Lucy, a 1 year old Burmese Mountain dog and her owner Alfred Pretrone.

There’s “something special” about Lucy, says Alfred Pretrone about his female companion. She’s good-looking, “chill” and she makes the stress melt away at the end of a long day. But Lucy isn’t Mr. Petrone’s girlfriend. She’s his dog.



“If it’s a friend or a girlfriend, there’s always points in time where … there could be stress within that relationship,” Mr. Petrone says. “When you have a dog … it’s always good. There’s never anything that’s really negative with her.”

Mr. Petrone is in his fourth year of a Doctor of Chiropractic program at Canadian Memorial Chiropractic College in Toronto. He works out religiously, is the school’s students’ council president and spends eight to 10 hours a day at school. Finding a girlfriend is not a priority.

“At this point in my life, I’m working more on myself,” Mr. Petrone says. “I do a lot of things to better myself as a person and as a professional.”

Pets have been openly discussed for a generation as surrogate “fur babies.” Now, experts — and marketers — see an emerging trend among young professionals: pets as partners.

For many people focused on building their careers like Mr. Petrone, 25, pets are becoming replacement girlfriends and boyfriends, and the proof is in the statistics. According to a Canadian Pet Market Outlook report, about half of Canadian households without children own pets. Free from family-related expenses, their disposable income buoys Canada’s growing pet industry, valued at $6.6-billion in 2013 and expected to reach $8.3-billion by 2018, the report states.

Rising spending patterns alone indicate a growing trend in young singles humanizing their pets, says Barbara Mitchell, a family sociologist at Simon Fraser University.

“I would definitely say it supports a lot of the broader trends we’re seeing with respect to young people delaying their own family formation,” she says. The average Canadian man now gets married at 31, the average woman at 29.

Nancy Jelenic, owner of Barking Babies, a high-end dog boutique in Vancouver, says 10-20% of her clients are young singles, mainly women or gay men who work in business or real estate. They are eager to spoil their typically small dogs, some purchasing $500 leather handbags to carry them, she says.

“You wouldn’t come in here and spend $100 on a collar if you didn’t absolutely worship your dog,” she says.

Animal experts say North American pet owners are forming stronger, closer relationships with their pets than they did two decades ago. An Ipsos Reid survey found eight in 10 Canadian pet owners consider their pet to be a family member and a Purina study found 90% of owners talk to their pets. One quarter tell them secrets.

In Vancouver, one woman told reporters last month she was taking what she called “maternity leave” for her new puppy. Tanya Oliva used her paid vacation to care for her “four-legged child.”

“It’s kind of a good idea that people are wanting to have this closeness with animals,” says John Sorensen, a professor of sociology at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., who specializes in human-animal relationships. “That’s kind of a positive sign, that we’re opening ourselves up to these other kinds of relationships with other beings and not just humans.”

Mr. Sorensen says while society in general has “anxiety” about people having “misplaced affection” for animals, he’s never met anyone who sacrificed human contact for pets exclusively.

“I don’t think it’s a case that one necessarily excludes the other,” he says.

Keiley Abbat, owner of Small Wonders Pets, a Toronto shop that specializes in nutrition education and animal behavior, has worked with thousands of pet owners — young singles, as well as divorced women and widowed seniors — and has seen owners who treat their pets too much like humans.

“It is not a small human being in a fur coat … You’re not your dog’s mommy,” she says.

“It’s not fair to the pet and it’s also not fair to yourself,” she says. “If you have that bad breakup, you can’t say to yourself – although it might feel like it at the time – only my dog is going to love me for the rest of my life, because that’s just not going to happen. You’re going to meet someone else.”

All single pet owners the National Post spoke to for this article said they eventually want serious romantic human relationships but they are too busy or haven’t yet met the right person.

“Us as humans, we want companionship. We want some big love. Owning a pet is like your partner, your companion,” says Jeff Ro, a single 25-year-old Torontonian who adopted his cat, Whiskey, four years ago.

After being forced to give Whiskey up to his suburban parents when he moved to a no-pets condo, he realized he was lonely and saw an opportunity.

Realizing many young apartment dwellers also miss their pets, Mr. Ro is now working with a business partner to open up the city’s first cat café, a space where Torontonians can hang out with felines.

“I think with people who are independent, they want to be focused, but they want to be loved too. They look towards pets to fill that void,” Mr. Ro says. “[You] may not be ready to take another person onto that journey yet but… you know that animal will give you unconditional love.”

Mr. Ro says he is “casually dating” — a lifestyle decision that fits into his busy schedule the same way his “independent” cat fit in previously.

“It’s hard work getting human partners,” says Stanley Coren, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of British Columbia and author of The Wisdom of Dogs. “You can go out and for a couple of hundred bucks you can buy yourself [a pet and] some affection. I suppose it’s better than going and finding a male or a female prostitute because it lasts longer.”

Mr. Petrone bought Lucy, a Bernese Mountain dog, a year and a half ago after the dog he grew up with in Hamilton, Ont., passed away. He missed the companionship that came with having a pet in his life.

Now, the “100-lb. lap dog” tags along on cottage getaways, hangs out at backyard barbeques, and listened to him explain the rules of soccer during the FIFA World Cup.

“This is going to sound so weird — I talk to her all the time,” says Mr. Petrone. “I can definitely notice that she has filled that companionship [void], that sense of taking care of something.”

Via National Post