Public perceptions of animal well-being and health care are the focus of increasing debate. U.S. residents can access information on animal well-being and health care from different sources: word of mouth, television, veterinarians, the Internet and, more specifically and increasingly, popular social media. In recent decades, concerns for the quality of life of animals has increasingly become the subject of public policy and controversy [1
]. The rate of pet ownership in the United States was estimated at 57% at year-end for 2016 [2
]. In the case of pet animals, the increase in concern is likely connected to the increase in identification of pets as much more than just companions; for example, as family members [3
]. For animal agriculture, the treatment of farm animals is a central concern for livestock and poultry producers, not an isolated activist debate anymore [4
]. U.S. residents’ concern for animal welfare gave rise to different non-profit and for-profit organizations focused on animal well-being and health care for pet animals and animals raised for food (i.e., livestock and poultry industries). Animal well-being-focused organizations might share similar stated goals, but each have their own agendas, structure and vision. Previous studies have questioned whether people utilize different organizations as information sources because they are more trusted than others or because they are more easily accessible or recognizable than others [5
Some evidence suggests that over 50% of Americans do not have a source of animal welfare information or simply avoid this type of information [6
]. The remaining segment of the population cited the HSUS and PETA as the organizations they most commonly obtain animal welfare information from [6
]. Social media may be used as a way to disseminate information. Mercy for Animal (MFA) members use online and social media platforms to promote animal welfare stories [8
] and PETA posted over 500 social media posts in 2016 [9
]. PETA is also reported to email about 2,000,000 individuals per week with the objective of furthering their cause [10
This analysis summarizes pet owners’ use of veterinary services and overall pet care practices. The primary objective of this study was to quantify perceptions of the U.S. public regarding prominent animal welfare and veterinary/health organizations, while acknowledging and accounting for the likely variation between pet-owning and non-pet-owning households. Past work [11
] focused on evaluating and ranking the perceived (corporate) social responsibility of prominent animal welfare organizations. This work seeks to bring together prominent animal welfare organizations with those directly impacting the health of animals, namely key veterinary medicine groups. Rather than investigate the social responsibility of organizations, this analysis sought to rank which groups the U.S. public felt had the most/least impact on pet animal well-being and health.
A total of 1000 respondents completed the survey and the sample demographics closely mirrored the targeted demographics with a few statistically different exceptions (Table 1
). There were lower percentages of respondents in the sample who were 18–24 years (10%), did not graduate from high school (5%) and from the Midwest (21%) when compared to the U.S. Census targets. There were higher percentages of respondents who attended college (30%) and from the South (38%) when compared to the U.S. Census target of 27% and 21%, respectively.
Respondent’s pet ownership status including type and number of pets is summarized in Table 2
. Fifty-nine percent of respondents indicated that they owned a pet at the time they took the survey; eight percent did not currently have a pet but had one in the past five years, and five percent said they plan to acquire a pet in the next five years. Seventy-two percent of pet-owning respondents currently own at least one dog and 56% of pet-owning respondents currently own at least one cat.
Further questions were asked to respondents who indicated that they currently own or have owned in the past five years at least one dog (n = 477) or one cat (n = 352) and their answers were statistically compared in Table 3
. Eighty-seven percent of both dog and cat owners indicated that they are the primary care provider for their pet. Adopted or rescued was the most common acquisition method for dog owners (53%) and cat owners (69%). Although a statistically higher percentage of cat owners adopted or rescued when compared to dogs. Among pet owners, 35% purchased their dog and 16% purchased their cat, which is statistically different between the two species.
Forty-four percent of dog owners regularly walk or exercise their dog, compared to a statistically lower percentage of cat owners (17%). A statistically higher percentage of dog owners (50%) indicated that they have an annual veterinary visit for preventive health compared to 41% for cat owners. Although over half of dog and cat owners used a veterinarian of any kind, a statistically higher percentage of dog owners (65%) visited a veterinarian when compared to cat owners (58%). Additionally, 21% of dog and cat owners reported they used a low-cost spay neuter or low-cost vaccination clinic (24% of dog owners and 21% of cat owners). Seven percent of cat owners indicated that they never seek veterinary care, compared to only 5% of dog owners, but these numbers were not statistically different. A statistically higher percentage of dog owners (37%) indicated that they seek veterinary care more than once a year compared to only 18% of cat owners.
Dog and cat owners were asked questions regarding how they would classify their veterinarian and the affiliation of the clinic they most commonly frequented (Table 4
). Most of the pet owners indicated that they visit a local independent clinic/veterinarian (70% dogs and 67% cat owners). Fewer pet owners indicated that they visit a chain clinic/veterinarian (10% of dog and 9% of cat owners).
shows that a high percentage of respondents indicated that they have heard of PETA but chose not to support them (42%). The group that pet owners indicated to support the most regularly was Chewy (9%). Over 60% of pet owners indicated that they have not heard of MFA, Compassion Over Killing, the APPA and the NAVC.
summarizes the responses from the logo drag-and-drop questions by pet owner and non-pet owner. The ASPCA was indicated by the highest percentage of pet and non-pet owners (72% pet owners and 62% non-pet owners) as both a recognized and impactful organization for the well-being and health of animals. PETA was selected as recognized but not impactful for the well-being and health of animals by the highest percentage of pet and non-pet owners (28% pet owners and 22% non-pet). The NAVC was the organization with the highest percentage of pet owners and non-pet owners indicating that they have not heard of the organization (59% of pet owners and 79% of non-pet owners).
compares the mean responses on a Likert scale to the question “I have seen/heard stories related to animal well-being and health care for this organization.” Generally, organizations with higher percentages of respondents indicating that they have not heard of it also had lower scores on the impact level on animal well-being and health care by respondents who indicated anything other than “I have not heard of this company”. An exception to this was PETA, where almost 50% of respondents indicated that they heard/saw stories related to animal well-being and health care, but the mean reported level of impact was low—in fact, the lowest across the organizations.
The mean preference shares from the RPL model indicate that respondents perceive the ASPCA as the most impactful organization on animal well-being and health care, as shown in Table 7
. The mean preference share was 38% for the ASPCA, and it was statistically higher than the preference share for the HSUS (20%), the second largest preference share. The mean preference shares for the AVMA and the AHA were not statistically different than one another, thus both are tied for third most impactful organization on pet animal health and well-being. Additionally, there was a tie between the AAHA and the APPA for fourth. Banfield’s preference share was 5%, which is statistically lower than that for the APPA and the AAHA (6% and 9% respectively).
In addition to evaluating the RPL results, which present the mean preference share across all respondents, the LCM was estimated to discern mean preference shares amongst classes, or groups, of respondents (Table 8
). The LCM model with three classes, which are heterogeneous across classes, but homogeneous within classes, was selected using Akaike Information Criterion (AIC) and Bayesian Information Criterion (BIC). Class 1 was dubbed “Majority ASPCA” due to the mean preference share for the ASPCA dominating at 58%, the HSUS having 26%, and all other preference shares being below 10%. Class 2 was dubbed “Majority ASPCA Plus Veterinarians” due to its heavy preference for the ASPCA and the HSUS, just as in Class 1, but with 15% allocated to the AVMA. Class 3 was dubbed “Everything and Anything” because the preference shares for every organization evaluated were roughly equal, ranging from the 12% for APPA to 17% for the ASPCA (Figure 2
Eight hundred and forty-seven respondents were assigned to a specific latent class using the criteria of the highest probability of class membership being at least 50% over the next highest probability. The remaining 153 respondents were not assigned to a class, as their difference in class membership probability fell short of the 50% criteria. A summary of the demographics of each class from the LCM is provided in Table 9
There were statistical differences in the demographics of respondents across latent classes. Class 1 was statistically different than class 3 with respect to gender, age, income for all but $0–$2,4999, and the West region. Class 2 was statistically different than class 3 for gender, age (except for the 35–44 years old), income (only $2,5000–$49,999 and $10,0000 and higher), education (only graduated from high school, did not attend college and Associates or Bachelor’s Degree earned). Class 1 was not statistically different than class 2 with the exception of education (graduated from high school, did not attend college and Associates or Bachelor’s Degree earned).
At the time of the survey, 59% of respondents owned at least one pet, nearly identical to the 2016 year-end 57% reported in the AVMA’s Pet Ownership and Demographics Sourcebook 2017–2018 [2
]. One aspect of cat ownership is semi-ownership, where people care for cats by providing food and shelter, but do not ‘own’ the cat [22
]. People with semi-ownership believe that cats are more independent [22
], which may result in decreased veterinary care and less recognition of pain in cats or injury in cats [23
]. The bond that people perceive they have with their cat or dog impacts veterinary care, with pets that have a closer bond receiving more veterinary care. Since cats tend to be more aloof, they tend to receive less veterinary care. However, cat owners tend to be more educated than dog owners, which presents a unique opportunity for veterinarians to extend care [24
]. Given the complex pain masking biology of cats, and the unique bond people have with dogs, understanding differences between cat and dog owners was of importance in this manuscript.
The organizations which respondents indicated that they have not heard of or they have not seen/heard stories regarding animal well-being and health care the most were MFA and Compassion Over Killing. This is consistent with a related study where out of seven prominent animal welfare organizations, MFA and Compassion Over Killing had the fewest respondents indicating that they have heard/seen animal welfare stories from [11
]. Respondents indicated that they have seen/heard stories related to animal well-being and health care the most from the ASPCA followed by PETA. The same two organizations were positioned at the top of the list in the social responsibility study [11
]. Given the notable public information and awareness campaigns that both the ASPCA and PETA run, and the scale of their budgets for such, including television commercials and national/international media, the recognition of these organizations is unsurprising.
Public perception of organizations focused on animal well-being may be the result of a combination of marketing campaigns including TV ads and social media presence. Meanwhile, the actual impact they have on the pet population may be unknown by the average U.S. resident. This study finds that generally, organizations that U.S. residents haven seen/heard stories related to pet animal well-being and health care also have a higher reported level of impact in this regard. PETA was an exception to this finding. Likert-scale questions results revealed that the ASPCA had the highest perceived average impact consistent with the BWS experiment results in this study. While respondents self-reported their perceptions about impact of organizations, it was not investigated whether the impact was perceived to be exclusively positive. Given the verbiage employed in the survey instrument, it is possible that a respondent assigned high impact to an organization believing that impact was good, but it was also possible that high impact was tied with negative outcomes. In other words, it is possible to be impactful in a positive way or in a negative way and the directionality of impact was beyond the scope of data collected in this study. In a related study, the ASPCA was found as the most trusted source of breeding-dog welfare information when compared with other scientific, veterinary and industry sources and organizations [5
]. The results suggest that the ASPCA’s perceived level of impact on pet animal welfare and well-being is accompanied with a high level of trust when it comes to other pet animal topics such as breeding-dog welfare. Past evidence suggests that PETA and the HSUS are the most commonly cited source of animal welfare information in the U.S. [6
]. This is likely linked to their high level of activity in advertising and communication via media campaigns on issues pertaining to livestock and poultry health care [25
]. In this analysis, PETA had the lowest average perceived impact on animal well-being and health care. Together, these results suggest that while PETA is a common source of animal welfare information and is very active in communications, it is not perceived as a highly impactful organization pertaining to pet animal health care and well-being. The HSUS was perceived to have the second highest impact on pet animal well-being and welfare, which might suggest that their popularity as a source of animal welfare information is combined with a perceived high level of impact on this topic.
The RPL results suggest that respondents perceive the ASPCA as the most impactful organization on animal well-being and health care, having the highest preference share. This is consistent with Bir et al. [5
] where the ASPCA was found to be the most trusted source of breeding-dog welfare, when compared with other scientific, veterinary and industry sources and organizations [5
]. It is also consistent with Widmar et al. [11
], where the ASPCA was found to be perceived as the most socially responsible organization, and in both studies, the ASPCA had the highest preference share. The HSUS had the second highest preference share in this study, consistent with Widmar et al. [11
], where the HSUS also had the second highest preference share. Based on estimated preference shares from the BWS choice experiment, the AVMA was tied with the AHA for third most impactful organization in this study. Widmar et al. [11
] found the AVMA as fourth for most socially responsible and Bir et al. [5
] found the AVMA as third most trusted source of breeding-dog welfare.
Three classes were identified from the LCM in this study. Respondents in class 1 showed a strong affinity for the ASPCA, representing 58% of the preference, similar to Bir et al. [5
] where one of thier LCM classes showed a strong preference for the ASPCA (69.8%). The overall evidence in this study (BWS choice experiment, Likert scale questions, and general perceptions questions) suggests that the ASPCA is perceived as the most impactful organization on animal well-being and health care. This perceived impact level is likely influenced by the ASPCA’s high visibility and respondent’s familiarity as reported within the study. However, high visibility does not universally imply high impact; PETA had a high level of visibility, but respondents reported a low perceived level of impact on animal well-being and health care.
This study found that public perception of prominent animal welfare and veterinary care organizations among U.S. residents might be linked to the organization’s level of visibility. In general, organizations that had higher level of visibility also had a higher reported level of impact. PETA, for which a high percentage of respondents indicated to have seen/heard stories related to animal well-being and healthcare but with the lowest reported level of impact, was an exception to the general finding. ASPCA was perceived as the most effective organization and it was also the organization that respondents most frequently reported having seen/heard stories related to animal well-being and healthcare.
Organizations may wish to know how they rank in terms of perceived impact against other groups within the public realm. Individuals seeking to make contributions or provide support for animal health care or well-being organizations may judge organizations based on their perceived impact relative to organizations with similar missions. Thus, while it is recognized that public perception does not imply or reflect effectiveness, it may reflect popularity and/or visibility.
Admittedly, the interpretability of the relative ranking of the organizations studied is limited by the experimental design employed and the organizations included in the experiment. This analysis sheds light on the public perceptions of diverse organizations on pet animal health and well-being. Inclusion of alternative organizations may alter the relative ranking and preference shares, by nature of the experiment. Thus, the interpretability and ranking order are specific to the experiment conducted. Future research may wish to investigate public perceptions of impact on specific species of animals or to delve into groups positive versus negative impacts on well-being.