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Thriving industry forms around pampered pets

December 11th, 2003, 10:47 AM
Thriving industry forms around pampered pets

Byline:Myra Lu

Ecko and BB sat in one of Taipei's many photo studios waiting patiently to have wedding photographs taken. The pair, wearing their best finery, nibbled on specially baked cakes and cookies that were laid out attractively on a table as they waited. Crowding around the happy couple, a pack of friends were on hand to help celebrate their union. The joyous occasion was executed with the pomp and ceremony of just about any other wedding that takes place in Taipei, but it had one notable exception: Ecko and BB are dogs. Maltese, to be exact.

An increasing number of pet owners in Taiwan have shown a willingness to spend money on things like mock weddings for their fine furry friends. The wedding of Ecko and BB reportedly cost nearly US$3,000--almost three times the monthly salary of an average college-graduate. For Ecko's owner, the money was worth it, as she looks upon the dog as a daughter.

The pet business is booming in Taipei, and with it peripheral businesses such as pet food, accessories, grooming and even funeral services. Owners treat their pets like indispensable family members who deserve to be lavished with luxury.

Bone House, Taiwan's only bakery for dogs, takes orders from customers who need cakes and cookies for special occasions, or simply for daily treats. "Every week, I receive a number of orders for birthday cakes," said Sally Chen, Bone House's owner and baker. "Nowadays, people are very generous to their pets." Chen, who used to live in the United States, has years of baking experience. Sensing a potential in the pet business, she decided to transfer her expertise to baking delicacies for dogs. She consults veterinarians and foreign literature to make sure her products are healthy and nutritious.

Most people in Taiwan find it hard to imagine that pet owners actually throw Halloween and Christmas parties for their pets, not to mention engagement parties and homecoming celebrations. "I just got an order for 100 engagement cakes from a customer," Chen enthused. "I would say freshness is what distinguishes us from regular dog food." Supermarket chains, which stock a wide range of pet foods and accoutrements, have also reported brisk sales. RT-Mart, a local supermarket chain, said its pet departments raked in US$176,000 in sales over a two-week period. Pet food in particular registered 10-percent growth from last year.

The past couple of years have seen a rise in consumer spending on pets, despite the fact that the number of house cats and dogs has actually declined from a few years ago. According to statistics provided by the Pet Administration Association (PAA), the number of house dogs in Taiwan dropped from 2.1 million in 1999 to 1.35 million this year. The house cat population reported this year stood at 247,455--a slight increase over the previous year.

Interestingly, the number of pets other than dogs and cats surged in the past two years. Some young people have taken a liking to keeping rabbits, snakes, turtles and lizards as a way of showing that they have an adventurous spirit, said Wang Ching-chih, director of the association.

till, obvious changes in attitude toward pets are reflected in ever-abundant pet products. "Food and accessories for pets have become more diverse and refined. Manufacturers put out seasonal products to cater to owners' changing tastes. The tendency toward humanizing pets is evident," Wang noted.

Take food for example. Aside from specialty stores like Bone House, makers of dog food have been formulating fare catering specifically to puppies and pregnant dogs, as well as those with heart or kidney problems. Specially formulated foods are also available for kittens, cats and certain uncommon pets--be they vegetarian or carnivorous.

Wang said even pet tailors have sprung up, making clothes for dogs and, more to the point, to please their owners. The clothing is more for effect than for warmth, explained Wang. There are specially designed fabrics and styles, and the latest fad is a set of hooded raincoats for keeping pets dry while promenading.

Pet grooming salons are quickly becoming profitable businesses as well. Taiwan's first grooming school opened in 1986, and over the years it has trained a number of pet beauticians who have gone on to open their own shops all over the island. Even though it is difficult to estimate the extent of the upsurge, the PAA pointed out that professional beauticians have been in short supply for years.

According to Midas Chen, Bone House's co-owner, pet owners spend an average of US$150 a month on their little friends, and about 6 percent spend double that. Many otherwise normal people not only spend more money but also more time with their pets, suggesting that the animals may be standing in as emotional substitutes for children and spouses.

"I know a couple that keeps six different-colored dachshunds. They are so fond of them that they do not want to have children," Chen said. He has also observed that many young women grow very emotionally attached to their pets--so much so that they no longer have time for human social interaction.

That, however, leads to another side of the pet phenomenon. The development of modern society has caused alienation among people whose day-to-day interaction is often limited to a cursory "hello" in the corridor or on the street. Still, a love of animals can help bring lonely people together. Strangers walking their dogs in a park might befriend one another by introducing their pets.

"We see more and more people taking their dogs to nearby parks, particularly large dogs, because they need bigger spaces to stretch out and run," said Chen. "In order to help their pets make more doggy friends, pet owners often host dog gatherings, which in turn give people a chance to meet one another." Larger dogs, such as golden and Labrador retrievers, grew in popularity after Taiwan's Sept. 21, 1999 earthquake, during which rescue dogs became overnight heroes. The fad continues to this day even though Sally and Midas Chen worry that, as these pet dogs grow bigger and require more space, people will start abandoning them.

Before that happens, though, pet owners find themselves enjoying a gradually pet-friendly environment. More and more pet restaurants are sprouting across Taiwan. While some are designed specifically for dogs and cats, others accommodate almost all kinds of pets. They even have special restrooms for animals and extra-large spaces for parties.

A restaurant in Taipei's Shihlin district provides a diet menu for dogs and cats, and grass dishes for rabbits. For diners who have not brought their pets along, they are welcome to pick one of the restaurant's in-house pets to keep them company while they eat.

This is just a small example of the multifaceted pet business that only a few years ago was completely unsophisticated. According to industry sources, there are about 10 pet mausoleums in Taiwan. A manager of one of them said people bring their pets' favorite food and toys to hold religious ceremonies for the deceased pets. The mausoleum complex, she said, has separate quarters for Buddhist and Christian worshippers as well.

"If the overall economy is good, the island's pet business will continue to grow, as is happening in Europe and the United States," PAA's Wang predicted. The owners of the Bone House agree. Midas Chen, who is thinking of setting up a pet day-care facility for pet owners on the go, believes that if the city can develop a special shopping area for pet products, it should help boost sales and spread pet culture.

For ages, people have found solace in keeping pets. It is, however, undeniable that today's more affluent pets enjoy quite a different lifestyle from the stray dogs living precarious lives on the mean streets of Taipei. If their marriage remains a successful one, and there is no messy canine divorce in their future, neither Ecko nor her hubby BB will ever have to experience such privation--at least as long as their owners continue to derive pleasure from their wedded pets.