INTERNATIONAL – On a sunny mid-October afternoon, Leia spent her third birthday munching a gourmet three-course meal of chicken, beef with salmon and a yogurt-based cake atop a rooftop restaurant in Beijing.
Leia is a German miniature pinscher and one of millions of pets in China whose every whim are indulged by their owners.
Spending on pets in China is accelerating despite a broader trend of slowing retail sales growth in the world’s second-largest economy. Perhaps exacerbated by a growing trend of singlehood and childlessness, urban pet owners are on track to spend 202 billion yuan ($28.6 billion) on their pets this year, 19% more than 2018, according to a study by Goumin.com, a Chinese social network for pet-owners.
China’s falling birthrate is matched by its mounting pet love. The Asian nation now has the world’s largest dog and cat population of 188 million and surpassed the U.S. in pet numbers in 2018, according to data compiled by Euromonitor International. This was the same year that child birth steeply declined.
By 2024, China will likely have 248 million pet dogs and cats compared to 172 million in the U.S., underscoring the huge potential it holds for global pet food makers such as Mars Petcare US Inc. and Nestle Purina Petcare Co.
The pet love runs counter to western stereotypes that often portray China as a place where dogs are bred or captured to be eaten. It also reflects changing cultural norms domestically: keeping a dog as a pet was illegal in Beijing as recently as the 1980s, because pets were considered to be a bourgeois affectation.
Almost half of dogs and cats adopted in urban areas this year have been by Chinese born in the 1990s and 88% of caretakers are women, according to Goumin.com. About half of pet-owners they studied across China’s major cities are single and nine out of ten said they consider their pets on par with children or family members. China’s birth rate fell to 15 million babies last year, the lowest in six decades.
Some researchers warn that the pet boom in China is coming at a cost. Local news reports have exposed unlicensed pet farms where over-breeding of dogs take place without regulatory oversight, giving rise to health problems among the animals.
Pet food companies are also using more meat in their products to market them at the premium end. This, said University of California Los Angeles professor Gregory Okin, is adding to climate change. Meat-eating by dogs and cats in the U.S. contributed as much as 30% of the overall hit to the environment due to animal production, he found in a 2017 study.
“With China just being the size that it is, those pets will potentially have a huge impact,” said Okin, who recommends getting smaller-sized dogs and feeding them a grain-heavy diet.