This article was originally posted September 2023 in PCT Magazine and features our CEO, Billy Olesen and our PIC(Pup In Charge) Bruno. Full article can be found at https://www.pctonline.com/article/making-pets-a-priority-in-pest-management/ .
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the print edition of PCT under the headline "All About Pets!" Watch the online extra with PestStop CEO Billy Olesen and his dog Bruno.
Americans’ love of pets goes back generations. But something notable has happened over the past three years to make pets more popular and a bigger part of the family.
“Early last year, I asked our office manager, Julie Haberkorn, what question customers ask her most frequently. Without hesitation, she answered, ‘Is it safe for my pets?’” said Billy Olesen of PestStop in Olympia, Wash. “That makes sense when you consider that pet owners have always been concerned about their pets and more people have pets today than even a few years ago.”
It’s true: 87 million American households — about two-thirds of all U.S. households — have a pet today, according to the 2023-24 American Pet Products Association (APPA) National Pet Owners Survey. Part of that hefty total is the result of pandemic adoptions. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) says that more than 23 million U.S. households — one in five — adopted a pet during the pandemic. Those pets were good company for people feeling isolated as their face-to-face interactions with people were limited by the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps even more than before, pets became family as they bonded during extended periods of time together.
In dollars and cents, pet owners have shown themselves to be quite willing to spend money on their pets — to the tune of $136.8 billion in 2022 expenditures, according to APPA. That figure represents an 11 percent increase over 2021, which reflects above-average year-over-year growth. The most dramatic recent spike happened between 2020 and 2021, when pet-related expenditures rose 19 percent, in line with the spike in pet adoptions.
What all of this means to pest management companies is that pets are a customer priority. It is critical to have protocols in place for treating homes with pets. Your service technicians need to be able to talk with customers about the products they’re using and their strict adherence to the labels when applying them. They need to understand how to walk a property to assess the presence of pets and create a strategy for treating the pests while protecting the pets. In short, your team needs to know how to provide special care that assures your customers and protects your brand.
EMPATHY IS A BIG PLUS. “At PestStop, we have an office full of dogs,” Olesen said. “This can sometimes present a challenge when their playing gets too loud, but the smiles our pets bring to team members’ faces as they come in from their stops make it so worth it. Our pet-friendly culture also lends us the ability to walk the talk with our customers by being able to say, ‘We’ve got dogs ourselves, and we won’t do anything around your house that we don’t do around ours.’”
According to PCT research (Readex Research, January 2021), PMPs are more likely to have pets than the general population. Whether they bring their dogs to the office or keep them at home, 79 percent of PMPs are pet owners, compared with 66 percent of the broader population. When these pet owners connect with customers who own pets, they can relate, said Bill Haynes of Haynes Exterminating in Buford, Ga.
“I have a couple of dogs myself, and there’s no doubt that makes you more sensitive to customers’ concerns about their pets,” Haynes said. “When you go out on calls, you also need to be sensitive to people’s connections with their pets in generational terms. When I was growing up in the ’70s, pets were more often an animal in your yard than a member of the family, as they’ve become in recent years. It’s important to treat people’s pets with as much care as you would their children.”
TRAINING IS VITAL. Most PMPs realize the need for specialized technician training: 89 percent told PCT that they provide training on how to apply pest control products to ensure pets aren’t harmed (Readex Research, January 2021).
How that training takes shape depends in part on the types of pests you treat in your market and the products you use, and it should always specifically address each type of pet.
“In addition to recognizing the importance of always reading and following the pesticide label, service technicians need to know how to communicate effectively with customers,” Olesen said. “For any type of pet, we want to eliminate or, at a minimum, limit their direct contact with any products we use. Technicians must ensure there’s a clear understanding with everyone in the household, whether pet owners or pet sitters, that the pet(s) should be removed from the premises or confined to a safe area while products are being applied, and afterward for the time period specified on the label. It’s important to communicate this in writing and have the appropriate party sign off on it.”
Olesen shares some additional points his management team covers in PestStop training efforts, specific to the type of pet encountered:
- Dogs and cats. Walk around the house and property looking for toys and water dishes. Remove them from the treatment area and tip the bowls upside down, then rinse them out after product application has been completed. Also, be sure not to spray outside faucets, since those are likely to be the source of the pet’s water.
- Hamsters, gerbils and other small animals. Remember the equation Time + Exposure = Toxicity. If you can eliminate exposure by having these pets removed from the application area until the product is dry, you’ve broken that equation because the product is inaccessible to them. They are usually easy to relocate since they tend to live in portable enclosures.
- Reptiles, birds and fish. These pets are more vulnerable to pesticides, so suggest that customers consult their veterinarians if they’d like their advice prior to treatment. Offer the customer a list of ingredients that will be applied so they can share that with the vet. As with other small animals, recommend moving birds or reptiles to the garage or another location for four to six hours. In the case of fish tanks, make sure any filters are turned off and cover the tank with plastic wrap during the treatment period.
- Arachnids and non-target insects. These more unusual pets present a heightened challenge. Of course, they must be removed from the treatment area to avoid pesticide exposure, but secondary poisoning can also be a concern — for example, you treat ants in the house that are then eaten by a pet spider. Make the customer fully aware of the risks and be sure to get their written sign-off.
Olesen said his advice to get consent in writing is well-advised from a liability standpoint. “In my experience, the pest management company is the first one blamed when a pet becomes sick,” he said. “I personally take those calls and get the customer anything they need. In fact, we have a file with product and vet information that can be sent to them in a matter of seconds. So far, we have never been the cause of the animal being sick, but you don’t even want that to become a question.”
Haynes’ training team encourages technicians to build a rapport with their customers that includes letting them know if something goes amiss during the service call. “We tell our technicians that we all make mistakes now and then; it’s how you react to a mistake that counts. If you inadvertently sprayed a water bowl, clean it off, tip it over and let the customer know what happened. This is part of communicating, ‘We love your pets like you love your pets. Just clean the bowl and you’ll be fine,’ or whatever message needs to be conveyed.”
MARKETING BUILDS BUSINESS. If you’re pet-friendly, let it show! That’s the philosophy of some pest management companies as they realize the power of appealing to the two-thirds of American households with pets. Eco Serve Pest Services in western New York state has built their entire brand around its owners’ black Labrador Theo, whose presence provides assurance to customers seeking a family- and pet-friendly service provider.
PestStop believes in incorporating pet-related images and messaging in their marketing. “We feature pets whenever possible, not so much as a strategy as just an opportunity to share something we’re passionate about,” Olesen said. “Most of our pet-related messaging is about protecting your four-legged family members and their food bowls from odorous house ants and protecting their environment from fleas and wildlife that may carry diseases.”
Haynes Exterminating features pet images in some of their marketing materials, too. “When we do mosquito marketing, we tend to include a photo of a dog, because one of the reasons people get mosquito control is to prevent their pets from bites that can cause heartworm or other diseases,” said Haynes. “By including Rover, we remind customers that our services are protecting not only the people in their home but also their pets.”
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The author is a regular contributor to PCT.