Reigning cats and dogs

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 September, 2011, 12:00am


Ten-year-old Anna Li Yu-chai is all giggles and grins as Jing Jing jumps onto her lap and slobbers all over her. Jing Jing, a three-year-old golden retriever, and Bobby, a four-year-old Labrador, are the centre of attention in Anna's family.

'Our household revolves around the two dogs,' says her mother, Priseilla Ng Shuk-fun.

For the pharmacist, there are few better ways of unwinding after a day's work than going out for a walk with her daughter and the dogs. The walks provide quality family bonding time, she says, especially when her husband comes along.

Asian communities haven't had as strong a tradition of keeping pets as in affluent Western societies. But attitudes in Hong Kong have changed enormously over the past decade. Despite cramped living quarters and lack of open spaces for exercising animals in the city, residents have taken to pets in a big way. A survey last year by the Census and Statistics Department found that there were 249,400 households - 10.6 per cent of the total - keeping at least one cat or dog. This represents a 20 per cent rise from 2005 when the figure was 202,414 households, or 8.9 per cent of the total. The total number of dogs kept by local households has risen in tandem from 197,900 in 2005 to 247,500 in 2010, with cats rising from 99,200 to 167,600.

Jane McNae, co-leader of Hong Kong Polytechnic University's veterinary nursing programme, attributes this growth to better living standards and the influence of Western lifestyles.

'More and more people realise the benefits of pet ownership,' she says. 'Due to rising affluence and awareness of animal welfare, there's more social infrastructure for animals, like pet parks. Local people want to have a bond with animals, which provide a sense of warmth in the urban environment.'

The social and health benefits of keeping pets are well documented in Western studies, with owners generally found to have lower blood pressure, cholesterol and stress levels than people without pets. For instance, a 2008 study by researchers at the University of Minnesota's Stroke Research Centre that tracked 4,435 people aged between 30 and 75 over a 20-year-period found that those who had never owned a cat had a 40 per cent greater risk of death by heart attack than previous or current cat owners.

The reasons for these effects are not fully understood, but part of it lies with the loyalty, unconditional love and non-judgmental acceptance that pets offer, says Alan Beck, professor of animal ecology at Purdue University's School of Veterinary Medicine in the US.

'Pets are a buffer for loneliness and pressure,' says Beck, who directs Purdue's Centre for the Human-Animal Bond and has written several books on the topic. 'A study I did showed 70 per cent of children who own pets confide in them. Having animals gives a sense of security. Psychotherapists use animals to relax children patients who find it easier to articulate their feelings to animals.' The presence of pets also strengthens family cohesion, Beck says.

'Owning a pet becomes the hobby of the whole family, with [everyone] getting involved. Most of the hobbies, especially sports, that involve the family isolate the children from the parents. In contrast, animal hobbies tend to be a more social event which involve the participation of the whole family, like visiting dog shows.'

For dog trainer Kelvin Lai-Kam-chuen, Mook-mook and Nana, the two poodles he shares with his wife, contribute significantly to their marital bliss. 'We talk a lot about the dogs after work,' says Lai, of Hong Kong Canine Training Association. 'One of our pastimes is to bring the poodles to canine playgrounds where they can swim [and] run around on the grass, while we can socialise with other dog owners.'

His wife, Angel Lam Ming-ting, an accountant, says they often take Nana on visits to homes for the elderly and social centres and it gives her a lot of satisfaction to be able to bring joy into others' lives.

'Mook-mook gets excited easily but Nana is calm and good with people. Nana is smart and can perform many tricks. The old people and mentally handicapped children we visit are very happy to see her. I am happy that my dog can cheer them up.'

When people are more reserved, the animals are easy ice-breakers that enable them to connect with their families, says Phyllis Yan Fung-ling, a family therapist with Hong Kong Polytechnic University's Department of Applied Social Sciences.

Pets may even be a saving grace for some teenagers, as care for the animals often instils a sense of purpose.

'I have seen cases of rebellious kids being transformed after they have a pet,' says Yan, who is also vice-chairperson of Hong Kong Family Therapy Association. 'There was a girl who was something of troublemaker. She came home only on the condition that her father bought her a dog. She kept her promise and went home from school every day to take care of it.'

Children can also learn important lessons from living with animals, she says.

'Simply by keeping the fish tank clean, they can develop a sense of responsibility by taking care of animals. Different natural processes like birth, sickness and death that unfold as an animal grows can also provide valuable life lessons.'

Pets are highly attuned to the emotions of family members and react to changes in tone of voice and body language, Beck says.

'Dogs pick up on signs [of discord]. When they see something different, like a violent conversation between family members, their first response is to behave in a way that would make things better,' says Beck.

Even cats, which tend to be more aloof creatures, can exert a calming influence.

Carol Ng Wing-yan can attest to the effect that of Ghost, her 14-year-old Bengal cat, has had in her life.

'I picked him up from the street when he was a baby. Before I got married five years ago, I lived with him and my family. There were unhappy moments then. My younger brother and I often argued. A trivial dispute over which television channel to watch or whether to switch on the air conditioner could descend into a shrill quarrel. Ghost would meow loudly whenever I got upset. It's as if he knew what was going on.'

After Ng's marriage, Ghost continued to be a comforting buffer.

'At dinnertime, if conversation between me and my husband becomes tense, he will jump onto my lap,' she says.

The cat has even helped her overcome some of the hurdles of motherhood.

'After I gave birth three years ago, I was at a loss over how to care for the baby. My son's incessant crying grated on my nerves and my husband was away most of the time. Ghost always calms me down. His purring is so soothing.'

But just as pets can bring a family closer, so can they lead to rifts at home.

Doting owners' failure to set boundaries often leads to rivalry among family members, says Daniel Tang Yip-hay, professional dog trainer.

'[Owners] come to us after all sorts of disputes break out in the family over the dogs,' he says. 'It's usually one family member, rather than the whole family, who is obsessed with dogs.

'Ignoring the wishes of others in the family, the dog lover lets the animal sleep on the bed and foul up the furniture. We advise against such indulgent behaviour, which will only make the dog too dependant on humans and give it the wrong idea of who is in charge.

'No matter how much the owner loves the animal, he should never let the dog lord it over him. Otherwise, the dog will become increasingly recalcitrant and create trouble.'

Even in a household of dog lovers such as Priseilla Ng's, pets can be a source of tension.

'Before we signed up [Jing Jing] for dog training lessons, we were at a loss over what to do to correct his behaviour,' she says. 'He used to pee in the living room and often messed up the house. I tend to be very indulgent towards the dogs, while my husband wants them to behave. We argued over them and eventually my husband suggested we turn to a dog trainer.'

Yan has also learned that she must make sure her son doesn't feel neglected because of the attention they lavish on the family dogs.

'Although he loves them too, my 13-year-old son doesn't like them hogging my time after work. He gets a little jealous when I take the dogs out for a walk instead of watching him play the piano,' she says.

For Angel Lam and Kelvin Lai, the energetic Mook-mook became a bone of contention between the couple within months of his arrival. The dainty, bouncy pup became so aggressive, Lam pleaded with her husband to give him up.

'It was all because of my permissive approach to dog rearing,' Lam says.

'Completely bowled over by his cute looks, I let him do whatever he wanted. As he became increasingly daring, he bit me and growled whenever I walked past. He even attacked me when I wanted to sleep on the bed. A trader at the time, my husband was away from home most of the time. I was so scared of [Mook-mook] that I had to sleep on the sofa, which he also shredded. When I arrived home from work, I was terrified when opening the door that he would pounce and bite me.'

She blamed her husband bringing back a creature that wrecked her home life.

'I didn't understand why I had to be subjected to such fear in my own house. We fought a lot over Mook-mook, so much so that I wanted to move out for a while.'

The domestic crisis was averted only after Lai signed up for a one-year dog behaviour course at the Hong Kong Canine Training Association three years ago.

'I learned dog-taming skills and taught them to my wife. She followed the rules to establish her dominance over the dog. The change in Mook-mook was miraculous. He is no longer aggressive towards her,' Lai says.

It made such impression that Lai developed a deep interest in dog psychology and gave up his trading job last year to work full time at the association.

'Dog training can help a family make the most out of animal companionship. I want to help others who have had problems like ours.'

Paws for thought

Thinking about adding a fluffy furball or some other creature to the family? Experts offer some tips:

* Do research to learn which breed matches your family's lifestyle

* Make sure the animal is appropriate for your child's age

* Ensure your family is ready for the commitment, financial costs and exercise routines of pets

* Discuss how to divide up the chores of tending to the pet

* Teach your child to read your pet's body language and identify when it wants to be left alone

* Seek help from professionals when pets display behavioural problems

For some online reading, go to information on the pet-care needs of different breeds of dogs, cats and small mammals

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) Guide to Kids and Pets: Tips on how to raise a child and a pet together