The last two years have been a worrying time for pet owners in some parts of China: tough Covid lockdowns have led to concerns that dogs could be culled if their owners go into institutional quarantine, for instance, as happened in Shanghai this year.
Before Covid, pet ownership levels in China were increasing by about 7% a year, fuelled by rising disposable incomes and demographic changes such as an aging population and later marriage ages.
What happens now – or after Covid – is unclear.
Two companies who see continued growth in the pet industry are Wenzhou-based Yuanfei Pet Toy products, which is preparing to list on the Shenzhen stock exchange, and dairy giant Yili which has launched a brand of bespoke dog food called One on One.
One on One is aimed solely at the domestic market, providing tailor-made feed for dogs based on their “age, breed, health and taste preferences”, Jiemian.com reported.
Yuanfei takes a different approach in focusing on foreign clients – supplying big chains such as Walmart, Petco and Petsmart with retractable leads and chews.
But it also hopes to grow its domestic business, the IPO prospectus says, not least because trading conditions with American clients – where most of its business is based – remain difficult.
In the West many people adopted pets during Covid and sales of pet-related paraphernalia increased.
Pet owners in China, however, have been forced to make heart-breaking choices during the pandemic, such as the Corgi lover in Shanghai who was unable to find anyone to look after his pet when he was taken to a government quarantine centre in April.
His last-resort decision was to leave the animal outside in his compound in the hope that municipal workers would feed it.
But as the bus pulled away from the compound, the owner was shocked to see a sanitary worker bludgeoning the animal to death.
The authorities in Shanghai initially tried to made provision for the pets of quarantined people. But when the affluent city of 25 million went into a more draconian lockdown, the spaces in these centres for animals quickly dried up.
Some pet owners say the stress has been unbearable.
“I worry for my own puppy and I worry for others who might be in danger,” wrote one dog owner on Sina Weibo.
“I am not sure I can go through this again,” said another, who had been forced to separate from her pet.
Previously many young people saw owning a pet as a quasi-substitute for having a child or a partner.
But the pressures of the pandemic have made many pet lovers realise that the government doesn’t recognise the close bonds that pets and owners share in the same way.
“We think of these animals as part of our family, but the authorities treat them as pests or vermin,” fumed one angry dog owner.
The experience of the pandemic has also underlined that many of the country’s regulations on keeping pets are are localised ones and that pet owners have little in the way of legal protections.
If local rules on pet ownership tighten further or if strict national-level laws are brought in post-pandemic, it could reduce pet ownership numbers and dent the prospects of the booming pet services market.
However, there are a few reasons to believe that official attitudes might also be changing for the better.
During a recent court case in Jiangsu, a judge recognised that a pet Labrador had emotional value to both parties of a divorcing couple.
“In life, many people regard pets as their relatives and friends. In this sense, pets are not only ‘things’, but also living beings that meet peoples’ needs for ‘relaxation’, ‘warmth’, ‘comfort’ and ‘companionship’,” the judge said.
He then awarded custody of the dog to the husband and gave the wife visiting rights.
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