China’s pet obsession with dogs is a billion dollar industry, writes Geoff Tink from Shanghai.
The domesticated dog has an ancient history in China. DNA studies of 654 different breeds of dogs found that the widest genetic variation is present in dogs in China. This points to China being the origin of canine domestication some 15,000 years ago.
In traditional Chinese society, the dog served purely practical purposes, such as herding, guard duty – or a source of food. However from 1949, dog ownership was forbidden in urban areas. The reason was twofold. On one hand, dogs were considered to be a sign of bourgeois, capitalist indulgence. On the other, dogs were considered a risk to public health – especially rabies.
With the opening up of China, this situation has again come to change. Today, with increased disposable income, greater social freedoms, increased exposure to western ideas, and a smaller family unit created by the one-child policy; dog ownership is on the rise. And in today’s China, dogs have come a long, long way.
In a nation where conspicuous consumption has now become an art form, owning a rare pure bred dog is becoming a more common way to display wealth. The Tibetan mastiff is a popular choice. In 2011, an 11-month old 82 kilogram Tibetan mastiff raised on a gourmet diet of grain-fed beef, chicken, abalone and sea cucumber, and going by a name that roughly translates as “Big Splash”, sold to a confidential collector for RMB 10 million (A$1.5 million). Reports say the coal baron from northern China considered Big Splash a worthwhile investment. With a single breeding session rumoured to cost upwards of RMB 100,000 (A$15,400).
But for those without the money to finance a penchant for pure breeds, there are other avenues for dog ownership.
Friends of mine own a dog that answers to the name of “Panda”. When they found Panda from a pet shop, he looked uncannily like a baby panda – black spots over the eyes and little black ears. Panda passed for a panda until his first bath. Pandas are just one of a vast variety of animal impersonations for Chinese dogs. I have seen dogs dressed as a two-humped Bactrian camel, or a wild Great Plains Bison (horns and all).
Sadly, these stories don’t always have happy endings. A recent investigation by the Beijing Morning Post revealed some of the dirty secrets of pet markets in China. Many locations accommodate thousands of dogs in cramped and unhygienic conditions, where infections spread rapidly. When disinfectants are used, the doses are usually diluted. And when the puppies reach the sales floor, many are injected with a potent monoclonal antibody therapy that makes them leap and frisk about for up to a week. As many new owners will attest, life expectancy is short.
*Pictured: Doggie accessories are a big business in China – in 2012 alone, the Chinese pet care market generated revenue of RMB 7.8 billion (A$1.2 billion). (SL)
Even the rise of pure breed dogs has its dark side. With values skyrocketing, theft is now emerging as a major problem – and any dog is a target. In October 2012, China’s only guide dog in Jinan city, Shandong province – a golden retriever named Betty – went missing. Despite an extensive search effort across news networks and social media, she was not found.
The simple fact is that like many elements of modern life in China, dog ownership is yet another social concept that is still a work in progress. And in case the threat of kidnapping or consumption is not enough of a canine concern, ownership of large dogs is not yet fully authorised in some cities.
In Beijing, households are allowed one dog. Dogs over 35 centimetres in height are banned within the city’s fourth ring road.
In Shanghai, households are also limited to only one registered pet. The registration was recently dropped to RMB 1,500 (A$230) – still out of reach for many Chinese owners.
Nonetheless, the life of a dog in China is on the up – and so are the opportunities for savvy businesses. The Chinese pet care market generated revenue of RMB 7.8 billion (A$1.2 billion) in 2012, representing growth of 46 percent since 2007. Estimates indicate that expenditure on pet care will grow a further 64 percent to RMB 12.9 billion (A$2 billion) by 2017. The evidence is everywhere, whether it is gourmet dog food stores, dog swimming pools, dog photo studios or even doggie social networks. There was even a short-lived doggie cinema in Beijing.
Some estimates show the dog population in China is growing at 30 percent per year. Take a walk outside a city apartment block in the early evening and it’s hard to disagree. But the past is never far behind. When typing the character 狗 (“gou” – dog) into an iPhone, the predictive text is still quick to prompt with the next character of 肉 (“rou” – meat). As with many rapid social changes in China, the past is never far behind. ■
*Geoff Tink has lived in China for over eight years and speaks fluent Mandarin. Originally from Sydney, Geoff currently manages marketing events and communications for international brands in China. Geoff keeps a weibo account: @T_丁先生.