It apparently was the ideal holiday-time, eye-tearing, heart-sobbing story. How could anyone not feel compassion for both the people hit by the terrible economy, forced to give up their beloved pets, and those unaffordable pets that might face death? But the real fact was that Americans overwhelmingly were not giving up their pets, despite hard economic times. The good news was that the bad news reported was false.
We expect fake news on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, but not from the world's largest and oldest news organization. A false news story in our newspapers and on our TV and radio stations is just like a product that fails or a food that poisons or medical malpractice. We have a right to feel violated and abused. And this one came not from the Internet or bloggers, but the mainstream media.
My purpose here is to demonstrate that the AP story was slanted and incomplete, producing a story line hoax, designed to sell well in the Christmas season.
To begin with, this is what the AP story said: "An Associated Press-Petside.com poll found that one in seven owners nationwide reported reduced spending on their pets during the past year's recession. Of those cutting back, more than a quarter said they have seriously considered giving up their pet." Note the phrase "seriously considered." That is far different than people actually giving up their pet. The full survey results at petside.com gave more complete information and a different conclusion.
The AP-Petside.com poll actually found that most respondents (85 percent) are not cutting back on pet care expenses due to economic pressures, which in itself is pretty interesting news. In other words, six in seven owners did not report reduced spending on their pets. Also, lower-income pet owners are twice as likely to have had to make cuts as higher-income owners (20 percent versus. 11 percent), which makes sense.
Among the 15 percent reducing pet-related expenditures, cutbacks could be significant with half (54 percent) stating that they are deferring routine visits to the veterinarian, one in five (21 percent) putting off vet visits for serious problems, and one in four (27 percent) even considering giving up their pet due to financial difficulties the finding that formed the basis for the AP story. The most common cutback found was buying fewer toys and clothes for their pets, followed by switching to a cheaper type of food. Also, interestingly, pet owners planned to include their pet in holiday festivities, with 43 percent anticipating purchasing a holiday gift for their pet, 48 percent for dogs versus 28 percent for cats.
To be clear, the fraction of the total sample that considered giving up their pets was just 4 percent (27 percent of 15 percent)! Contrary to the headline, the finding from the survey told a very, very different story. In fact, the real news was that, despite hard-hitting economic times, 96 percent of pet owners were making whatever sacrifices and spending cuts were necessary to keep their pets.
But, in terms of marketing a news story, that positive finding would not have made such a successful Christmas story. Apparently, making Americans feel sorry for pet owners and their pets was deemed much more likely to sell than the more accurate, positive story that nearly all pet owners were finding ways to keep their pets. Gloom sells. So a more honest and upbeat headline, such as Despite Bad Economy, Few Americans Consider Giving Up Their Pets, was not used.
Of course, with millions of homes with pets, it is not difficult to find cases of people giving up their pets. According to the American Pet Products Association, there are some 231 million pets - excluding fish - in more than 71 million homes in America . So, even just 4 percent suggests the potential for 2.8 million homes giving up one or more of their pets. That's potential, not actual. Thus the AP story had no problem giving tear-jerk examples of people giving up their pets, just as some earlier local news stories in 2008 around the country had reported, including Florida , Iowa and Maryland . Facing yearly costs of hundreds or thousands of dollars for pet care, some cash-strapped people make the tough decision to give up their pets.
According to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, US spending on pets in 2007 was $41.2 billion, with 40 percent for food and 24 percent for vet care, and was expected to rise to $43.4 billion in 2008. So there really is a huge economic cost for pets that our failing economy could impact. Interestingly, a study reported in August 2008 by the Unilever company found that pet food was one of several product categories that Americans did not plan on cutting spending on because of the recession.
More good news: For pet owners, substantial information is available on ways to cut costs and free resources. Two main websites are hsus.org, the site of the US Humane Society, and petside.com, a site for pet owners.
Was the AP story fraudulent journalism? Yes, because, inevitably, most people responded to the story by forming the belief that a whole lot of Americans had already dumped their unaffordable pets or were planning to do so. Consumers of news got ripped off by the mainstream media, certainly not the first or last time. Worst of all, pet owners might have gotten the idea that giving up their beloved pets was becoming acceptable and justified.