Business is booming for kennel owners as animals rule the roost
Playing mahjong was never Liu Min's idea of a fulfilling retirement. He wanted something to keep him busy - and he found it, or rather them. At 66, his world now revolves around dozens of wet noses and waggy tails.
As soon as the former government official retired, he found work as an odd-job man at a dog kennel. After three months he decided to buy the business. That was six years ago. He now owns one of Shanghai's busiest kennels and looks after an average of 20 dogs at a time and up to 70 in peak seasons like the Lunar New Year.
He is just one beneficiary of a boom that saw a fivefold increase in the number of pets on the mainland between 1999 and 2009.
With all the pet food, accessories, health care and foster care which goes with them, business adds up. Total industry revenue exceeded 10 billion yuan (HK$12.3 billion) in 2009, compared with 5.5 billion yuan in 2007, the China Economic Herald reported last year.
The newspaper said the growth in sales of pet goods was among the fastest in the world and that the pace of expansion was expected to continue throughout this decade.
Liu said most of his clients were young white-collar workers who spent a lot of time travelling for business and pleasure. National holidays also meant a big rush to visit families outside Shanghai, minus the pet dog.
Other customers included new mothers who moved their beloved dogs out while they focused on their new baby. But most found the time to visit their pets a few times a week.
Liu charges 30 yuan a day for small dogs and 40 yuan for big ones. They are fed and watered, walked twice a day and given a bath every 10 days.
He has witnessed the pet industry's growth first hand. While he has taken on two more floors, rival kennels, pet parlours and clinics have opened along the same road.
But Liu said he was not worried about competition because of the soaring demand. He does not even look for new business as he has enough returning customers to keep him busy.
'I only take in dogs I am familiar with,' he said. 'I have already refused many dogs I don't know due to concerns about their health.'
Shanghai is home to about 140,000 licensed dogs but the canine population is thought to be five times that. Last year the city lowered the pet licence fee from 2,000 yuan to around 300 yuan in an effort to encourage pet registration.
The government also restricted each household to just one pet in order to curb numbers and the potential hazard of rabies.
Internet pet chat rooms have also been growing and are now beginning to provide an alternative care option for absent owners.
One man with a teddy bear puppy - a shih tzu-bichon frise mix - appealed for help over the Lunar New Year on shdog.net, saying he feared kennels would not give his dog the necessary affection and could put him at risk of infection.
'I can't board the train with him, so I want to leave him with a good-hearted family for a week,' he added.
Demand for care is not just limited to dogs.
Wang Mengxi, a 15-year-old Shanghai schoolgirl, said she would be fostering five rabbits, 20 guinea pigs and 10 hamsters over the new year holiday, after posting an advertisement in a chat room.
'I myself have some pets. I will use my holiday to help other pet owners. I plan to stack pet cages in my room and I have my parents' support,' Mengxi l said.
'With more pets at home, I think I will be really happy.'
The number of dogs saved from a slaughterhouse in Guangdong last week after an activist lobbied authorities to stop them being killed