We delve into Bigeye’s national pet ownership study alongside Dr. Andrea Laurent-Simpson, examining the legal recognition of animals as sentient beings. We also investigate the impact of social media, with Bigeye’s Savannah Santiago explaining how she selects pet influencers. And we learn about medical breakthroughs that could extend the lifespans of dogs and humans. The multifaceted aspects of pet ownership and advertising: download the full report at bigeyeagency.com/pets-23
Adrian Tennant: Coming up in this episode of IN CLEAR FOCUS.
Andrea Laurent-Simpson: It’s not strange to me to see Gen Z using social media accounts for their pets to talk for and about their pets’ lived experiences.
Savannah Santiago: We definitely see more and more people incorporating pets into their wedding, which I think is such a beautiful thing. the incorporation of pets and weddings just further drives home the point that more and more people identify pets as members of the family.
Adrian Tennant: You are listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS – fresh perspectives on the business of advertising, produced weekly by Bigeye: a strategy-led, full-service creative agency growing brands for clients globally. Hello, I’m your host, Adrian Tennant, Chief Strategy Officer. Thank you for joining us today for the first episode of our eleventh season. This week we’re going to talk about the results from Bigeye’s second national study of pet ownership, which reflects responses from over a thousand pet owners nationwide. We’re joined again by Dr. Andrea Loren Simpson, a research assistant professor and lecturer in the Department of Sociology at Southern Methodist University. Dr. Laren Simpson is also the author of the book, Just Like Family: How Companion Animals Joined The Household. Andrea, welcome back to IN CLEAR FOCUS.
Andrea Laurent-Simpson: Thank you, Adrian.
Adrian Tennant: Regular listeners of IN CLEAR FOCUS know that we’ve been charting the rise of Influencer marketing for quite some time. Reflecting the widespread use of social media, you identified several pet Influencers in your book, Just Like Family. You also cited a 2016 study that then found 30 percent of owners followed pet Influencers. Well, the Bigeye study reveals that today, one-half of all owners do. Owners of multiple pets are a bit more likely at 54 percent, but the most likely to do so belong to the youngest cohort, Generation Z, among whom almost three in five But owners are not just following. Approaching one-quarter of owners also manage social media accounts on behalf of their pets. Dog owners are slightly more likely to do so than cat owners, but again, it’s Gen Z that leads: 36 percent manage social media accounts on behalf of their pets, in contrast to 11 percent of Gen X owners. And this also seems to be related to the owner’s environment. Urban pet owners are three times more likely to be hoping their pet becomes an Influencer than those in rural communities, and at 32 percent, male pet owners are 11 points more likely to be managing a pet’s account than female owners. Andrea, are you surprised how these numbers have increased and what does it tell us about the nature of social media and pet celebrity?
Andrea Laurent-Simpson: Well, what I would say is that this trend, especially for Gen Z, to be involved with social media just in general, I mean, your listeners know this as Gen Z has grown up on social media. So the Influencer piece is not surprising to me. It’s kind of Gen Z’s form of advertising. You think about television-based advertising, this is Gen Z’s form of advertising. And to see that there has been this dramatic increase in pet Influencers is not surprising either, because, as we’ve been talking about, there has just been this historical shift towards thinking of dogs and cats, in particular, in terms of personhood. Certainly, Clinton Sanders, who is a human-animal behaviorist, talked about how we talk for our pets. We talk about what their desires are, their needs, their wants. What their histories are, right? We talk for them. And as a result, it’s not strange to me to see Gen Z using social media in general and social media accounts for their animals, their pets to talk for and about their pets’ lived experiences. But I think that trend is also a response to others within the same generation who are also viewing dogs and cats as valuable members of the family, but not just valuable members of the family, valuable consumers – that really, what I think advertisers have to focus on is advertising to our pets now, not advertising to us as the owner. And so you see this in social Influencer accounts where you’ve got celebrity pets, and the pets are wearing particular clothes or eating particular food, or going to particular movies or whatever it happens to be, because what we are now perceiving, especially Gen Z’s perceiving dogs and cats as our actual consumers and these pet Influencers can help them to make money, right? So you talked about men versus women being more likely to have social media accounts and pet Influencer accounts, for their animals. This makes sense to me. There’s a greater kind of masculine focus on providing for and bringing money into a family. So utilizing dogs and cats in this way seems very gendered to me. It would make sense that more men were doing it. But really thinking about the pets as consumers, and then thinking about what their preferences and desires are, all of this is no surprise to me. I will say this too, I mean, Influencers are really all about marketing, right? In my mind, social Influencers are about marketing products. They get paid to market products sometimes in obvious ways, sometimes in unobvious ways. I think that this is probably more evidence for Gen Z, that through their modes of advertising, they are reproducing pets in a way that supports that pets are family and that the multi-species family is a new family structure, and that that family in and of itself is increasingly kind of spending on services for sure.
Adrian Tennant: In Bigeye’s study, one-half of all owners say they purchase costumes for their pets. Owners who follow pet Influencers are more than twice as likely to report having photos of their pets taken by professional photographers at 50% than owners who do not follow pet Influencers at 21 percent. Andrea, do you find this point interesting?
Andrea Laurent-Simpson: I think that pet owners who are more likely to be followers of social media accounts, especially social media accounts that mention professional pet photography, I think that going and buying that service and feeling justified in doing it because they’ve seen the reproduction of the multi-species families through social media advertising, helps them reinforce their perception of their dogs and cats as family members, as children. And it also rewards them, right? It gives them a good feeling because, “Here is my family, here’s the professional photography of my family,” and they are deserving of recognition as such. “My family has four legs. Yours has two, your children have two, mine have four. We’re all the same.” So Gen Z being the ones that are the most wrapped up in this, it’s very unsurprising to me, but interesting.
Adrian Tennant: Since the earliest print ads, animals have often been used in advertising. CPG brands’ distinctive assets include Tony the Tiger for Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, the Aflac duck, Chester Cheetah for Cheetos, and of course, the GEICO gecko. Domestic animals like dogs and cats are employed by advertisers to elicit emotional connections with consumers. Retail giant Target’s mascot is called Bullseye: a white dog with the Target logo painted around one. The insurance company MetLife used Snoopy, the beagle from the Peanuts comic strip, as their brand mascot for more than 30 years. And Bush’s Baked Beans commercials featured a talking golden retriever named Duke, always attempting to reveal the secret family recipe. Today’s social media has further expanded the role of animals in advertising with the rise of pet Influencers, allowing brands to capture consumers’ attention and build awareness in new ways. To discuss what this means in practice, I’m joined now by Savannah Santiago, Bigeye’s social media manager. Savannah leads our agency’s social media content creation team and manages partnerships with Influencers. Savannah, welcome to IN CLEAR FOCUS.
Savannah Santiago: Thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here.
Adrian Tennant: So, can you tell us about the members of your multispecies family?
Savannah Santiago: Yes, so we have Willow. She is a four-year-old Australian Shepherd who just happens to have a dash of great pyrees in her. So this makes her around 75 to 80 pounds. We also have Benny, he’s a rescue cat who’s also about four years old, and the two are basically besties.
Adrian Tennant: I know you love being outdoors and recently spent some time as a digital nomad. You decided to take your dog and cat along with you as you traveled cross-country. How did that work out?
Savannah Santiago: You know, there were some really incredible and fun parts about having them both with us. And there were also some not-so-glorious moments about having them along the whole time. They’re both super great travelers, thank goodness. We have a pet hammock in the back of our truck, that’s where they both hang and sleep in addition to having the soft-sided cat carrier open on the floor, and that’s where he just kind of goes to sleep whenever he wants. As for the truck bed camper, they would just nap together all day. And I have so many pictures to prove it because it was too cute not to take pictures! And then my husband made a pull-out drawer for his cat box, so we were able to put it away and then pull it back out at night. That way, we weren’t just stepping in cat litter all the time. And then we also have a super cute stick-on cat scratcher that he would play with at night, and then the food and water would just kind of get left out. So that was a little bit of our routine when we were on the road. But the biggest hurdle was definitely the cat at nighttime. You know, that’s kind of when they wanna go on the prowl, they wanna go play, they wanna get the zoomies. So he definitely wanted to go outside. And towards the end of our three-week trip, he definitely wanted his space to go explore. He actually ended up running away for 36 to 48 hours. He snuck out the back door. Long story short, we ended up getting him an Apple tag so that we could just let him go out at night, and he would come back in the morning, and we’d always know exactly where he was.
Adrian Tennant: That’s a relief – that he came back!
Savannah Santiago: Yes. Oh, for sure.
Adrian Tennant: One of our clients that you are working with is a retail chain that specializes in providing pet supplies, pet food, and pet-related products from its over 200 brick-and-mortar locations, as well as an online store. This is a relatively new account, so I’m curious, how does the social content planning and creation process compare to other brands that you’ve worked with?
Savannah Santiago: So far, it’s been an absolute blast. It’s fun getting to be creative and market for furry or feathery animals, whichever one you have. I was just making some graphics yesterday and was literally cracking myself up because of the expressions of some of the animals in some of the photos. Now, while it’s super fun, it still had a learning curve because you could have one idea for content, but the animal could be totally uncooperative, and you’ll have to pivot your concepts entirely. So as we’re planning it, it takes a lot in order to balance, you know, the priorities of so many different types of pets in addition to in-store and online promotions. But all in all, it’s becoming one of my favorite accounts to create content for.
Adrian Tennant: What types of social content are you finding resonate well with pet owners?
Savannah Santiago: So overall, video content is definitely king. In a recent study done by Sprout Social, about two out of three users prefer short-form video over other types of content. We’re really leaning into trends, especially with this brand. We can let our hair down and show their personality when making these videos and the copy and the graphics. Pets are fun, so we wanna make it fun. There are two pillars of content that I find resonate really well. First off being entertainment. You know, pet owners love seeing content of pets, regardless if it’s theirs or not. As a pet lover and viewer myself, I’ll send dozens of them to my husband over the week so that we can sit down and watch them together – just laugh over cats and dogs and doing crazy, silly things. The second one is educational. Whether your dog is an anxious traveler and you’re looking for tips to make it a calmer process or flea and tick prevention in these springtime months, or what to buy for a new puppy before you bring it home, or what type of food to buy your pet during different phases of life. The important part of this pillar is to show the brand as a leader in the industry without coming off as boring or without a personality to consumers. It’s just a super fine balance, to find there.
Adrian Tennant: Well, as you know, in Bigeye’s national study, we found that over one-half of all owners follow pet Influencers. In the report, we list the top six dogs and the top six cats their owners told us they follow. Savannah, are there any on those lists that you’d previously come across?
Savannah Santiago: You know what? I actually only heard of a couple, and I don’t follow any of those. I do, however, follow a handful of other accounts that are in that pet Influencer space. The ones that I follow, I just kind of resonate with them on a personal level. You know, they take their cats and dogs on hiking trips or camping trips, or they travel out of their camper or their van, or they have certain breeds of dogs that I really like. So I actually don’t follow any of those. But they are really funny ‘cause I was going through all of their content after I looked into seeing which ones were the top ones, and they’re very funny.
Adrian Tennant: We also learned that approaching one-quarter of all owners manage social media accounts on behalf of their pets. Savannah, I’m curious, are you one of them? Do you manage accounts for either of your pets?
Savannah Santiago: I don’t, I use my personal account as a place to dump all of our adventures, and Willow is already in there most of the time. If you were to follow my personal, there would definitely be a lot of pet content on there.
Adrian Tennant: Do you have any friends that do?
Savannah Santiago: Oh, totally. I absolutely do. I can think of at least one off the top of my head and probably two or three more.
Adrian Tennant: Let’s take a short break. We’ll be right back after these messages.
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Adrian Tennant: Welcome back. I’m discussing the results from Bigeye’s national study of pet ownership with Savannah Santiago, Bigeye’s social media manager. Are you seeing any trends or strategies employed by pet Influencers that are unique to pets or that are just not as prevalent in other categories?
Savannah Santiago: Yeah, absolutely. There are always trends that are going to be unique to a category, just like pets. And then there’s going to be ones that are more universal that, you know, maybe Just a fashion industry can take on and the pet industry can, do its own spin on it or the music industry and vice versa. there’s just definitely some more evergreen universal ones that can go both ways. But yes, there’ll always be ones that are unique to pets.
Adrian Tennant: What role do you think humor plays in the success of pet Influencers on social media?
Savannah Santiago: I think it plays a pretty big role. You know, humor, relatability, and even just being cute are kind of all key players in the pet Influencer game. People wanna laugh and love seeing pets do silly things, so, humor is just kind of the best of both worlds.
Adrian Tennant: If anyone listening is considering working with an Influencer, whether for a pet brand or a non-pet brand, can you explain how you typically assess an Influencers suitability for a brand partnership?
Savannah Santiago: Yes. So typically, after chatting with the brand, we’ll align on priorities and, for example, are we going to pursue a pet account versus a pet owner account? What type of pet does the Influencer have? Where the Influencer lives, where most of their audience lives, how frequently do they post about the pet? Also, have they done any other competing partnerships in the last six or so months? So those are just the high level things that we usually look into when looking at an Influencer.
Adrian Tennant: Can you explain the difference between nano, micro, and macro-Influencers?
Savannah Santiago: Yes, so there’s nano, which is about 1,000 to 10,000 followers. There’s micro, which is 10,000 to 50,000 followers, and then actually there’s another level in there called mid-tier, which is 50,000 to 500,000 followers. And then macro is 500,000 to a million followers. And then you have mega, which is your one million plus followers. Those are usually celebrities or the biggest accounts that are out there.
Adrian Tennant: Savannah, what kind of engagement metrics should brands consider when evaluating an Influencer’s audience?
Savannah Santiago: First, I look at the content quality and the overall tone of their content. If the content doesn’t align with the brand or meet the standards of the brand, then the rest of the metrics really don’t matter. Second, I look at the relevance. Their content might be high quality, but does it have any relevance to the brand at all? Are they breed-specific, pet-specific? Do they talk about pet health, training, fashion, lifestyle, et cetera? It’s important to make sure that they can speak to at least one thing about the brand. That way, there’s a connection between the brand and the Influencer. Third is consistency. How often are they posting about the pets? Daily, weekly, monthly? If it’s less than monthly, probably not a good fit. Then, have they collaborated with a competitor? If so, how recently? Depending on the brand and the Influencer, if we’d still pursue after a previous collaboration with a competitor. Sometimes if it was a one-off partnership or something, but six months after that would generally be long enough in the past for us to consider the Influencer as an option. And then, after they pass all of that, I’ll look at their engagement rate, how many people are engaging with their content. The higher engagement rate usually indicates a more dedicated, interactive audience. So then lastly, I look at audience demographics. If the majority of their audience is from a location where there isn’t a brick-and-mortar, or a product isn’t available for purchase, it really just doesn’t benefit us or the brand to invest in that Influencer.
Adrian Tennant: In the Bigeye report, we also list products that owners told us are their dogs’ and cats’ favorites. What are your pet’s favorite toys?
Savannah Santiago: So Willow has a toy moose, which was on that list, and that was one I was most shocked at that, that was a very common one because I thought she was special. But she absolutely loves her toy moose. She does love a good tennis ball, but unfortunately, she just wants to strip the fuzz off of it. So those don’t usually last very long. And then she loves Kong toys, with peanut butter inside. Those are a big hit. and then she also just loves any sort of hard bone chew toy type of thing. And then Benny just recently got a cat tree upgrade. Our friend gave us their cat tree because their cat didn’t use it anymore. So my husband combined our old one, and our new one, just like adult-sized Legos, and built an eight or nine-foot tall cat tree. So not to worry, it’s not going to fall over. It’s screwed into the wall! But Benny is absolutely obsessed with it – it’s amazing.
Adrian Tennant: One of the things that Andrea commented on was that having photos of pets taken professionally appeals most to younger consumers, who are among the most likely to engage with social media and follow pet Influencers. Savannah, you are married to a professional photographer, so do you see social media influencing the style of photographs your husband’s clients request for weddings or other events?
Savannah Santiago: Yes, absolutely. We definitely see more and more people incorporating pets into their weddings, which I think is such a beautiful thing. We even did it ourselves with both our cat and dog. In Colorado, your pet can actually be your witness, so both of their paw prints are on our marriage license. But I think the incorporation of pets and weddings just further drives home the point that more and more people identify pets as members of the family. So yes, I completely agree that social media and professional photography do have at least a little bit of an influence on, clients’ requests for their wedding photographs.
Adrian Tennant: Savannah, thank you for taking the time to chat with us.
Savannah Santiago: Thank you so much for having me.
Adrian Tennant: Two-thirds of pet owners in the US believe that animals deserve the same rights as people to be free from harm and exploitation. This belief is held most strongly by Gen X, among whom over three-quarters agree. But there are some differences based on gender. While more than seven in 10 owners identifying as female agree, just over one-half of males do. And owners in the Midwest are the most likely to agree that animals deserve some protection from harm and exploitation, but it’s still appropriate to use them for the benefit of humans at 36 percent. That’s 13 points higher than owners in the Northeast. Andrea, where are we headed? Do you believe that pets will eventually be conferred legal rights akin to personhood, or do you think some have suggested that pets need a hybrid legal status as living property?
Andrea Laurent-Simpson: Well, I think this is a very interesting and complex question. I think that when you look at global trends in like laws, right? You look around the world, you find some very interesting trends. So, for example, in Spain, they have just very recently passed laws that say that animals are sentient, they experience, they’re agential, and that pets are now considered family members by law. So when you have a divorce within Spain, the law now says that there have to be custody decisions put in place and that owners have to guarantee pets’ welfare. So, not just within a divorce, but just within the family in general, owners have to guarantee that their pet’s welfare will be an utmost priority. When you look at animal sentience in general – so sentience, I think is one of those main hallmarks of personhood. We think about, having agency, having self-conscious or self-awareness. We think about emotional experiences, having memories of experience. These are all components of personhood. And so there are a number of nations around the world that have begun to recognize animals legally recognize animals as sentient: France and New Zealand, Quebec, Sweden, the UK, and Spain obviously are the most recent countries to make these legal decisions. Actually, Tanzania was one of the earliest to put this in place, saying that all animals had to be protected and cared for within the family by humans. So there’s definitely a movement globally towards assigning personhood towards animals. It gets interesting in the United States. The US is increasingly shifting in its legal institutions about the ways in which we should view companion animals within the family. US law, in particular, has now created a mechanism by which we can write wills for ourselves, and in those wills, we can assign ownership for our pets, but also, more interestingly, we can create trusts for our pets, so that there’s funding in place for their caretaking, and for their new guardians to ensure that their welfare is held to utmost standards. Divorce is also kind of an interesting thing here, you see in the United States that most states still kind of answer the question about divorce with companion animals as one of property. So dogs and cats are really, they’re just property, they’re like furniture. But there are a number of states that have shifted, most recently, it was New York, I think, either 2022 or 2021. New York now has in place laws that say that the judges through judiciary discretion have the right and should decide custody. California has this in place. Alaska has similar laws in place, as does Illinois. There’s an increasing trend to recognize dogs and cats like that, but still as property. So even those divorce laws feel more like living property than personhood, right? You know the answer, I think probably, to your question about where I think we’re going with this, that’s something that’s difficult to predict because there are consumer forces, there are organizational forces at work, lobbying forces at work that are very much so pushing back against that. And the biggest one that I can think of pushing back against the idea of legally assigning personhood to animals is the American Veterinary Medical Association. it seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it? But in doing this, assigning personhood to dogs and cats, and other companion animals, the AVMA is worried that what would happen for veterinarians is that we would have to see an increase in malpractice insurance. There would be a whole new complexity that enters the veterinarian clinic in terms of privacy, similar to HIPAA laws, perhaps, right? Where we have to take into account, the privacy of not only our human clients but the dogs and cats in and of themselves as persons. Welfare becomes much stickier, right? So the welfare of the animal and the veterinarian clinic. In terms of euthanasia, can we euthanize animals anymore? What about sterilization? What does this mean for sterilization? If we assign personhood to dogs and cats? So, you know, there are kind of interesting components to both sides, right? About why we should or why we should not. I don’t think in the US, especially because of the influence of corporate structures and lobbies. I don’t think we’re going to see the legal assignment of personhood to companion animals or any other kind of non-human animal anytime soon. I’m not saying I don’t think we should. I’m just saying I don’t think we’re going to. I think living property is probably a much greater likelihood in terms of legal designation because it kind of satisfies both sides where you’ve got, families and individuals who either are engaged in divorce or who are engaged with corporations for things like cloning or for things like the dog aging project, right? And kind of genetic help for our dogs. Where they want to have some sort of rights built into the contracts that they create with those entities. But at the same time, within US law anyway, allowing those entities to maintain a distance from the idea of personhood so that they’re not as legally responsible for the outcome of dogs and cats and other companion animals as they would be if we gave them that legal designation. So I do think that living property is most likely where at least US law is going to go for the foreseeable future.
Adrian Tennant: Andrea, you were mentioned in an article in last November’s issue of Wired Magazine, which chronicles the research being undertaken to produce a pill that can help dogs and, eventually, humans live longer. What’s your association with this story, and what do you think about the idea of using dogs for this type of research?
Andrea Laurent-Simpson: My association with the article was Tom Simonite contacted me just to interview me about the history of how this relationship has developed. He was very interested in the Dog Aging Project and trying to understand how, in terms of consumers that this particular product and the use of rapamycin might be picked up going into the future, and the methodological ways in which they were researching the use of rapamycin, for increasing lifespan in canines. And I think the hope is for humans as well. Rapamycin right now is a drug, I think that’s used in organ transplants to fight fungal infections, if I recall correctly, but it’s shown some anti-aging properties. So he just wanted to contact me and talk to me a little bit about why it is anybody would be interested in having such a pharmaceutical intervention applied to their dogs. What has happened historically to bring us to that point. And so I think that as far as what I think about that type of research, from my own work, I think the economic driver behind this research is consumption, and so I’m not in any way saying that the researchers that are really heralding it are not interested in expanding canine and human lifespan, just that in terms of creating a pharmaceutical intervention, I think that there’s a definitive monetary incentive to create a drug that will expand, in particular, our dog’s lives because of the ways that we’re thinking of them now. If we’re thinking increasingly of our dogs as our child or as a brother or a sister, and this is our perception now, if our brother or sister or our child becomes gravely ill with something that maybe we could have prevented earlier in their lives with pharmaceutical intervention, we are likely to experience incredible amounts of grief over this and missed opportunities. and the grief over the time that we could have had with our furry child, or our children’s furry brothers and sisters, right? And so bringing a product onto the market like this is reflective of family, of multi-species families, the increasing percentage of families in the US that identify themselves as multi-species families. I think you mentioned earlier that in your own quantitative research, about 97 percent of your respondents said, “Yeah, my dogs and cats are family to me.” So if we’re perceiving them in that way, we are going to increasingly purchase products, whether they are simply for entertainment, or for healthcare, or for life extension, that will enable us to continue to engage with our dogs and cats in that manner. So I think, if I remove the potential profit motive behind it, and I just look at what the motivation is in terms of healthcare and extension of lives, I think it’s a pretty cool idea. I worry about the profit end of it, though, as a sociologist because I worry that this will be something that’s available to families that can afford it. And so it becomes a privilege, right? Where we can expand our beloved canine’s life, while those that come from lower socioeconomic statuses are as they are right now, simply left to let their dogs die early because they can’t afford an early treatment or they can’t afford diagnosis of conditions that would predict later chronic illness. I mean, it’s the same issue that we’ve talked about in the past in terms of lower socioeconomic families, sometimes not even being able to keep their animals because of the cost that’s associated with doing so, and that brings tremendous emotional burden into their lives and brings increases in diagnoses of depression and anxiety and even PTSD into their children’s lives. So that’s an extended answer with lots of different points in it.
Adrian Tennant: So Andrea, if IN CLEAR FOCUS listeners would like to learn more about you, your academic work, and your book, Just Like Family, where can they find you?
Andrea Laurent-Simpson: They can find me on academia.edu with my name, Andrea Laurent-Simpson, or they can email me at ALaurentSimpson@smu.edu.
Adrian Tennant: Thank you for being our guest again on IN CLEAR FOCUS.
Andrea Laurent-Simpson: Thank you for inviting me, I’ve had fun.
Adrian Tennant: Thanks again to both of my guests this week, Dr. Andrea Laurent-Simpson of the Department of Sociology at Southern Methodist University, and Savannah Santiago, Bigeye’s social media manager. Now, if you’d like to obtain a free copy of the report we’ve been discussing, please go to our website at bigeyeagency.com/pets-23. Thank you for listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, produced by Bigeye. I’ve been your host, Adrian Tennant. Until next week, goodbye.