Kelly Wang, a 27-year-old woman based in Shanghai, recently took her cat Tangka on a six-hour-long weekend road trip. She rented a car and drove south of Shanghai to Lishui city, which is famous for spectacular rice terraces and mountain views.
“I don’t want her trapped in my apartment and getting bored,” says Wang, who works in the media industry in Shanghai, “I want her to see the beautiful world outside of my apartment’s walls.”
Wang credits Tangka with helping her find comfort in China’s most populous metropolis, which is located a 16-hour drive from her parents’ home. “It’s really assuring and comforting when you know someone will always be there waiting for you at the end of the day. My room is no longer a cold room, but a home.“
Wang is part of China’s growing army of young people who opt to live alone without roommates and family around.
According to data released by China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs, China’s single population reached 240 million in 2018, while 77 million people lived alone. In 2021, the total number of single households is expected to rise to 92 million.
This change comes as Chinese millennials increasingly break away from traditional family values and lose interest in following their parents’ footsteps. Getting married and having babies early, if at all, is not a priority for many young adults — despite the best efforts of Chinese authorities to increase the birth rate.
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At the end of May this year, the new ‘three-child policy’ faced backlash on Chinese social media, as netizens complained about the high cost of having kids and the lackluster support measures.
China’s total fertility rate has reportedly fallen below the ‘warning line’ for population stability, according to statistics published by the National Bureau of Statistics of China in January 2020.
“Our generation has a different understanding of family compared to my parent’s generation,” says Wang, reflecting on the reason why she adopted Tangka more than two years ago. “My parents think I am at the age to have a partner and form a family, but I think having a pet is another kind of family — one that I crave.”
Wang adds with a laugh:
“A boyfriend is a lot to handle. Pets are drama-free.”
According to the 2020 Chinese Pet Industry White Paper published by the online portal Pethadoop, single pet owners are the most significant demographic — 33.7% of pet owners are single.
“More than 70% of people who adopted pets through us are single,” says Ariel Zhang, who has participated in pet rescue efforts in Shanghai since 2006. “I think some young people are just treating pets as their children, which partly explains the booming pet consumer market, as people are becoming more willing to spend money on pets.”
China’s pet industry has witnessed a steady rise in the past few years. Even during the pandemic in 2020, the pet industry consumer market reached 206.5 billion RMB (around 31.89 billion USD), a 2% increase from 2019. The sector is expected to keep its momentum and expand even more in the coming years.
Erin Leigh, who co-founded the pet-sitting platform Spare Leash, echoes Zhang, telling RADII, “The pet market in China is booming. With more and more people choosing to have children later, they have pets they treat like family, and this is only expected to accelerate in the years to come. Like everyone, we want only the best for our family members, or in this case, fur kids, and that comes at a price.”
“Everything from the best dog food, accessories, toys, and of course, services (dog walking, pet daycare, grooming, veterinary care) — all these factors play a part in driving the market,” says Leigh.
Millennials and Gen Zers are the principal force behind this sector’s growth. Those born between 1990-99 are the largest group of pet owners, accounting for 38.1% of the total population in China, according to the 2020 white paper by Pethadoop.
Meanwhile, 45.1% of those born between 1995-99 have pets, and 28.9% of people born after the year 2000 are pet owners, according to the latest study by the Chinese market research and consulting company iiMedia Research.
The white paper also notes that an overwhelming majority of pet owners — 89.5% — are women.
The Cat Economy
Cats, in particular, are increasingly favored by pet owners. Today, some young people will even tell you that owning a cat has been added to their list of life goals, alongside owning a home and car.
In 2020, there was a 10.2% rise in the number of cats across the country, compared to a 5.1% decrease in dogs. It was the first time a decline in dog ownership was recorded.
Wang tells RADII that having a cat, a relatively low-maintenance pet compared to dogs, is the best choice due to her tight work schedule and occasional business trips. “After a busy day, sometimes I might be too drained to give the amount of emotional support and attention that a dog needs,” she says.
On the other hand, Zhang believes social media is at the core of China’s cat economy, stating, “The biggest beneficiary of the modern-day internet is cats.”
“The popularity of ‘inhale cats on the internet’ has given rise to a large community of cat lovers,” says Zhang. (‘Inhale cats on the internet’ is a Chinese internet slang referring to consuming cat content on the internet; see the above video)
“Regardless of whether you’re on [Chinese Twitter-like platform] Weibo, [social networking site] Douban, or Gen Z content-sharing platform Xiaohongshu, bloggers and cat-related content are everywhere,” Zhang adds.
According to a recent ecommerce report on pets by the Chinese short-video platform Douyin, there are more than 980,000 cat-related topics on the app, and the number of cat videos has exceeded 45 million. On Xiaohongshu, there are over 5 million notes about cats that have been published.
Some people in the West hold a distorted view of pets — particularly dogs and cats — in China, thanks mainly to sensational headlines and poorly framed media coverage of the Yulin Dog Meat Festival in South China. Of course, dog consumption was never a mainstream culinary phenomenon in China, and you’re more likely to find a canine on a leash than on a plate in the country today.
Young Chinese urbanites are far removed from the outdated stereotypes: They don’t eat dogs or cats; instead, they pamper them with innovative products and services.
In July, Shanghai’s first pet restaurant opened in one of the city’s central districts after much anticipation, offering a mix of fresh main courses, snacks, and desserts for dogs and cats.
Other services catering to the increasingly niche pet market have emerged in recent years, including pet funeral services, lost pet detective agencies, international transportation agencies for pets, and pet beauty salons.
On the Chinese e-commerce platform Taobao, innovative pet products brands have emerged, offering pet snacks, tableware, clothes, and cleaning products with a creative touch.
“With the rise of China’s pet industry, we will expect more consumers to buy creative pet products,” says Chengcheng Ding, co-founder of the creative pet brand Purlab, whose sales have increased over 40% every month since the company was founded one and half years ago. “The market will just keep expanding.”
Pet owners can also immortalize their deceased pets by having their remains transformed into a piece of jewelry. Creating a ring from cat cremation ashes costs around 28,000RMB (4,325USD), according to Wu Min, a Shanghai-based woman who has adopted more than 10 cats.
“Now, I can remember my deceased cat in a more meaningful way,” says Wu.
A Furry Future
China’s passion for pets is growing, but not without its struggles. In May of this year, the revelation that some businesses illegally transport pets in blind boxes caused outrage in China, with netizens calling for more strict oversight.
Overall, though, animal rights protection in China has been bolstered in recent years, with proposals for improved wildlife protection submitted at the Two Sessions last year in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak.
On January 1, China removed animal testing as a mandatory measure for foreign cosmetic brands to enter the Chinese market. Three months later, in April, authorities took dogs off the list of edible animals.
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When it comes to the current pet rescue and adopting situation in China, Zhang believes there has been an improvement.
“There are more responsible and well-informed adopters right now. And more citizens are engaging with Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) efforts for homeless cats around the city,” says Zhang. (TNR is one of the most humane and constructive methods for controlling the population of stray cats.)
With Chinese young people keener than ever to own and pamper a pet and an increased awareness of animal rights in the country, China’s furry friends have a brighter future than ever before.
Cover image via VCG.com