'Petpreneurs' bark up the right tree

Australians' increasing interaction with household pets has spawned a robust small business industry. From dog cafes and gourmet treats to animal shampoos and minding homes, enterprising "petpreneurs" are seizing the opportunity to cater to creature comforts.

Australians' increasing interaction with household pets has spawned a robust small business industry. From dog cafes and gourmet treats to animal shampoos and minding homes, enterprising "petpreneurs" are seizing the opportunity to cater to creature comforts.

There are 25 million pets in Australia (2 million more than the human population), with a flourishing industry now worth about $8 billion a year.

One venture specialising in dog treats is the Gourmet Dog Barkery in Newcastle, which is a cafe and bakery for dogs. Cafe owner Lisa Haynes started making biscuits for her dog four years ago because there were not a lot of preservative-free healthy treats available.

"We started selling them online and at markets and soon realised that there was a demand," she says.

Haynes had always wanted to open a dog cafe, but had three small children and no funds. With demand increasing, she was able to achieve her dream and Gourmet Dog Barkery opened in March.

All its products are handmade and have no preservatives. "We have customers whose dogs might have a protein allergy and it's very hard these days to get dog treats that don't have protein in them," Haynes says.

She makes more than 35 dog biscuit varieties, wheat-free doggy snack bars, plus a range of cakes, sausage rolls, birthday cakes and birthday bones, with prices starting at $1 for fresh yoghurt-dipped peanut butter and banana mini doughnuts, going up to one-kilogram bags of treats for $40.

Haynes hopes to open five more stores in the next five years, with the central coast and Sydney on her radar.

Another "petpreneur" is Melburnian Katrina Thomson, founder of idpet.com.au. Thomson, who has been producing personalised clothing for children for eight years through idtee.com.au, quickly realised there was a market for dogs.

"People are willing to spend money on their pets even more so than on their kids. Max, my dog, is like a family member to us."

But when she decided to personalise Max's things she could not find anything online to reflect his personality. So she started idpet.com.au in May.

Thomson says she set up her business with just under $50,000. Her husband, Bill, looks after the technical side of things, and the website was up and running in 12 weeks. "We produce and print and do all the design work locally. Where we can source things and get them made locally, we will. So we don't have to have huge amounts of stock," she says.

The products include collars, ID tags, tops, beds, placemats and ceramic bowls with the pet's name on it. "We cater to the personality of the people and the pets, so they can have the whole range made up just for them." Prices range from $12.95 for an ID tag, up to $154 for a bed.

Pet minding is another lucrative trade. After house-sitting for a holidaying pet owner, Sue Coombs came up with mindahome.com.au, which she started with Mel Hogan in 2008.

"I looked around to see what was available. There wasn't much about. So we came up with the idea of starting our own site," she says.

The house-sitter pays an annual fee of $49. If they don't get a gig in 12 months, there is a money-back guarantee. "Very few people ask for their money back because most find something that suits them."

A boarding kennel, says Melbourne-based Coombs, can cost a pet owner $100 a day, while a house-sitter is free.

Coombs and Hogan have about 1400 house-sitters, and about 250 homes are listed with them.

They are now eyeing the overseas market, especially England and the US. But before that, they plan to develop new features on their website.

In the meantime, our passion for pets is helping make the cash registers purr with satisfaction.

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