To many people outside of China, it is still considered a country of dog eaters. It may surprise them to hear that China’s market for pets and pets-related goods has tripled in the last five years, projected to reach 214 billion RMB by 2022. While dog eating is still practiced in certain areas, the trend is not to cook them, but rather to pamper them exorbitantly.
According to goumin.com — China’s largest pet information platform — as of 2018 there are 73.55 million urban pet owners in China, and they spent an average of 5,016 RMB per pet last year, up 15% from 2017.
In cities like Shanghai, pet specialty shops have sprung up at an impressive speed. On every street you can spot well-groomed dogs trotting at their owners’ heels. I’ve met people who have bought extra refrigerators to keep all their fancy imported pet food and snacks. A friend of a friend launched her own petite dog fashion line that sold tweed capes, rain coats, and tuxedo jackets. My social media continuously shows me pictures of friends showing off their furry companions. I’ve been frankly dazzled by the pet love all around me — it certainly seems like pets in China are living their best lives.
Yet out of the proverbial corner of my eye, I do notice a few friends who are involved in animal rescue frequently posting urgent messages on social media about cats and dogs that needed a forever home, or fundraised for rescue animal medical bills. It didn’t occur to me that this could be connected with the booming pet industry until I spoke recently with Larisa Ischenko, a localization specialist who does animal rescue in her spare time. “In the last three years I have done animal rescue, it has gotten so much harder,” Ischenko says. “There are more animals being rescued than ever, and fewer people willing to adopt them.
“Purebreds used to get adopted in a day or a week, and now many wait indefinitely.”
Even without being a pet owner, I knew purebreds are coveted status symbols and quite expensive — surely it’s not hard to find purebred pets a new home if they are being given away for free? And if Chinese pet owners are spending more on their pets than ever before, why do so many end up homeless?
It turns out there’s a lot I didn’t know about the world of pets in China.
When I was growing up in Beijing in the early ’90s, pets were not very common. My aunt had a pet cat that ate her leftovers in a plastic dish under the dining room table and kept the mice away. Once denounced by Mao Zedong as “bourgeois vanity,” it wasn’t until the 2010s when pet ownership became extremely fashionable, causing the market for all things pets to boom.
Common local breeds quickly gave way to beautiful purebred animals. For cats, it was the Scottish Fold; for dogs, it was the Tibetan Mastiff, Samoy, Alaskan Malamute, Golden Retriever, Bulldog, Shiba Inu, Toy Poodle and more.
Out of the long list of trendy dog breeds, only a few fare well in urban environments and climates where they end up — most suffer from cramped living spaces, lack of exercise, and skin disease. Inexperienced owners cannot anticipate that the cute, cuddly pups and kittens will in fact demand so much more of their time and energy when they are grown.
As noted by Alexandra Vasquez, an investment banker and seasoned volunteer with the PPAR Shelter in Shanghai:
“Many first time owners are drawn to the beauty and status of purebred pets, but even though buying them is easy, they lack basic knowledge about what the animals need.
“With adoption, potential owners are screened much more thoroughly by rescuers for compatibility before an animal is taken home.”
It certainly seems far too easy to become a pet owner in China, and it is an area that is virtually a regulatory void. The only laws that pertain to pets concern household registration and dog walking area restrictions. There is nothing related to standardization of animal welfare, health, or commerce. The government has taken a laissez faire stance, allowing the market to develop unhindered by regulation. If anything, the authorities seem only keen to encourage pet ownership. It was 2,000RMB to procure a dog license seven years ago in central Shanghai; today, it is only 300RMB.
Shanghai has the highest average disposable income in the country at 64,183RMB per year. If 2,000RMB for a pet license was prohibitive before, the 85% discount lowered the barrier of entry to that of an impulse buy. For unscrupulous breeders looking to make easy money, nothing prevents them from taking advantage of high demand by churning out puppies and kittens in unsanitary and unhealthy conditions. Vasquez recounts her own experience of busting a puppy mill in her own apartment building, where 12 volunteers rescued over 90 puppies from a 40-square-meter apartment stacked wall-to-wall with filthy cages.
Animals bred in inhumane conditions often become what’s referred to as “week cats” and “week dogs,” as in they live for only one week after purchase. Hu Yiruo, a pet shop owner and rescuer, laments: “Lack of upstream control is the biggest problem today.
“In other countries you have to jump through some hoops to be able to sell and buy live animals. In China, you just need to be able to afford it, and few seem to consider the possibility of having compatibility issues with their pet, or have a back-up plan.”
Though pet abandonment is increasingly considered inappropriate by the younger generation, it is still a growing problem by volume due to the sheer increase in pet ownership. On microblogging site Weibo, there are numerous posts about animals abandoned at pet stores (see below image), and the rescuers I spoke to all protect their identities for fear of being buried in abandoned pets that people would dump on their doorsteps.
Many pet clinics and hotels now charge high deposits to deter owners from not picking up their pets after this became a popular practice for those who do not have the heart to throw their pets away.
Sean Factor, a shipping manager and dedicated rescuer, is worried that the various shelters and rescues that depend entirely on volunteers and donations will become overwhelmed and burnt out from the ever-growing number of animals that need help. “I really wish pet owners would become better educated on pets, so that fewer pets are given up,” he says. “Volunteer rescuers cannot keep taking on this growing burden alone.”
“So many still part too easily with their pets, be it due to marriage, break up, pregnancy, sickness, moving homes — everything is a valid excuse. Many still don’t treat pets like family members, and we rescuers only do what we can,” Fang Min, a retired cat rescuer with 14 cats at home, told me. A devout Buddhist, she is very critical of people who treat pets like commodities rather than as living beings with feelings and needs.
According to goumin.com, a higher number of cats are acquired through adoption than dogs, and sadly for dogs that are not taken in by rescuers, a grim fate likely awaits them. Hu informed me that many districts in Shanghai have civil servants whose sole duties are to capture stray dogs to fulfill a monthly quota. These dogs are then permanently impounded until death, with no hope to be adopted and saved.
As the pet market in China continues to grow, so does the population of strays. (This is partly because of popular attitudes towards neutering and spaying pets, which often vary from neutral to resistant to the practice.) Leslie Han, head of animal welfare for Vet An An pet clinic in Shanghai, remarked that a TNR (“Trap-Neuter-Release”) program has seen modest success through collaboration with the local government, and that his team managed to neuter some 3,000 cats in the last two years, estimated to be around 1% of the city’s stray cat population.
While preventing further reproduction in strays is helpful, many agree the most effective measure is to nip this trend in the bud, and legislate on industry standards so as to encourage humane and responsible breeding and selling of pets, as well as more informed pet ownership.