Pandas may be the animal we most associate with China, but the growing trend of pet ownership in the People’s Republic reveals an increasing love for dogs and cats. China’s total pet population – a category which includes dogs, cats, birds, fish and a reassuringly small number of reptiles – passed 500,000 in 2017 and shows no sign of slowing.
Traditionally, animals in China have been viewed as sources of food rather than companions. Having an animal purely for pleasure was a luxury which few could afford. But pet ownership has boomed in recent years. Keeping a dog or cat is especially popular among younger generations including millennials, with later (or no) marriage, high disposable income and a desire for companionship driving pet ownership.
By some estimates, China’s pet retail market is worth more than the nation’s tea industry.
In May 2020 China’s cats and dogs were officially reclassified as “companion pets”. Previously they had been recognised as agricultural and livestock products. As the purpose of having a cat or dog has changed, the corresponding commercial environment has grown. Cat cafes are multiplying. Chain brands are expanding in pet hospitals, pet beauty and insurance. There are even dog and cat influencers, or Key Opinion Leaders as they are known in China. In 2020, China’s top beauty influencer and livestreamer, Li Jiaqi, debuted his puppy Never, who has become an influencer in his own right. Never even appears on his own make-up palette.
It’s (not) a dog’s life
Recent research indicates that the domestication of dogs first took place in southern China around 15,000 years ago. Ancient China valued dogs for their usefulness and lauded their loyalty with jade amulets and statuary outside homes. But dogs were also killed to release their spirits for protection. The tradition of burying dogs outside homes for protection eventually graduated to statues of lion-dogs at the gates of temples and cities. Meanwhile Pekingese enjoyed special treatment as Royal lapdogs in the Forbidden City, sleeping on silk cushions and cared for by eunuchs who worked for the Dog Raising Office.
Yet during the Mao era, owning pets was vilified as bourgeouis, frivolous and wasteful. For many decades it was illegal to own a dog in Beijing, and as recently as 2011 Guangzhou added a ‘one dog’ policy to the existing ‘one child’ rules. In 2014 the Communist Party’s official news outlet, the People’s Daily, decried a “dog infestation” and denounced dogs as elitist. But by then the horse – or dog – had bolted. Pet ownership was embedded in the ways of the burgeoning Chinese middle-class and only set to grow.
Confucius had a cat
Cats also have a long history in China. In northwest China, small cat bones – indicating a domesticated feline – were found at an archaeological site, dating human-feline interaction to more than 5,000 years ago. Depictions of cats in Chinese art abound. Confucius had a cat.
Yet there is no Year of the Cat in the Chinese zodiac. Legend has it that the cat was sleeping on the day of the race that would decide which animals would be included. This will come as no surprise to cat owners. Or cats.
Especially favoured by young women, many Chinese felines are enjoying a luxury lifestyle. The Shanghai Traditional Chinese Medicine Neurology and Acupuncture Animal Health Centre offers acupuncture for cats. Their wardrobes are expanding to include hanfu, the traditional clothing of China’s Han ethnic group. There’s even a new Chinese phrase, smoking cats, to refer to spending quality time with feline friends.
No longer on the menu
In common with many other countries in East Asia, the once widespread practice of eating dogs and cats is in decline as incomes rise, tastes change and the status of animals increases. The origin of Covid-19 in a wet market in Wuhan heightened opposition to eating exotic animal meat, and led to Chinese authorities banning the trade and consumption of wild animals. In April 2020 Shenzhen became the first city in China to ban the sale and consumption of dog and cat meat.
But China’s pet world is not without controversy. Fashion has recently favoured Western breeds such as golden retrievers, poodles and labradors while the status and value of Pekingese has declined. Panda dogs and panda dog cafes seem to exemplify a trend towards pets as playthings. And a (presumably) unsuspecting Tibetan Mastiff was caught masquerading as a lion at a zoo in Henan province in 2013.
For most pets, though, it seems that life is good in China. Whether you’re a pampered Pekingese or a committed Meowist, the future’s bright in the Middle Kingdom.