Everywhere you go these days, you see services for pets and pet owners. From pet sweaters to pet spas, the American pet industry is a $60 billion business – that’s almost double what it was just over a decade ago.
The Wag-A-Matic K-9 Kiosk vends dog treats, toys and grooming supplies to eager pets – and their owners at the Doghouse Drinkery and Dog Park in Leander – just north of Austin. But that’s not the business trend we’re talking about.
The Pet Loss Center in Austin is having its grand opening today.
“This is one of our viewing and visitation rooms and there’s a lot of families that may want to have the opportunity to say a final goodbye or want to come in and see their pet out of a clinical setting,” co-founder Coleen Ellis says. “So this is one of two viewing rooms that we have.”
On the day we met, Ellis was wearing a bright pink dress and matching lipstick and – fair warning – she’s a hugger. She says she had been working in the human funeral service industry when she lost her own pet Miko.
“She was an absolute little mutt I got out of the shelter right after I got my first big-girl house,” Ellis says. “And she became…my family. And when she died, I had been looking around to find those pet loss operations that handled her much like I knew we handled people when we lost a loved one, and I didn’t find that. I didn’t find what I expected it to be or what I was wanting if you will.”
So she created what she wanted – which is basically a pet funeral home. Besides the visitation rooms, there’s a wall of urns and memorial jewelry and decorative stones. Then there’s what goes on in the back area – which isn’t beautiful – but Ellis says it’s just as important.
“As you can see up on the top of all of the chambers – which is what the proper name is for the area where the pets will be cremated – you’ll see a barcode,” she says. “So that every step of the way our veterinary partners and our pet parents know exactly where their pets are in this process.”
You may have noticed a little twist on vocabulary here – not pet owners but “pet parents.” And often “fur kids” or “fur babies” rather than animals or pets.
Nick Padlo is Ellis’s business partner.
“My wife and I, we’ve been married for five years and no human children yet – no real plans to – but we love our little Porsche and Eleanor,” he says.
Porsche and Eleanor are his dogs.
Padlo’s story is increasingly common among millennials – as well as more and more baby boomers – who are replacing kids and grandkids with pups and grandpuppies. But it’s now been close to a decade since this trend began and, unfortunately, that’s the end of the lifespan for some of these pets.
“Gosh, if you really think about it, what our pet parents have done today with the elevation of doggie facials or those high-end doggie bakeries or whatever it may be – kitty cafes – but from all of those, it really kind of segues then into if they’re doing all that in life, then they’re going to want to do something in death as well,” Ellis says.
And the demand does seem to be there. The Pet Loss Center has a couple of locations now – including one in Florida – but Padlo says they want to focus on Texas.
“With two locations in Dallas-Fort Worth and then one here in Austin, Houston is kind of the next logical step for us,” Padlo says. “It’s obviously a big city with a lot of people, and I don’t think anyone is doing what we’re doing.”
So in this growing corner of the $60 billion American pet industry, perhaps you’re wondering what all this costs?
“When you say, gosh, I don’t know if any of that’s for me, the question that I would have is ‘what’s that’ and from the price aspect, again, it’s the question of what do you want to do,” Ellis says. “And then let’s see what we can do and work within what your means are.”
Just as not every pet parent will spend $20 on a bottle of blueberry facial scrub for their mutt, or $70 on a piped blazer and dress shirt set for their cat, not everyone will wish to have their pet’s ashes in a decorative urn or a nose print memorialized on a necklace.
But there are those options now and, particularly when grief is involved, Ellis says there’s no room for judgment.
“Whether it’s a boa constrictor or a goldfish or a gerbil or whatever it may be, people form relationships with all sorts of animals, and we honor all of that here,” she says.
Which is to say, it’s a place for the dearly departed, as much as their owners, to find some comfort and rest.