By Heather Norris Catonsville Times, Ellicott City, Md.
Three years ago, Catonsville resident Erin Travis was working in an Owings Mills photo studio, editing wedding pictures.
Today, she is the owner of a rising business in what has proven in recent years to be one of the strongest industries in the country: pet care.
"I wasn't 100 percent happy," said Travis, 33, of her days spent working at a desk. "I always knew that I wanted to be my own boss."
And so, three years ago, she launched Trails and Tails Pet Care, where she offers dog walking, hiking, running, compatibility training and pet-sitting for clients from all over southwestern Baltimore County.
Studies suggest Travis is onto something.
The pet care industry has proven to be one of the most steadily successful industries over the course of the past decade, according to a data from the American Pet Products Association.
In 2015, Americans are expected to spend a record $60.59 billion on their pets, up from the $58.04 billion spent by the country's pet owners in 2014, according to the APPA, which tracks spending on pets in the U.S. In fact, APPA figures show, Americans' expenditures on their pets have almost doubled since 2002. Compared with APPA data from 1994, the spending has more than tripled.
The number of pet owners has been steadily growing as well. In 1988, the APPA says, 56 percent of U.S. households owned a pet. Today, the organization says that number has risen to 65 percent.
May 2013 statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggest that spending on pets defies recession, even when a pet owner's income has decreased. During the economic downturn of 2007 to 2011, the bureau recorded no change in the percentage of household income pet owners spent on their animals. People will cut back on restaurant spending, the BLS notes, but spending on pet care stayed consistent.
According to 2011 statistics, pet owners spent more on their animals that year than they did on alcohol, landline home phones or men's or boy's clothing.
The spending on pet food alone, BLS statistics show, outweighs what the average household is willing to spend on chicken, bread, candy, cereal and even reading materials.
But for Travis, getting involved in an industry that was showing steady growth, regardless of the state of the economy, was just icing on the cake. What she was looking for was a way to spend time outdoors, playing with dogs and other animals.
The youngest daughter in a military family, she moved to the area as a teenager. She graduated from Hammond High School, in Columbia before eventually winding up at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Having grown up with dogs and cats, she began pet-sitting for friends and neighbors on the side while still working at her photography job.
One day, a neighbor she had never before met came to her door. She said she had seen Travis walking her dog in all kinds of weather and said she could tell Travis was an animal lover. The woman asked if Travis could care for her dog while she was away on a trip. She would pay her for her services, the neighbor said.
"At that point, I was like, 'Maybe this is what I should be doing.'" she said.
From there, Trails & Tails Pet Care was launched.
For the first year, Travis did all of the walking, running and caring by herself. She joined online business listings, left business cards on local cafe counters, and encouraged customers to spread the word.
"Slow and steady, I built my client base," she said.
After about a year in business, she hired help in the form of one part-time employee, Clara Croll.
"It got to a point where I was just running myself ragged," she said.
Before long, she was able to take Croll on full time and even hire a couple more part-time workers. Today, with an ever-growing business, she said she's always on the lookout for more help.
Travis estimates that she has about 275 four-legged clients at this time, most of which live in the Arbutus-Catonsville-Ellicott City vicinity.
When pet owners want to enlist the help of Travis and Trails & Tails, they have a number of options. Travis' services include stopping by clients' homes just to let the dog out to go to the bathroom, as well as walking the dogs or taking them hiking and running, all with different lengths of time available.
Visits or walks range in price from $15 for a 15-minute "potty break" to $30 for a 60-minute run with the dog.
She also offers full-day play days at her Paradise home for between $25 and $40 and a variety of options for pet-sitting for dogs and cats while owners are out of town.
Though some clients have asked her about adding grooming services to her list of available options, Travis said that is a part of the market she has no plans to get into.
She has, however, begun to sell her own homemade dog treats at the Greater Catonsville Chamber of Commerce's Sunday farmer's market. All recipes must be approved by her own dogs, Sweetwater and Barley, first, she said.
She also sells neon-colored safety banners, printed with first-aid instructions, available on her website, in addition to apparel with Trails & Tails' "Ruff It" motto.
In the spring, Travis was nominated by the Greater Catonsville Chamber of Commerce, of which she is a member, for a county revitalization award honoring young entrepreneurs.
That she didn't win did not diminish her appreciation for the recommendation. "It's pretty cool, I have to admit," she said of the nomination. "I was very grateful."
There are currently no other chamber members with a business like Trails & Tails, said Teal Cary, executive director of the Greater Catonsville Chamber of Commerce.
Over the course of the past two years that Travis has been a chamber member, Cary said many other members have been inspired to see her build her business from the ground up and happy to see it grow.
"It's great that Catonsville has that kind of business," Cary said, adding that she hopes the existence of successful small business created and directed by a young person encourages other young people to follow in Travis' footsteps. "Small business really is the backbone of our economy."
On a recent Thursday afternoon walk at Patapsco Valley State Park, another hiker walking a dog recognized Travis. The woman, excited to run into her, asked Travis if she was hiring and told her she'd be in touch.
"You meet some pretty awesome people," Travis said.
And the dogs are good too.
"This is the only job that I go to work sick, I don't care," she said. "I'm busy, and I guess if I'm busy, I guess the business is doing well."