The Extraordinary Rise of China’s Pet Industry

A visitor takes a photo for a cat during a pet expo held from April 9 to April 11 in Zhengzhou, central China’s Henan Province, April 10, 2021. (Source: Xinhua)

A piece of heart-wrenching news – a golden retriever, named Siri died after bungled transportation – was trending top on Chinese Microblogging platform Weibo for days, with millions of people, even celebrities speaking up for Siri and asking for justice. 

Chen Dan, the owner of Siri, spent 2,600 yuan hiring Bang Bang International Freight Shipping company to transport Siri from Nanjing to Guiyang by air. Still, she found her beloved Siri died from heatstroke under the care of a logistics company whose employee secretly changed the transportation to the bus without authorization, which leads to its suffocation. After Chen posting her experience on social media, the topic “golden retriever Siri” topped the ranking list, having 2 billion views and near half a million discussions on Weibo. Pet lovers shedding tears for this tragedy, venting out anger about the misconduct of the logistics company and expressing worry about the nonstandard of the pet economy. 

“The empathy of pet owners that being afraid of some horrible experiences might happen to their pet one day thrust this incident into the spotlight and keeps the heat of the topic,” an industry practitioner said. 

The very existence of such incidents, troubling as it may be, sends another signal: China’s pet industry is booming. The number of dogs and cats kept by urban residents reached 100.84 million in 2020, according to the 2020 Chinese Pet Industry White Paper jointly published by Chinese social networks for pet owners Goumin.com and Pet Fair Asia. China’s urban resident population was nearly 850 million, which means one out of every ten people owned a pet cat or dog.

The rapid growth of pet families is due to the expansion of the middle-class and the sprawling urbanization. Perhaps the growing trend of singlehood and childlessness and the mounting pressure on the younger generation have accelerated pet families’ expansion in China. According to the National Bureau of Statistics of China (NBS China), most people who have pet dogs or cats in China are the elderly and the younger generations, living alone in the urban cities and desperately seeking for companions.

“Keeping pets has met the emotional needs of many Chinese. Our report showed that almost 60 percent of pet owners view their animal friends as their children,” said Liu Xiaoxia, chief executive officer of Goumin.com. 

The trend shows no sign of abating. China is projected to have 248 million urban pet dogs and cats by 2024, compared to 172 million in the United States. The unrelenting expansion of pet families has nurtured the most potential pet economy globally as the pet lovers in China are willing to splurge on pet services such as food, medical care, beauty, and foster care. Even against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, which drags the world economy into downturn, the consumption market of the pet industry saw a 4.1 billion yuan increase in 2020, totaling 206.5 billion yuan. China’s pet market is expected to reach 600 billion yuan by 2023, according to iiMedia Research.

Of all costs, pet food accounts for the lion’s share. On last year’s Alibaba’s singles’ Day shopping festival, the world’s biggest shopping gala held on November 11, Chinese pet owners bought over 14,000 tons of cat food and 18,000 tons of dog food. Of all things that can be purchased online, cat food was the top-selling imported product, even surpassing imported milk powder for infants. Other pet-related commodities and services are also among the best-seller list. 

According to figures from China’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), the compound growth rate of China’s pet industry was 49.1 percent from 2010 to 2016. That’s the fastest growth among all consumer goods categories. In the past ten years, China’s pet economy, including food, toys, and supplies, in addition to the pets themselves, has grown by an astounding 2000 percent.

The surge in pet pampering drives many investors who covet the lucrative interest brought by the pet economy, to eagerly enter this industry, hustling to grab a slice of the thriving market. Pet-related services, such as pet grooming, pet boarding, and pet transportation, have sprung up in recent years. 

“As large number of speculators swarmed into the pet industry- most of them don’t receive professional training, the quality of the pet service was mixed,” said Lu Meiyue, a veterinarian in Beijing. “The tragedy of Siri was just the miniature of the current pet industry, which buzz with disturbing misconducts,” she added. 

From medical negligence caused by uncertificated pet hospitals to the illegal transportation operated by unauthorized companies, numerous fluffy babies fell victims to the chaotic phenomena driven by high profits. In early May, the news of “pet blind box” has sparked outrage in China. Unscrupulous merchants sold pets in mystery parcels, squeeze puppies and kittens thirsty and starving into small crates, and delivering them by postal service. At least 160 distressed cats and dogs were located inside a courier company’s truck in Chengdu, and a number of them had died. Chinese state media Xinhua describes it as a “desecration of life.” 

Such tragedies were stark reminders of how far the country still has to address the standardization of the pet industry. “Currently, the threshold of entering the pet industry is much lower than other industries, which contains numerous blind spots, such as illegal operations and supervision,” said Lu. “To better develop the pet industry, such problems need to be solved as soon as possible,” Lu added. 

Many pet owners and industry experts agree with Lu’s opinion, calling for the introduction of related policies and regulations to fill the legal gaps in the pet industry. Meanwhile, training the professionals such as veterinarians and beauticians in the long term to avoid such tragedy. Despite repeated calls from civil society, animal-related laws remain squarely off the books for now. But Lu is optimistic about the future. 

“Considering the extraordinary rise of the pet industry, which has gradually become one of the most potential markets with the enormous size in the future, the relative government department cannot ignore the demand of the market. The legal framework to regulate pet-related industries and guide social conduct toward better treatment of pets and the end of cruelty to animals will be applied to the pet industry shortly,” she said.