03/17/2016 04:00 EDT | Updated 03/18/2017 01:12 EDT

Warm winter weather, weak economy take bite out of pet sector sales

MONTREAL — An unseasonably warm winter in Eastern Canada and a weak economy have taken a big bite out of sales from businesses that cater to furry best friends, the pet products industry says.

"For us, it's a big hurt," said Marianne Bertrand, owner of Muttluks. The Toronto-based company estimates that sales of doggie coats and boots have slipped by more than 30 per cent this winter.

"It's an ouch."

Muttluks, whose boots were recently given to U.S. President Barack Obama's dogs by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during his state visit, was forced to lay off about a dozen employees when it prematurely shut production late last year.

The winter, which accounts for more than half its annual sales, was shaping up to be the worst in memory, Bertrand said.

"We thought we were going to have a Christmas party," she said. "Instead, we laid everybody off. It was depressing."

Montreal pet store Doghaus said the warm winter prompted it to slash its prices in half and it plans to offer even deeper discounts to help clear inventory.

"It wasn't a wasteland or anything, but it definitely was lighter than other years," said manager Sarah Miller-Barrington.

The pet business is worth nearly $7 billion annually, including food, clothing, accessories and trips to the veterinarian, according to the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council of Canada. The industry has been evolving with sales of coats, booties and other accessories growing steadily.

Industry surveys have suggested that most pet owners are willing to spend extra for the best products available, including food, even if they are more expensive.

Like many of her customers, Miller-Barrington says she tends to "mother" her eight-year-old Shetland Sheepdog named Fergus, even though his heavy fur coat protects him from the elements.

Just as parents outfit their children for the cold, many people feel the same obligation to their pets, she added. Others simply view it as an opportunity to make a fashion statement by finding a fun new dog coat each year.

"For me personally, I think it's more so that I feel comfortable with what I've done for him," she said.

K9 Excel owner Johanne Beaulieu said she hasn't seen this level of sales decline in the six years she's operated the Montreal store and website, which sells clothes, boots, and dog diapers.

Buyers aren't just the wealthy — they come from all walks of life, Beaulieu said.

"It's people for whom an animal is their baby," she said.

A weaker economy, especially in Western Canada, has also contributed to diminished sales of pet products, says Louis McCann, CEO of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council of Canada.

Clothing and boots are highly dependent on weather but the health of the economy plays a more important role in purchasing decisions, he said.

"I think it's cyclical and it's a more difficult year this year."

Ross Marowits, The Canadian Press