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Is pet ownership better measure of progress?

By XN Iraki | July 19th 2016
A pet country club in London, Canada. When are we setting up such clubs? [PHOTO: XN IRAKI]

NAIROBI: Gross domestic product (GDP) is the sum of the value of all goods and services produced in a country in a given year.

Policy makers, economists, politicians and even ordinary citizens want this GDP to grow as fast as possible because it translates into higher standards of living espoused by more choices, longevity and hopefully happiness.

But GDP growth has been criticised for under-estimating the size of economies because it does not capture all the data. That why it is often rebased.

Many domestic workers work under the statistical radar. Lots of illegal businesses are not captured by national statistics, and in some countries they make up as much as a quarter of GDP. That includes prostitution, organised crime and fraud.

In developing countries like Kenya, GDP is a less accurate measure than in developed countries that keep very good statistical data.

Other people argue that the complexity of calculating GDP puts people off. As individuals, we rarely refer to GDP growth to gauge the state of the economy, we rely on our feelings. That is why despite a stream of good data from the Government on economic growth, lots of people might not feel it.

Can we get alternatives to the mass of data in GDP?

One good suggestion is the number of pets in the country. Have you noted that there more Kenyans walking their dogs? It is no longer a mzungu thing.

National aspirations

Does ownership of pets indicate the economy is doing well? Since pets are visible, they could be a more objective measure of the improvements in GDP.

Kenyans will quickly add that only a few people own pets, some of which go for as much as Sh50,000 — more expensive than a cow.

They will add that ownership of pets, from cats to dogs, shows we are getting more unequal.

They may not be entirely wrong.

Pet ownership can be a proxy measure of economic growth or national aspirations. You cannot own a pet if you cannot feed your children.

Inequality aside, pet ownership means you have moved to a higher indifference curve. Those who own pets may not have lots of money, but they are aspiring to have it.

Owning pets often means you have fewer children because pets compete not just for your time and attention, but also space. Most pets live in the house. In which estates or suburbs do you find dogs being taken for walks?

It is contestable if the dog that guards you is considered a pet. As we get more affluent, pets also change, from just cats and dogs to exotic animals, like rattle snakes and tortoises to lizards and even monkeys. There is a thriving business in exotic pets, both legal and illegal.

In developed countries, they have taken pet keeping to another level; they even have pet country clubs where you can leave your pet when you travel, of course at a fee.

Pet ownership has also been construed as a sign that we are becoming more insular, preferring the company of animals, not human beings.

That might be true to some extent. As we grow older, we find ourselves lonelier as children move out and friends drift. Pets provide great and unconditional companionship.

Though statistics are hard to come by, casual observation shows that the number of pet owners is going up. It is another clear indicator that Kenya is a growing economy, or that we never cease to aspire to greater things.

It would be interesting to find out how many Kenyans own each type of pet.

In the US, in 2012, about 36.5 per cent of households owned a dog, 30.4 per cent cats, 3.1 per cent birds and 1.5 per cent horses, the American Veterinary Association found.

Status symbol

In 2015, $60.3 billion (Sh6.1 trillion at current exchange rates) was spent on pets in the US, says the American Pet Products Association. The North American Pet Health Insurance Association reports that North America’s pet health insurance sector had combined total premiums of $660.5 million (Sh66.9 billion) in 2014.

In Australia, in 2013, about 63 per cent of Australians owned pets, with 39 per cent of households owning a dog and 29 per cent owning a cat.

In 2012, about 24.9 per cent of Japanese households live with either a cat(s) or dog(s).

Do you own a pet? What is the name? How much did you buy it at? What are its maintenance costs?

Pet ownership is the new status symbol and could revive some old professions like veterinary medicine, while pet food, insurance and breeding will start thriving. Pet clinics will soon become common.

It seems as we become more affluent, we get new companions that are more submissive and less demanding: pets. In Kenya, the age of pet companionship is just begging to begin ....

The writer is senior lecturer, University of Nairobi.

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