[SCMP Column] Whoof, Howl and A Miaow for Pet Lovers

September 30, 2017

It started late night about four months ago. After a long dinner and an even longer taxi ride home I opened the gate to my garden to glimpse a shadow flash across the bushes and pots of herbs.

It took a couple more late night encounters to realise we had a cat on the roam. Village dogs I can keep at bay. They are far too big and clumsy to get through my fence. But cats are a different matter.

Over the weeks, the glimpses got more frequent, and began to occur in daytime. The nervous scamper was replaced by a sedate meander. Sometimes even a short stop outside my door to peer inside.

I ignored the cat, and the cat ignored me, which seemed to be fine. He or she made no demands for food and never attempted to intrude indoors. I presumed there might be benefits in keeping the occasional stray snake or rat at bay.

But things took a more serious turn a couple of weeks ago when a quaint long-stay neighbour began asking me if I was providing food or water for the cat. When I gave her a puzzled look and said no, she said nothing, gave a disapproving frown, and has ever since silently been bringing daily bowls of water down to my gate.

I have now been asked why I don’t let the cat into my house. I fear the next step will be formal complaints that I am not adequately caring for “our” cat. Already another neighbour has asked if she can take the cat in for a few weeks, to give him or her some company, and fatten him/her up a little. Good luck to them on that. I simply keep insisting that I have no idea where the animal came from, or why it seems to want to colonise my garden – and in particular that I have absolutely no interest in adding a new member to my household.

Maybe it is because I spend (or misspend) far too many hours at work, but I have never felt any deep urge to welcome a pet into my home. In this, I seem to be in a dwindling minority of humankind. An astonishing 82 per cent of Argentinian families have a pet of one kind or another, with 81 per cent of Mexicans and 73 per cent of Russians. Americans come close behind with 70 per cent.

And Americans are by far the biggest spenders on pets. According to Modern Dog magazine, Americans spend over US$60bn a year on their 78m dogs, 86m cats, and 100m or so less-demanding fish and birds. That is more than the entire GDP of more than 100 of the countries on the World Bank’s list of countries worldwide.

Over a third of US dog owners give their dogs birthday presents. Specialists make dog beer, provide cat counselling, arrange pet weddings, and have even created social “petworking” websites.

Ploughing through a recent massive report by Euromonitor, I learned that while Americans still by far dominate the global pet-spending market, once-poor developing economies are fast catching up. From 2003 to 2016 the population of pet dogs in developing economies has leapt 51 per cent to 243m (in the rich west, pet populations have in the same period grown at a more sedate rate of 5 per cent, to 137m). Cat ownership among families in developing economies has jumped 49 per cent to 126m.

One of the biggest contributors to this surge has inevitably been China, even though only 5.6 per cent of households currently own a dog, and just 1.5 per cent a cat. Gone are the days when the country’s cities were purged of all dogs, and Mao was offering rewards to villagers who exterminated sparrows that were devouring the country’s rice reserves. China today boasts over 27m pet dogs and 53m pet cats. It is of course one of the world leaders in keeping pet birds and fish. Their petfood market has in the past decade jumped 40 per cent to US$3.5bn.

For officials in the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and other poverty-eradication organisations, this all seems good news. Burgeoning pet ownership for sure means that an increasing number of families are no longer struggling to afford enough food for themselves. Surely a collapse in pet ownership would be a reliable early warning of the next Asian recession?

But the pet explosion is about more than poverty alleviation. With rising urbanisation, the rising number of one-person households, and a rapid decline in married couples choosing to have babies, pets are quite literally beginning to replace children in families.

This must almost inevitably be true in Hong Kong, but as is so often the case, data is horribly patchy, and circumstances are quirky. The government says it has issued 65,500 dog licences, up 36 per cent from 2005. With just under 2.5m households in Hong Kong, if no-one owned more than one dog (not true of course), that means just 2.6 per cent of families own a dog. We have no figures that I have tracked down for cats, fish or birds, but fish and birds must surely be much more abundant.

My small-sample generalisations tell me that communities like Sai Kung have large numbers of child-substitute pets, and that ownership elsewhere is grossly inhibited by the smallness of flats, and the management rules in so many housing estates that forbid dog ownership. I suspect that many of the poodles and Pomeranians and schnauzers and Chihuahuas I see peeking out of ladies handbags about town are illegal residents that live illicitly and unlicenced – almost all of them pampered child-substitutes.

As for the cat that has adopted my garden, and is getting the neighbourhood to gang up on me to provide him/her with a proper home, I remain unmoved. I can do without cat counselling, and have no interest in encouraging pet weddings. So far he/she does not poo in the garden, and as long as he obeys that rule, I will tolerate the snoozes under my garden table. Better than snakes. Quieter than dogs. I could just do without the fuss of the neighbourhood ladies.
David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view. Opinions expressed are entirely his own. 
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