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    China Business
     Jan 31, 2006

By Pallavi Aiyar

BEIJING - Many Chinese have seen their lives transformed by rocketing incomes, greater personal freedom and changes in family structure. But the people of China are not the only ones in the country affected by progress. The various contradictions resulting from China's struggle to balance centuries-old traditions with rapid modernization are shown by the unprecedented rise in the popularity of dogs as pets.

Dogs are at present caught somewhere in an awkward middle ground between man's best friend and a comforting soup. It's a

common sight to see pampered, manicured pooches frolicking with their doting owners just a few meters away from a restaurant where diners chow down on stewed dog meat.

Despite these ambiguities, the social status of dogs in the country is certainly improving. In a society where, not so long ago, raising pets was banned as a bourgeois, capitalist tendency, it is now chic to own one. "Pet fashion designer" was among a list of new professions published last year by the Ministry of Labor and Social Security.

According to the market research firm Euromonitor International, the percentage of dog owners in China increased from 5% in 1999 to 15% in 2004. The company estimates that dog- and cat-food sales in 2004 reached 1.6 billion yuan (US$198.5 million), a hefty increase of some 13% over the previous year. While small in scale compared with the market in developed countries, Euromonitor is bullish on the mainland's growth potential for pet-care products, predicting that the pet population will continue to increase strongly over the next five years.

Beijing alone currently has some 300-odd pet care and products shops. At the sybaritic Royal Canine store next to the city's Worker's Stadium, customers patiently wait in long lines to give their pets a full dog beauty treatment, including shampoo and blow-dry, manicure and gum cleaning. The cost is anywhere from $12-$25, depending on the size of the dog, in a country where the average monthly wage is still only around $120. While waiting, the customers can peruse an astonishing variety of pet products including natural oatmeal shampoo, tea-tree oil perfume, lace-trimmed couches, and cheddar-cheese-flavored cookies.

Olivia Ma, a Beijinger who works for the oil company Royal Dutch Shell, says expense is not a concern when it comes to her cherished pup, Ma Lin, a golden cocker spaniel. Explaining why she has brought in her dog for beauty treatment, she said, "It's soon going to be Chinese New Year, and Ma Lin is part of the family, so he should look as beautiful for the festival as we do."

Across the mainland, a wide array of pet-care products and services are mushrooming, including specialist pet clothing stores, dentists, traditional Chinese medicines developed specially for pets and pet burial services. However, given that these come with a weighty price tag, Euromonitor's research revealed that pet food remains the primary purchase of most pet owners. When packaged dog food first made an appearance in Chinese supermarkets in the early 1990s, many people were not quite clear on what it was, with some consumers reportedly purchasing it to eat themselves, mistaking it for canned dog meat.

Chinese dogs have until recently had a rather unhappy lot in life. Throughout the heyday of communism from the 1950s to the late 1970s, regular dog-extermination programs were carried out on the mainland. Canines were seen as a threat to public hygiene and were routinely executed by mobs. Even the new China of glittering malls and Starbucks coffee shops hasn't completely rid itself of such tendencies. During the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic of mid-2003, for example, unfounded fears that dogs might be carriers of the virus led to hundreds of animals being rounded up off the streets and put to death.

Li Huan Lan, 47, recalled, eyes wide with terror, how during the SARS scare she had to keep her beloved Pekinese Bao Ber indoors at all times, fearing that were he to be caught outside, she would be forced to give him up. "I used to let him out for just a few minutes so he could go to the bathroom, and sometimes even if he hadn't had time to do his business, I had to rush him back into the house," she said.

Attitudes to dogs are further complicated by their traditional role as a warming food, ostensibly beneficial to circulation and perfect for the cold winter months. Juliana Liu, a journalist with Reuters in Beijing, looked back 15 years and remembered how her childhood pet dog mysteriously disappeared, only to reappear later as dinner. The dog had been given to the family as a present and was considered too expensive to maintain. Eating it was just more practical.

There are still more than 100 restaurants in Beijing that serve dog meat, but three-quarters of the city's more than 460,000 registered pooches now happily feed on packaged dog foods. According to Euromonitor, US-based pet-food giant Mars dominates the dog- and cat-food market in the mainland, with its popular brands Whiskas and Pedigree accounting for 58% of retail sales in 2004. Recently, domestic producers have been making efforts to boost their product quality and are now vying for sales opportunities in the medium price segment, but because of low brand awareness continue to cater mainly to the low end of the market.

However, the low end of the market is in fact the largest. The growing popularity of pet dogs is not simply an urban luxury that accompanies increasing affluence in the context of a booming economy. Increasingly, dogs are the companions of choice for the retired elderly, whose proportional numbers are growing rapidly because of the one-child policy.

In the drive to give the city a facelift before the 2008 Summer Olympics, most of the capital city's historic, community-oriented neighborhoods have been torn down, and families who have lived next to one another for generations have abruptly been separated and relocated in anonymous highrises on the city's outskirts. Far away from their increasingly mobile and busy children, China's elderly are turning to dogs for comfort and love in their old age.

Zhang Gui Lan, 60, fussed after her frisky Pug, Xiang Pi, as he frolicked down a winding street. "Be careful, Xiang Pi, avoid the bicycles, keep to the side," she anxiously yelled out. Xiang Pi was a gift from her son. "Earlier, I was bored and alone. I rarely saw my children. Now Xiang Pi is like my new child," she beamed.

Nonetheless, owning a dog is no stroll in the park in urban China, particularly for the less well-off. And pets still fall victim to communist bureaucracy: all dogs must have a license. In Beijing for example, the fee for this license was originally $600, followed by an additional yearly registration fee of $250. Since late 2003, the initial registration has been reduced to $120 and the annual fee to $8. More than 40 categories of dogs including Dalmatians, terriers, collies and Labradors remain illegal to own, as they are deemed "dangerous" by city authorities because of their size. Moreover, in a manner similar to the one-child policy, Beijing imposes a one-dog policy whereby each family is restricted to ownership of a single canine.

Elene Locke of Hong Kong recently opened Beijing's first "dog cafe" where, rather than being served up as food, pooches are placed at the table alongside their owners. Her four-footed customers can choose from a variety of home-made doggie cookies, including cheddar cheese, garlic chicken and corn-flake flavors. Other than nibbles, scarves, raincoats and even necklaces are available for furry fashionistas.

Locke said, "In China it's still not easy being a dog. Even people who own pets sometimes see no problem with eating them." She added, however, that attitudes are gradually changing, as evidenced by the bounding, panting customers that fill her cafe. Moreover, even diehard dog-meat fans in China tend to distinguish between dogs (usually large mongrels) that are meant to be eaten and fall under the generic category of "food dog" (cai gou) and such dogs as the ubiquitous Pekinese, which are definitely pets.

Growing disparities frame a lot of the analysis surrounding contemporary China. It's no surprise, then, that for canines as well, there is an increasing distinction between the haves and the have-nots: for some dogs, life is one long spa treatment - but for others, it's nasty and short.

Pallavi Aiyar is the Beijing correspondent for the Indian Express newspaper.

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China vs SARS: A good dog is a dead dog (Mar 31, '03)

SARS bad news for Beijing pets
(Mar 13, '03)

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