'One-dog policy' starts to bite

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 October, 2009, 12:00am

After years of regulations concerning pet dogs that were all bark and no bite, Guangzhou is in the midst of a canine revolution that promises to keep the city's pooches on an altogether tighter leash.

Under the old regulations, dog owners were forced to pay a whopping 10,000 yuan (HK$11,370) breeding fee, plus an annual 6,000 yuan 'dog management' fee. Predictably, very few people were keen to pay that much and instead opted to ignore it while keeping pets.

This created a serious problem for the authorities - they had no idea how many dogs were in the city, meaning vaccinations against diseases like rabies proved impossible to organise.

The Information Times, a newspaper owned by the municipal propaganda department, reported that only 1,600 people applied for dog licences between 1997 and 2002. As these dogs died and licence requests dried up, there were fewer than 500 licensed dogs at the end of 2002. Based on the vague official estimate of 100,000 pet dogs in the city, just 0.5 per cent were licensed.

In July, the city's public security bureau issued a new dog ownership regulation that slashed the cost of licensing. Breeding fees were reduced to 500 yuan, and the annual management fee dropped to 300 yuan. After four months, it appears the change is having an impact. The bureau section in charge of dog licensing said more than 21,000 had been registered so far.

But dog owners are furious that another stinging provision from the old regulation remains in the new version - the 'one-dog policy'.

Under this regulation, households are only allowed to have one dog, and any new dogs must be given to other households as gifts or handed over to a government department within three months. Dog owners complain that they are faced with a choice of giving up a beloved pet, or breaking the rules by asking friends to register the dogs as fake owners.

The policy hurts either the owners or the dogs, and encourages people to lie, so it is hard to see how the local government can justify it. When Beijing introduced a similar policy in 2006, an estimated 500 people took to the streets to protest, many carrying stuffed animals.

According to social workers in Guangzhou focused on pet protection, the main goal of the restriction was to control the number of dogs. The city has had a long-standing problem with rabies and was eager to keep the canine population as low as possible.

'The 10,000 yuan licence fee was a trick the city played to limit the number of dogs years ago, as the high price would curb people's enthusiasm for dog breeding,' one social worker said.

However, Guangzhou's official dislike for dogs goes beyond concerns over disease. Traditionally, the animal has been considered as much a source of meat as a pet, and dogs are considered a cheap animal.

The rise of Guangzhou's middle class in the past three decades has begun to alter this perception. Dogs are now pampered in grooming salons with their yuppie owners, instead of being destined for the dinner table.

And as working-class families have become wealthier, it has become increasingly popular for families to have a pet dog, particularly as the one-child policy limits the size of households.

Exorbitant fees encouraged people to flout the rules, and the same goes with stringent limits on the number of dogs people can own. That makes the city's fight against diseases such as rabies all the more difficult.

Dog policies may not be high on the list of priorities for city officials, whose major task is ensuring economic growth. But a modern city understands the importance of keeping people happy - or at the very least not making them unhappy for no good reason.

Ending the one-dog policy would earn a round of applause from owners, not to mention a warm, sloppy lick from the grateful canines.