August 31, 2022
BEIJING – It is generally believed that in 2011, China became a majority urban population for the first time in its 5,000-year history. That is quite a tectonic demographic shift that continues to have a sweeping socioeconomic impact on public transport, affordable housing, education and supply chains nationwide. However, a mere decade later, an arguably even more substantial societal transformation took place－in 2021 cats outnumbered dogs for the first time.
Even if one attributes only one life to felines, which may or may not have nine, their ranks grew doggedly to become the most popular pet in cities nationwide last year, with just shy of 60 percent of urban pet owners raising cats, several mews louder than the 46 percent recorded the year prior. To Fido’s credit, cat owners weren’t merely being “speciesist”, but in fact stricter urban canine ownership rules were the main reason behind the feline phenomenon.
Cats, dogs and other nonhuman house guests－in-laws notwithstanding－are big business in China. Revenue in the pet sector hit nearly $50 billion in 2020－sporting a compound growth rate of nearly a third between 2015 and 2020. If there was ever a sector which barked in the face of COVID-19, it’s the pet sector, which came off the leash during the first full year of the pandemic, as self-quarantined folk looked to furry friends for solace and companionship.
And due to higher incomes and the growing popularity of pets, iResearch expects the market in China will be worth around $68.8 billion by the end of next year.
As things stand now, pet owners in China tend to be more well-heeled than average, as well as younger, learned, more often than not female, and usually married. Among Chinese pet owners, a third were born after 1990 and seven out of 10 have at least a Bachelor’s degree.
With the pandemic forcing many to work and study at home, Spot and Fluffy’s well-being has moved to center stage, and more time and money is put into the kitty for walks, feedings and groomings, all of which come at a price.
To put a paw on the pulse of the sudden shift from dogs to cats in China, I took a semi-scientific survey among my WeChat friends (margin of error +/－50 percent), asking if they must raise either a cat or dog, which would they choose and why. The jury was hung, but the answers showed feline fans favoring their would-be pets because of perceived ease of ownership, with no walks needed and fewer complaints from neighbors. Meanwhile, every canine connoisseur praised man’s best friend for dogs’ perceived loyalty and friendliness.
Dogs haven’t had it easy here, culturally at least. Just pawing over a few ancient literary references to pooches gives one the impression that canines have the deck stacked against them.
While they may be our best friend, we have, over the millennia, had a funny way of showing our gratitude. Take for example a few Chinese proverbs related to pups, all of which are less than complimentary.
“Chickens fly and dogs jump” (jifei goutiao) alludes to a chaotic situation. “Dog fumes” (goupi) is a somewhat more genteel translation of calling something or someone’s opinion “nonsense”. And who could forget “wolf’s heart and dog’s lung” (langxin goufei), used to describe the most unsavory of individuals. This one is doubly damning because it impugns both domesticated dogs and their feral ancestors.
The English language isn’t much more “cano-philic”. Referring someone to a “dog” typically means you don’t expect them to grace Vogue or GQ magazine anytime soon. A lazy person is just “dogging it”, unfettered competition leads to a “dog-eat-dog world” and even an overread book is not handsomely worn, but instead “dog-eared”.
So next time you are stuck under rubble (never I hope), or have vision issues, or even need a comfort animal to ease your fear of flying, smile at the rescue dog, the seeing-eye dog or collie in coach class. After all, they’re here to lend a helping paw, and do it all for free, out of the kindness of their hearts, even if their hearts evolved from wolves.