Puppy love unleashed: a boom in dog ownership in Hong Kong poses challenges for lawmakers and urban planners

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 April, 2016, 12:48am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 April, 2016, 8:21am

Poodles in pushchairs, schnauzers in sweaters, bejewelled teacup terriers in boots: these are all common sights to behold on the streets of Hong Kong. Pooch spas have sprung up across the city, alongside doggie magazines and brands peddling canine couture and posh dog nosh.

Hongkongers are lavishing more attention – and cash – on their canines than ever before. And more and more locals are welcoming pets into the family, with the number of dog licences issued by the government rising from 40,700 to 65,500 in the last decade.

This rise in dog numbers has seen the pet industry balloon. The number of pet hostels shot up by 400 per cent and pet shops increased by 100 per cent between 2000 and 2009, according to an Audit Commission report. Experts also report an exponential growth in the vet industry.

And just last month, the city witnessed its first court case involving a dispute between owners about restraining a dog at a pet park.

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The new era of puppy love has created several challenges for the city’s lawmakers and urban planners to amend policies that can accommodate the boom while ensuring the welfare of man’s four-legged friends, as well as equal access to pet dogs across Hong Kong’s social spectrum.

“Much of the existing laws are outdated or are non-existent compared to animal-friendly cities,” says Gary Chin, who shares a Pok Fu Lam flat with two lively sheepdogs.

Animal cruelty laws, for example, have not been updated in years, meaning that unlike in other developed societies, abuse that comes about through negligence is not penalised. Activists have for years been pushing for the inclusion of a clause to the law that enforces “duty of care” and criminalises passive acts of cruelty.

Chin lives in one of the few residential buildings that allows dogs to be kept and notes that getting his pets around the city without his own car would make life very difficult.

“Living space and public transportation are challenging in Hong Kong,” he says, describing how taxis often turn him away when he is with his dogs.

Dogs are banned on public transport and have limited access to many public spaces, with the exception of the city’s country parks, which are difficult to reach, and Hong Kong’s 41 “pet gardens” where they are allowed off leash.

Ongoing campaigns to improve dog accessibility have brought about a pilot doggie bus programme which offer limited routes, though efforts to increase the number of pet-friendly places, and loosen the leash laws, have proved unsuccessful.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m a leper,” says one owner who walks her three rescue dogs through Central to the discomfort of some canine-shy pedestrians. The narrow pavements are not particularly well designed to accommodate three dogs, she notes.

Many middle and upper-class dog owners are grappling with the emergence of a pet obesity epidemic – and the ensuing vet bills – in a city that lacks the infrastructure and space to help their pooches keep fit after long, listless and lonely days cooped up in small, high-rise apartments.

Vets estimate that about 40 per cent of all pet pooches – the same number as in the US – are obese owing to their being under-exercised and overfed.

The long hours their owners work exacerbates the problem in a city where staying late night after night and abnegating a home life are considered hallmarks of professionalism and status.

And while richer Hongkongers contend with fat pooches, poorer people are having to fight for their right to own a dog at all, with public housing policy preventing almost 50 per cent of the population from lawfully keeping canines.

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“The policy is completely outdated and doesn’t fit in with Hong Kong’s love affair with animals at all,” says veterinarian Dr Jane Gray, who sits on the advisory board that is being consulted by the Legislative Council’s first ever committee on animal rights.

A review of the public housing law that bans all dogs – with the exception of those who serve their owners’ medical needs (dogs for the blind, for example) – is what many activists consider a pressing sociological issue.

“People are being denied a human right to keep a dog. It’s picking on a large part of society who can’t afford to live in private housing,” Grey says, describing how several crackdowns over the years have led to many families being forced to abandon their illicitly-kept pooches.

Gray, who works at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, recalls a number of episodes in which the centre’s kennels swelled with abandoned pups following enforcement operations. In some instances, euthanasing the dogs was the only option.

While some might query the idea that dog ownership is a universal right, animal experts argue that poorer Hongkongers are missing out on many of the health benefits that can come with establishing an animal-human bond.

Loneliness, inertia and depression – the uninvited companions of many entering retirement – can be offset through dog ownership, according to studies that suggest ageing populations the world over serve to benefit from rising pup numbers.

Couples unable to afford children of their own can also profit from welcoming a four-legged friend into the fold, as attitudes towards how we relate to and care for dogs shift worldwide.

“Society has changed incredibly to the point where animals are starting to replace children in families,” says Fiona Woodhouse, of the Society of Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, who sits on a number of animal welfare boards and who has been advocating for better laws and policies since arriving in Hong Kong in 1991.

She has charted the ways in which dogs have come to be treated as companions and respected and well-cared for family members in Hong Kong.

“When I first got here, dogs were being fed rice and chicken bones. Many weren’t getting the vaccinations they needed, there just wasn’t much awareness [about animal welfare],” she recalls. “Dogs are living a lot longer, now – we treat a lot of geriatric dogs.”

It’s a far cry from Hong Kong’s colonial days of entertaining and abandoning quasi-stray street dogs. When the SPCA opened its doors 95 years ago, most human-to-dog interactions were either with mongrels some took partial care of, or working dogs.

Dogs, for the most part, were owned for their functionality, not their companionship, with the exception of the unique bond between pedigree lapdogs and the extremely well-heeled – a cultural heirloom of imperial China.

Seismic shifts in attitudes towards pet ownership over the last century have transformed the way Hongkongers relate to their four-legged friends since keeping dogs became more affordable and commonplace amid the economic boom of the 70s and 80s.

An increasing appetite for the pedigree breeds seen in Western films and TV led to thousands being imported from the UK and Australia, with the phenomenon of local “hobby” breeding (and the ensuing illict “puppy milling”) emerging in the last decade or so.

Smaller breeds, such as pomeranians and miniature pinschers, were particularly popular imports from the 1990s onwards after the infeasibility of keeping bigger breeds in small flats became more and more apparent.

“Some inappropriate breeds were brought over, like St Bernards, with families failing to realise how big they would grow to be,” says Woodhouse, describing how education and experience led to better awareness of the diverging needs of different breeds, many of which are not particularly suited to the city’s subtropical climes.

The poodle is currently pet number one in the Hong Kong world of preferred pooches, with mongrels coming in second, according to the Agriculture and Fisheries Department. The pint-sized pomeranian is third on the list of favourites, followed by the rather regal-looking schnauzer. The world’s tiniest dog, the chihuahua, is in fifth place.

As the number of Hong Kong families with pets grew, so did a greater sense of empathy and attachment toward canines. This in turn engendered a home-grown animal rights and welfare movement alongside a greater awareness of the reciprocal emotional comforts that come from animal bonds.

“Dogs used to be on the periphery [of families], though they are now seen as valued family members,” says Woodhouse, adding that what is now emerging is a tendency to conflate animal care with child care, which is not always beneficial for dogs.

“People don’t allow dogs to be dogs anymore,” she says, describing how new behaviours in pet ownership, like dressing up dogs and giving them spa treatments, reflect a rather misguided tendency to anthropomorphise domesticated animals.

Gray agrees that we might sometimes be killing our pups with unprecedented degrees of kindness, describing how some owners go so far as to force fine-dining human experiences on their doggie pals. Dog bakeries and high-calorie gourmet fare are key factors in the rise of dog obesity, she notes.

“Sometimes we impose too much of the human perspective onto them,” Woodhouse says. “Do dogs really want to wear clothes? I don’t think so.”

She says time spent adorning, preening and pampering pups might be better used playing with them outside, like we did before pet ownership became so posh.