Pet ownership is a relatively new trend in China, and the country’s elite is now buying cute pooches in droves so they can dress them up in bling accessories and designer outfits à la Paris Hilton.
“The pet industry is booming [and should] grow by more than 50 percent to $2.6 billion (15.8 billion RMB) by 2019,” says Forbes, quoting Market research provider Euromonitor International. Moreover, Forbes highlights that “the pet care sector in China is rapidly outpacing the world’s biggest market — the United States — which grew by just over 4 percent in 2015 (to an estimated $60.6 billion).” Along the same lines, The National Bureau of Statistics China announced that the country occupies the third position globally in dog ownership after the U.S. (55.3 million) and Brazil (35.7 million), with 27.4 million dogs. But according to Mary Peng, Chief Executive Officer and Founder of the International Center for Veterinary Services (ICVS), that number is actually bigger.
While talking to Jing Daily, Peng says that “the statistics on the number of dogs in China varies widely based on different sources.” According to Peng, dog registration data is a good starting point, but she notes that “based on proprietary ICVS research and thousands of interviews with dog owners, only about 30-50% of Beijing residents have registered their dogs.” In other words, the real number of pet dogs is much higher than the official one. And, Peng adds, dog registration in Tier 2, 3, and 4 cities falls below the 30% mark.
Dog ownership in the mainland has skyrocketed, and experts have presented various theories to explain China’s newly found love of pets. Some point to the rise of social media platforms, which have transformed cute puppies and cats into overnight celebrities and/or furry influencers, while many blame the rise of China’s “Me Culture,” which encourages younger Chinese citizens to embrace self-expression and individualism. On top of that, there’s also the fact that the country’s one-child policy has created China’s “loneliest generation.” Many kids who grew up as an only child felt isolated and alone and turned to pets as their trusted friends. Furthermore, as these kids grew up, they felt empowered to prioritize their professional goals instead of settling down, yet without spouses or children, they opted for canine companions.
Aside from demographics, there’s also the fact that China has become wealthier. As the number of affluent individuals surges and the country’s per capita disposable income increases (up by 6.5 percent according to China Daily), a pet has become an additional symbol of social class and status.
Mary Peng told Jing Daily that every year after 2003, a new breed of dog has come into fashion, and puppy lovers were prepared to pay scandalous prices for prime pooches. “Owners sought out pure-bred dogs such as German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, Dalmatians, Chow Chows, and Huskies, as symbols of their wealth and status,” Peng says. “Tibetan Mastiffs made headlines for being sold for prices of $1 million and more.” As average citizens can’t spend thousands or millions of dollars on a pet, animals quickly became symbols of economic success. Reuters even named the Tibetan mastiff China’s “latest accessory for the country’s legions of wealthy who are snapping up prime real estate, diamonds, and luxury cars.” And alongside China’s love of dogs and cats came the expansion of various niche segments for pets.
Peng adds that “pet owners indulge their pets with regular grooming and spa treatments, imported pet foods or elaborate home-cooked meals, private dog training sessions, luxury hotel stays, and bejeweled pet carriers, collars, and leashes.” These pet-related facilities and products began popping up in Tier 1 and Tier 2 cities and can now be found elsewhere on the mainland as well. Grooming salons, dog shelters, pet-related merchandise shops, crematoriums, veterinary clinics, dog farms, and pet markets have tracked an impressive growth in China, and the whole pet industry should “grow by more than 50 percent to $2.6 billion (15.8 billion RMB) by 2019,” according to Forbes.
In China, the desire to spoil pets is overwhelming, claims Peng, who mentions that “nutritional science is now discussed with all pet owners at every visit to ICVS to help match pets with optimal foods.” Even “the premium segment with grain-free and wholesome ingredients are being sought and requested by pet owners from all walks of life,” Peng states, further proving that China’s pet-ownership class is starting to closely resemble Western ones.
Indeed, the pet food sector has seen incredible growth in China of late, and Forbes mentions how the pet food industry lured conglomerates that deal in pet products — including Marc, Nestle, Procter&Gamble, and Colgate-Palmolive — to the country. “Data from a Mintel review shows that China has now become the largest pet food market in the Asia Pacific and one of the largest in the world, estimated to be worth over $50 billion and having grown by 30 percent annually on average,” says Forbes. But apart from regular pet food, there’s also the niche market of organic and premium pet foods, which are free of additives and chemicals. And this “premiumization” of the pet industry isn’t only exclusive to diet.
An increasingly high number of Chinese pet owners look for particular and exclusive services for their beloved pets, such as insurance policies for their dogs, concierge services, beauty spa treatments, and lavish gifts (diamond collars and hair accessories). Experts are even seeing the same expansion of the luxury pet sector in an already Westernized Hong Kong, where affluent guests come to pamper their dogs at the Rosewood Hong Kong Hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui. According to the South China Morning Post, Rosewood Hong Kong “goes to great lengths to create a seasonal and diverse dog menu that supports local produce.” Furthermore, the luxury hotel offers homemade toys, treats, and even chicken-flavored toothpaste (complete with a toothbrush) for dog-guests.
The Post rightfully points out that pet-related services have improved significantly over the last few years in Hong Kong, and in a city that offers dog yoga sessions, beauty treatments, and “pet hydrotherapy and acupuncture,” pet owners can lavish their four-legged friends not only with love but also with unique services and amazing gifts. The Westernization of Chinese culture is the culprit here, and if premiumization trends keep mirroring pet ownership tendencies in the West, China’s pet market will only continue to expand.