Tens of millions of Chinese have registered pet dogs, market stalls and online agencies selling all manner of pets are popular, and services from pet hospitals to shelters to crematoriums have sprung up – but dog is still on some menus.
Liang, 39, believes his temperament stems from an illness Alai suffered when he was abandoned by his previous owner at about three months old. A member of the public found him and took him to the animal hospital from where Liang adopted him, and where Alai was treated with cheap medicine that rotted his teeth.
She says Alai is always anxious when he is out walking beyond the walls of Liang’s apartment compound in the southern Chinese city. “He is so stressed out that when he comes back home he naps for four hours, but we are slowly getting him socialised,” says Liang, who works in marketing and branding for a technology company.
Liang and her husband’s commitment to Alai are a sign of how much attitudes towards pets have changed since China began to open up in the late 1970s.
Pet ownership was branded as bourgeois after the communists came to power in 1949. Dogs were merely another source of sustenance. They could be seen hanging skinned in food markets and listed as a delicacy on restaurant menus.
In the past few decades, however, as Chinese citizens have become wealthier, pet ownership has skyrocketed.
The China Pet Products Association reported earlier this year there were 50 million registered dogs in the country, with pet ownership growing at 15 per cent a year. Pet markets and commercial breeding centres – known as “dog farms” – have sprung up to meet the demand.
While many Guangzhou residents were off sweeping their ancestors’ graves during this month’s Ching Ming Festival, a good number were at the Yuehe pet market in the Fangcun district. Yuehe, one of China’s largest wholesale and retail markets, has hundreds of stalls selling pets – mostly fish, rabbits, kittens, gerbils and turtles.
About 10 stalls have shallow pens full of small puppies that visitors are encouraged to play – and take selfies – with to increase the chances of them being sold. A young poodle or pug costs 3,800 yuan (US$600).
Liang says looking after Alai can be expensive. Food costs up to 600 yuan per month, and if he gets ill medical bills can easily amount to thousands of yuan.
There are hundreds of “dogs for sale” listings on the internet, and breeder Lin Tong boasts that most of them are posted by agents selling his dogs.
Lin, in his mid-30s and sporting a ponytail, drives a Mercedes-Benz as proof of his success. He describes his revenue from breeding dogs as baoli, or “explosive profits”. His dog farm, Wangchai Zhuang, is located in Kantou, a village under the jurisdiction of Foshan, a city to the south of Guangzhou.
On one wall of Lin’s living room are a dozen or so ribbons he has won in dog competitions, while another is covered in framed pictures of Lin with happy owners and their pets. Among the two groups of eager customers waiting for Lin when he opens his shop are a couple and their four-year-old son.
The wife has researched the Shiba Inu breed of dog and wants one because it’s small, doesn’t bark much and is good natured. They have no problem dropping 10,000 yuan for a two-month-old puppy. Meanwhile, a woman in her 20s dressed in a T-shirt and cut-off denim shorts can’t decide which golden retriever puppy to take home with her to Guangzhou.
“I like them because they are so beautiful,” she says, adding she has five other dogs – two German shepherds, and three other retrievers her mother looks after in Qingdao, Shandong province.
Behind Lin’s property, next to a murky pond, is a row of 20 narrow brick sheds, 19 of which house bitches, most with litters of three-week-old puppies. Metres away, in raised cages above the pond, are male dogs, restless and barking.
Despite the growth of the pet industry, old attitudes persist, as can be seen in the widespread controversy over the annual Yulin Dog Meat Festival, held over the summer solstice in Guangxi province. Braised dog meat – once a popular winter dish in Guangdong province because it is regarded as a warming food – is rarely seen on restaurant menus these days.
Dege Hakka, in Yuancun, Guangzhou’s Tianhe district, is now one of the few restaurants in the city serving dog meat. Its menu includes a claypot of “fragrant meat” – a euphemism for dog meat. A small portion costs 130 yuan, while a large one is 260 yuan – compared to 300 yuan for a large claypot of lamb.
The dish arrives quickly, rendered fragrant with large chunks of ginger and a generous portion of spring onion. Although it smells good, the meat is tough and roughly chopped, making it difficult to eat.
At the next table, a man is trying to order the fragrant meat dish, but his female companions are vocally opposed.
Outside the city, in Gaolang, part of the town of Taihe, Chris Liu is welcoming the bereaved at his pet crematorium. Although the Guangzhou government has established a free cremation service for animals, the pet funeral industry is burgeoning as owners continue to splurge on their pets after death.
Liu says his was one of the first companies to offer such a service, in 2009. He and his business partner started the venture after his partner’s dog died. He had wanted to give it a funeral but couldn’t find anywhere offering the service, so they decided to do it themselves.
Zheng Xuena, 26, arrives with the body of her cat Mimi wrapped in a blanket. She places the ginger feline on a piece of yellow Buddhist fabric, while incense is lit and a recording of Buddhist prayers is played in the small funeral parlour.
Zheng weeps as she pats Mimi’s head, before her young brother and sister, and her colleague, do the same. After a moment of silence, Liu solemnly takes Mimi’s body, wrapped in the yellow cloth, and places it in the smaller of two crematoriums. Once the door is sealed, the fire is started up, and it takes 40 minutes for the cremation to be completed.
Zheng earns about 4,000 yuan a month from online retailing, but was willing to fork out 480 yuan for Mimi’s funeral. “Before I had a cat, I didn’t really have feelings towards animals,” she says, wiping tears from her reddened eyes.
Mimi had health problems and Zheng spent 1,000 yuan a month on medication, but the cat could not be saved. “I feel it’s important to give her a proper funeral. I will keep the ashes,” she says.
Meanwhile Betty Zheng Hua (not related) talks longingly about her first cat, Tangdou, who died last year. “In the summer of 2016 I was depressed, and I came home and watched a movie on my laptop. I was crying and he jumped onto my lap, and then put his paws on my shoulder as if to console me,” Zheng, 45, recalls.
“Animals have hearts and souls. I look into my cats’ eyes to tell them I love them, and I think they understand me,” she says, adding that she now has five cats. All are rescue cats that she has adopted, including one that had lost a leg.
“When you see an animal in poor condition, you can’t help but want to help it,” she says, adding she has donated about 100,000 yuan since 2016 to animal hospitals that take care of strays.
The problem of stray cats and dogs has become a downside to the growth in pet ownership in China, where there is a lack of laws and regulations to protect them, and limited education about pet ownership. The dumping of pets that are no longer wanted has become widespread.
Darren Wang, China outreach manager for animal welfare education at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, says that, while it’s good news that many people are trying to help these strays, putting them into animal hospitals or shelters is not a long-term solution.
“The sad reality is that pet hospitals or pet hotels are not the best choices for housing, as they are often overcrowded and underresourced, and so these animals may be at higher risk of contracting diseases. Before helping an animal, you should think if you can provide the animal a home that has good animal welfare standards.”