In many homes, pets are replacing children

April 25, 2017 09:53
The rapid rise in the number of domestic pets has led to a boom in the sectors that serve them.  Photo: China Daily

Taking a rest from serving customers in her restaurant, Leung Mei-ling opens her mobile phone.

“Here is a photograph of Mother,” she says. “I visit her and have meals with her often. So do the people of my generation.”

She flicks to a photo of her daughter, 23. “But she will not do this for me. The world has changed.”

Like in many cities in the developed world, the birthrate in Hong Kong is going down while ownership of domestic pets is soaring. Dogs and cats are replacing children.

According to government figures, the birth rate here has fallen from 35 per 1,000 in 1961 to 8.2 in 2015.

An official survey conducted from October to December 2010 found Hong Kong households keeping 247,500 dogs and 167,600 cats. Together they accounted for 10.6 percent of all households in the city.

A global survey published in May 2016 by Petfood Industry of 27,000 online consumers ranked Hong Kong second in Asia in pet ownership, with 35 percent, after Japan with 37 percent and ahead of South Korea with 31 percent.

Top were Argentina, with 82 percent, and Mexico with 81 percent.

To learn the reasons for this, I need do no more than walk outside my apartment to the podium in Mei Foo, where ladies bring their treasures every morning.

While the dogs discuss the relative merits of their owners, the ladies sing praises of their beloved – Binky, Roller and Chip.

“Raising a child is expensive and stressful,” said Molly Lau. “And will the child look after you in your old age? I don't think so. I have many friends who are disappointed in their children. They live in their own world which they keep separate from their parents. So my husband and I keep a dog instead. It is cheaper and simpler.”

“Dogs do not speak and they don't upset you,” said Wong Sau-ling. “My husband and I have jobs that require long hours and a great deal of attention. When we come home, we want a quiet and attentive dog.”

The absorption of children in the electronic world is one reason why adults feel alienated.

From 10 years old, they carry a smart phone or i-pad whenever they can; many speak through them rather than to people.

We have all seen couples with their children having dinner in a restaurant; everyone is transfixed by their smartphone and no-one is conversing.

Another factor is the increasing independence of people and their reluctance to marry. Latest government figures show that, in 2015, 28.9 percent of women and 33.2 percent of men in Hong Kong had never married.

What was once unthinkable in Chinese society has become commonplace. Parents accept their children not marrying and do not force them to do so.

Homosexuality is more common and coming out of the closet.

The increasing cost of property has reduced the size of apartments; three generations rarely live together.

More people – divorced, widowed or single – live alone. Who is to keep them company?

Cally Kwong Mei-wan (鄺美雲) is a model of an independent dog-loving success story. A former beauty queen and singer, she was briefly married.

Now she has become a jeweller for top tycoons and frequently appears in the city’s society papers with Cash, a Bichon Frise dog, whom she treats as her own son, lavishing him with foie gras and abalone.

With his immaculate white coat and big smile, Cash lacks for nothing.

This rapid rise in the number of domestic pets has led to a boom in the sectors that serve them – shops selling pet food, clothes and toys, veterinary services, hospitals, carers, pet insurance and media.

My Pet monthly runs to 108 pages, with interviews with owners and experts, articles on how to feed and nourish pets, news of competitions and dozens of pages of advertisements – organic food, nutritional items, toys, clothes, leads, skin cream, teeth care, sanitizer spray and care products, etc.

“We are very careful in what we feed our Jack Russell Billy,” said Eric Chan, a salesman. “No meat from the mainland, of course. Preferably organic meat from Australia or New Zealand.

"He is picky in what he will eat and will leave the plate full if he does not like it. We take him regularly to the vet, with whom we have a close relationship.”

But, like thousands of dogs in small apartments, Billy does not have enough exercise and is overweight.

Vets estimate that about 40 percent of pet dogs in the city are obese due to over-eating and lack of exercise.

Mei Foo is a private estate; the right to keep a dog was the result of a legal battle in which a court ruled in favor of an owner against the estate management.

The owner argued that it was inhumane to keep his dog at home 24 hours a day; the judge ruled in his favor, while the management did not want the headaches of hygiene and opposition of many residents.

Currently, public estates do not allow pet ownership, except to serve medical needs, such as dogs for the blind.

The animal lobby is pressing to change that. If that happens, the city’s pet population will have another quantum leap.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.