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Shifting pet owner attitudes in India

Shifting pet owner attitudes in India

Tech and online retail entrepreneur sees changes in perspectives toward pets—and exponential growth in market.

When Srivatsava Gorthy left Google in search of his next career move in 2014, he knew he wanted animals to be at the heart of whatever he did next. A dog lover from childhood, Gorthy had observed that things were changing in his home country of India, with more people acquiring pets than ever before. He also knew their options were limited when it came to buying food and supplies for those pets.

To fill the gap, Gorthy founded Petpal, an online pet retail outlet, in 2016. With the site now offering telehealth and pet insurance services as well as pet food and other retail items, Petpal is poised to become the premier destination for pet owners in India.

The Bowman Report recently caught up with Gorthy, who lives in Los Altos, California, to discuss his venture, his observations about pet attitudes in India, and his passion for pet health and well-being.

Bowman Report: How did you get interested in this industry?

Sri Gorthy: Growing up in a city in India, we had a very small living space, so my parents wouldn't let me get a pet. But as soon as I started earning my own salary, I got my first dog. And then within a year I traveled to the States for my higher education, so I had to leave her at my colleague's place, which was really sad. People would usually think about a girlfriend, boyfriend or spouse, but I would always think about my dog. It was magically personal to me.

Today I have three dogs—or I did, but we lost one of them last month, so we're still recovering from that grief. Tyson was our German shepherd who we just lost to metastatic cancer. We also have a Newfie named Leo and a Labrador whose name is Steffi.

When I worked at Google and then decided to leave, I knew this was an area very close to my heart. I also knew there was a major gap in the market. India is definitely a small pet market, but it's growing exponentially, much more quickly than in other parts of the world. The CAGR (compound annual growth rate) numbers are double digits, which is crazy.

BR: One of the trends in the United States is that many people call themselves "pet parents" rather than "pet owners." How does that compare to what's happening in India?

Gorthy: I love this subject because I have seen the same shift in attitude. Twenty years back, people had dogs either as a luxury item—"I have cars and a bungalow and this is one more way I can show off that I'm a rich man or woman"—or as a backyard animal, feeding it and that's all. But in the last five to 10 years, it has changed quite a bit. In my visits to India I've noticed that more and more people are loving their pets like their children.

Some of it is the influence of the Western culture, whether European or American, because of all the traffic between the States and India or Europe and India. Also, people are delaying marriage and children. They're living in urban areas away from their joint family or parents. And there are more facilities that are pet-friendly. Overall, I would say that trend is encouraging.

I've seen another interesting trend as well. Growing up, I never thought cats were a thing in India. But the number of orders we get from cat parents is equal to dog parents. It's mind-blowing! Indians have a tradition to think of cats as a bad omen, but that's completely washed away now. The number of cat parents is huge. I'm impressed with the change in mindset.

(BR note: For more on shifting attitudes toward cats, see "Meet cats and their owners: They're not who you think they are")

BR: How is your telehealth service being received?

Gorthy: Telehealth is fairly new. We are experimenting. We started early this year due to the pandemic, but even pre-pandemic, it was not a pleasant experience for pet owners to take their pet to the veterinary hospital. It requires you to have a car, which may be unaffordable. In India, it's a very small population that owns a car. And traveling to the veterinary hospital and waiting outside—it's not a good experience. So telehealth was always in the cards and, during the pandemic, it made even more sense for us to launch it.

There are lots of pet parents reaching out to us. We have a limited set of veterinarians in our pilot, and they have completely packed schedules. So I'm trying to find ways to work through technology and address scalability issues to grow that part of the business.

BR: Do pet owners accept that pets need veterinary care throughout their lives?

Gorthy: The veterinary community is powerful in India, and they have a lot of influence on pet parents. They are well-respected and there's lots of demand for their service. I don't have exact numbers, but I think we are probably 50 to 60 percent short of the number of veterinarians we need in India. So you can imagine the demand versus supply. That's encouraging for our business, because I think once veterinarians know they can have good careers when they graduate from school, more and more people will get into it. In the past, it's been, "OK, I didn't get into medical school, I didn't get into dental school, so let me choose veterinary school." But that's changed now. Petpal has five vets on board who are really good, and they see the trend going upward.

BR: Petpal also provides education for pet owners. What are some of their primary educational needs?

Gorthy: The biggest thing I want young pet parents to know is not to feed just anything. They need to be more aware of the right nutrition for their pets, because nutrition will define the life and well-being of the pet. Also, while they may be very excited to have a breed like a Saint Bernard, those dogs are genetically not in a favorable climate in India. They need to make sure they're getting pets that can live a good life versus a stressful life. Don't get a Saint Bernard in a hot city like Mumbai. That's a punishment in my eyes.

BR: What effect has the pandemic had on pet owner perspectives?

Gorthy: In the general Indian context, if you have a pet, your natural instinct is to let your maid or security guard walk the dog and care for the pet. But with the pandemic, everyone has to be at home, work from home, and not allow service people into the house. How do you keep everyone engaged? You bring a lovely pet into your house.

Now, once you have a pet, you've got to take care of it. And once people start taking care of their own pet, they realize it's not a big deal. They don't have to pass the buck to someone. They're working from home and have time to take care of the pet, and they're enjoying those moments with their pets. That's helping more people to adopt pets, because pet owners are talking. I think that's very interesting.

BR: Has that had an impact on Petpal?

Gorthy: Yes, we have seen a lot of demand. And I'll be honest with you, we were not able to meet the demand for various reasons related to logistics and supply chain challenges and so on. But the encouraging part is the demand. India does not have stores like Petco or PetSmart. But I don't see a need to go to the pet store. This is one business you can definitely have online.

(BR note: This wasn't always the case. See when the first online pet retailer launched and failed.)

BR: Is there anything else you'd like to mention about pet ownership or trends in your market?

Gorthy: Yes. One of the lessons I learned with the recent incident in our home is that it's always a good idea to go for a regular checkup for your pet. With Tyson, we didn't even know anything was wrong. He was hyper, always jumping around the house, playing with the kids, playing with the other dogs. There was no hint he had something going on that would end his life the same day. The biggest lesson I would like to pass on to all pet parents and veterinarians is to make sure they are in constant touch. We should increase the frequency of the interaction between the veterinarian and the pet.

Also, the veterinary community needs to make it more affordable and achievable for our clients. Telehealth is wonderful, and if in-person diagnostics are required, at least you've got through the first step, which may not cost you as much in terms of time and money. But the in-person diagnostics is critical, so we cannot rely entirely on telehealth. We have to do a mix of both.

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