A cat playing with a toy.

After almost six months of physical distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, Jon Sorrentino, a graphic designer from Jersey City, N.J., was feeling isolated and in need of some company. Like legions of other Americans this year, he found it in a new canine companion. “I take a lot of hikes, and I missed having company on them,” Sorrentino says. “Then I realized that because I’m working from home, I finally have the time to devote to a new dog.” In September, he rescued Dash, an 11-month-old Doberman mix from a shelter in Connecticut.

Animal shelters and pet sellers across the country have reported heightened demand for “pandemic puppies” and other pets since shortly after widespread shelter-in-place orders were issued last March and April. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), a national animal welfare organization, reported an almost 70 percent increase in the number of animals it placed in foster care in New York City and Los Angeles last spring. The North Shore Animal League America, one of the world’s largest no-kill pet rescue and adoption organizations, also reports a surge in demand for pets. 

More on pet care

“We have twice the number of people contacting us each week about adopting a pet than we had before the pandemic,” says Diane Johnson, Animal League America’s vice president of operations. “People now want company or want their children to have company, and they also want the sense of normalcy and calming influence a pet can provide. But adopting a pet should never be a quick decision. You need to consider the associated costs, including medical care, food, toys, and perhaps insurance,” Johnson says.

Pets can be pricey companions. The first-year cost of owning a dog or a cat can range from roughly $1,000 to $1,800 not including pet insurance, according to a 2016 estimate issued by the ASPCA. Animal League America’s Johnson estimates ongoing annual costs of roughly $500 to $800, including pet insurance. 

Along with the increased interest in pets that has accompanied the pandemic has come an increase in the number of consumers shopping online for pet supplies. (Online pet supplies retailer Chewy reported a year-over-year net sales increase of 47 percent for the second quarter, which ended in August.)

Where Americans Shop for Pets Online

In a nationally representative survey of 2,085 adult U.S. residents conducted by CR in May, online pet-supply shoppers reported going to Amazon and Chewy more than any other online pet stores in the past year: 57 percent said that they shop for pet supplies most often on Amazon, and 35 percent reported that they shop most often at Chewy. Shoppers expressed a high degree of satisfaction with both Chewy and Amazon, rating them almost the same on price, speed of delivery, and website usability. Respondents expressed a slight preference for Chewy over Amazon in terms of product selection and quality, as well as the quality of customer service.

Convenience

Consumers CR spoke with cite convenience as a key factor in their choice to shop for pet supplies online. CR member T. Bergen, who lives in Virginia, says that she was buying pet products from Chewy long before the pandemic because of the ease of having purchases delivered, as well as for competitive pricing and a greater variety of products compared with shopping in-store. “The only thing I miss about going to an actual brick-and-mortar store is how much my dog enjoyed the visits,” Bergen says.

Frieda Hamer Hopkins, a CR member from Pennsylvania, says she has an Amazon Prime subscription and typically orders from Amazon to save on delivery charges. “I usually buy the biggest size of cat litter to save money, and I no longer have to lift the heavy bag into the shopping cart or put it into my car. Now with COVID, I do not have to leave my house to get any cat supplies.” Delivery is free for Amazon Prime members; Chewy charges a flat $4.95 delivery fee for orders less than $49, and orders costing more are delivered free. In the CR survey, respondents rated Chewy and Amazon virtually the same on the speed of receiving their order.

Pet owners who shop online also noted the ability to set up an automatic food delivery schedule as a reason they prefer shopping on the web to walk-in stores. “I get a discount for using the auto-ship feature on Chewy, and I never have to worry about forgetting to place an order,” says Carrie Ward, a CR member who owns a dog and chickens, and works with several dog rescue groups. JoAnna Pendergrass, a veterinarian who also writes about pets, cautions that new pet owners should wait until they know how much their new animal eats before signing up for automated deliveries. “You want to get the right amount at the right time and not have a lot left over that you’ll end up throwing away,” she says.

Price

Price was another reason some consumers cited for preferring online pet product retailers. While Ward says that the products she buys on Chewy cost less than they do at her local pet store, Sorrentino says that shopping online for his new puppy allows him to compare prices in a way he could not do in a store. “There’s more price transparency when shopping online. I can look at Chewy and Amazon and any other retailer to see what they’re charging before I make my decision.” He says he saved about $15 purchasing a dog bed from Amazon after comparison shopping but that he found a better price on food with Chewy. 

Certain online retailers, including Chewy, also sell pet medications, sometimes at prices well below what a veterinary office charges. But some experts and pet advocates advise pet owners to purchase prescription drugs and other health-related items only from a veterinarian. “I would recommend  buying medications, including flea and tick preventatives, directly from your veterinarian, even though they may be more expensive,” Pendergrass says. “There’s a higher level of confidence that they are safe and effective and have not been not adulterated in any way.”  Animal League America’s Johnson agrees. “Medications should only be purchased through a veterinarian’s office so that you know that they’re safe and recommended.” Irit Grader, a veterinarian and assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, takes a more liberal view, saying that she believes it’s fine for pet owners to purchase medications online, as long as it’s from a reputable retailer. 

Sorrentino has taken Dash out on the trails several times and reports that his new puppy is turning out to be just the sort of eager hiking companion he was looking for. “It’s amazing to watch Dash explore and discover a whole new world outside of his crate,” Sorrentino says. “There’s a lot of training to be done and I have to keep a close eye on him to make sure he stays out of trouble, but the reward of having him with me is worth it.”