BEIJING (CHINA DAILY/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Owning one or several pets has become an increasingly popular lifestyle choice in China, as well as a driving force in consumption.
Yet the boom in pet ownership has also produced problems - such as the abuse and abandonment of animals, and the variable quality of pet supplies - which can only be tackled by regulations that would allow people and animals to live in harmony, according to legal studies researcher He Hairen at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
On June 2, an event held to celebrate the 58th Beijing Pet Adoption Day attracted celebrities, animal lovers, veterinarians, owners of pet supplies businesses and even stray cats and dogs that had been rescued.
"We provide online and offline platforms where healthy, friendly and well-trained rescues are introduced to families who are ready to keep a pet," said Yang Yang, co-founder and chief executive of a non-profit charity called Adoption Day.
Founded in 2011, the platform has expanded into more than 40 first- and second-tier cities.
A review of the number of pet registration licences in Beijing suggests that more than one million households in the capital own at least one pet dog, according to the Capital Animal Welfare Association.
An equal number of families - if not more - are likely to keep cats because no licence is required to keep them, said Qin Xiaona, the association's president.
For those who do not keep pets, "cloud cat-sniffing" has become increasingly popular on social networks.
Wang Zhengjun, a PhD candidate at Northeastern University in Shenyang, Liaoning province, is known as a "pet-less pet blogger" on Sina Weibo. He creates funny memes and stories about cats owned by other pet bloggers.
"I love cats, but I don't have any yet because I don't have a job or own an apartment, which means I am not capable of offering an animal a comfortable life," he said.
"I 'sniff' other people's adorable cats online," he added. "Cloud cat-sniffing is a great method of relieving stress and a kind of community activity. I collect items with images of cats on them, watch movies and documentaries about cats, and read books on how to be a good cat carer," he said.
Last year, more than 8 billion yuan (S$1.6 billion) was spent on cat-related merchandise on Taobao, one of China's leading e-commerce marketplaces, which is operated by Alibaba Group.
By coincidence or design, Tmall, Alibaba's other major business-to-customer platform, is represented by a cartoon black cat.
However, as this is the "Year of the Dog" in the Chinese horoscope, images of canines also appear on all kinds of product designs.
For businesses, the growing affection shown by Chinese people towards their furry friends is undoubtedly a huge opportunity, especially given the vast scale of the potential market.
"It is certain that pet-related industries will continue to soar as our economy grows," said Wang Jiayi, a brand manager and cat behaviourist with Naja Veterinary Clinics, a nationwide franchise of upscale pet hospitals.
Food, toys, medical care, furniture, photography, electronic devices such as GPS collars, the potential is infinite, she said.
Wang, who is also the founder of Catman Club, a company that provides cultural and social services for cat lovers, said a growing number of Chinese are becoming pet owners.
"Nekonomics" is a term invented by Japanese scholars to describe the economic effect when cat-related goods, cultural content and services sell well, and prompt growth in the wider economy.
Kanshiro Miyamoto, emeritus professor at Kansai University in Osaka, Japan, estimated that the phenomenon generated more than 2,000 billion yen in 2015, and it said it will dwarf the economic impact of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.
In a recent report, the Nikkei newspaper suggested that China's cat food market will overtake Japan's in 2020, generating US$1.8 billion (S$2.4 billion) a year.
A study conducted last year by a market research institute in the United States said the value of China's market for electronic pet devices reached US$1 billion by the end of 2016, and predicted that it would account for more than 20 per cent of global market share by 2040.
"That sounds about right," said Rabbit-eating Carrot, a Weibo blogger whose two cats have more than 1.5 million followers on the Twitter-like social network.
"My monthly expenditure on my cats is about 1,000 yuan, which covers their food, treats and litter," she said, adding that she expects nekonomics to have a great effect in China.
"I am happy to see that Chinese society is becoming more aware of feline charisma."
Wu Tong, founder of Q Planet, a company that provides funeral services for pets, believes the growing popularity of cats indicates changes in society.
"In China, the level of society rises alongside people's growing demand for higher-quality products for consumption; pets have been consolidating their position as family members," she said.
She added that for some people, such as "empty-nest" seniors - parents whose children have left home and rarely visit them - and urban bachelors, pets are often the only family they have.
Wu started the company in 2014. "As my dog grew older, I was living in anguish, worrying that she would leave me one day, and thinking about what I should do when it happened," she said.
Q Planet creates personalised memorials to help people cope with bereavement and grief, as Wu learnt to deal with her fear of loss.
There are more than 80 pet funeral homes in China, mainly in large cities.
"Pet cremation is necessary in our society. More people will choose to send their pets off in a way that is more respectful of both the environment and the departed," Wu said.
In 2011, Chris Lau, an upscale jewellery designer and brand manager, founded TA Shanghai in the eastern metropolis to encourage people to help animals in distress and give them safe, loving homes.
"The origin of stray animals is abandonment, these domestic animals don't come out of nowhere," he said, adding that some of the city's lawmakers have suggested legislation to prevent cruelty to animals, including a clause to punish irresponsible owners.
At present, there are no laws to prevent or regulate commercial activities that may be harmful to the well-being of animals.
Wang, from Naja Veterinary Clinics, urged owners to learn about the biological and psychological needs of their animal companions and to place their welfare above selfish entertainment.
Another major issue is the frenzy for breeding pets, which has resulted in a sharp rise in the number of stray animals on the streets, according to Qin, of the Capital Animal Welfare Association.
"Irresponsible breeders create lives and sell them for profit as goods, despite the fact that so-called purebreds often have genetic defects and health risks as a result of inbreeding and insanitary conditions. It's unethical," she said.
According to Nick Jeffery, professor of veterinary clinical studies at the University of Cambridge in England, the breeding of purebred animals imposes similar genetic restrictions to those that occur in wild species that have been reduced to small breeding groups in the wake of natural or man-made disasters.
He quoted studies of the risks posed by selective breeding that are included in the foreword to the book Breed Predispositions to Disease in Dogs and Cats by Alex Gough and Alison Thomas, which lists known breed-related health risks.
Wang Hui, chief veterinarian of Naja Veterinary Clinics, said mixed-breed animals are usually healthier than those bred selectively.
"Based on 20 years of practice as a veterinarian, I find native or mixed-breed cats in general healthier, stronger and more sociable," he said.
"To my knowledge there are no regulations in the breeding sector so far, and health risks are almost inevitable in pedigree pets."
He, the legal studies researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said a legal framework is urgently needed to regulate pet-related industries and guide social conduct toward better treatment of pets and the end of cruelty to animals.