring American society and culture to allow everyone to enjoy these benefits.
Meanwhile, let me know what you think about “Pet Nation” and our pets by emailing me at [email protected].
Politics & Policy columnist Mark Cushing is a political strategist, lawyer and founding partner of the Animal Policy Group. He serves on the Today’s Veterinary Business editorial advisory board.