2018 is the Year of the Dog in the Chinese calendar and various dog-themed items will soon flood markets and homes across Asia. A new year brings change, and the Year of the Dog will preside over accelerating changes in Asia’s relationship to man’s best friend. As Asia rises, the fortunes of both man and mutt are changing in tandem, yet important regional differences remain.
Rising pet ownership is teaching many would-be owners that healthy pets require more than just the fulfilment of basic needs. Pampered pooches are an entire industry in Western countries, with owners willing to spend thousands of dollars on their dogs well-being. This trend is increasingly visible across Asia, with dog cafes and dog hotels a common phenomenon in countries like Japan.
Pampered pet culture makes inroads in Asia
Singapore recently made news after locals protested against a Chinese dog circus which was scheduled to perform in the micro-nation in celebration of the Year of the Dog. Faced with thousands of signatures, the organizers quickly cancelled the event, responding to concerns from animal lovers about exploitation and cruelty. Singapore is also home to the world’s first interactive art exhibition for dogs and cats - Paw:sitive. Three months in planning, the exhibition features various interactive rooms, toys and treats; with bright colours, smells and sounds arranged to stimulate pets.
Another recent addition is Critterati, South Asia’s first luxury dog hotel. With owners spending up to $70 per night for their pets, the facility offers fully scheduled days, 24 hour medical care, velvet beds, a swimming pool and custom menus. Bacon and vanilla ice cream and non-alcoholic beer imported from Belgium are also on offer to the hotel’s canine customers. Based in the New Delhi satellite city of Gurgaon, Critterati’s clientele lead a life far removed from India’s approximately 30 million stray dogs.
Unfortunately, such disparity mirrors the growing gulf in the lives of India’s richest and poorest citizens as well. As in China, India’s growing middle class is fuelling a pet explosion, with the number of pet dogs rising from two million in 2002 to 15 million in 2016: this trend is expected to see 26 million pet dogs in India by 2021.
Attitudes in Muslim-majority Asia not monolithic
The standing of dogs in Muslim-majority countries is rising slower than elsewhere in Asia given religious reservations concerning dogs. For instance, levels of animal welfare in Southeast countries such as Indonesia are in general low, with only a handful of the nation’s 58 registered zoos fit for animal habitation. Similarly, the popular wild songbird trade and other poaching related activities put significant stress on Indonesia’s animals.
Nevertheless there are some changes afoot, with President Joko Widodo taking a public role in promoting animal welfare. To this end, he bought and freed 190 songbirds from the Pramuna bird market in East Java to raise awareness about animal welfare. There are increasing numbers of pet owners in Indonesia, although various constraints do exist. For instance, even many aspiring middle class Indonesians in Jakarta live in shared hostels: hardly the place to keep pets. Moreover, less than 10% of the city is set aside for parks and green space, making it hard to find to exercise and play with pets.
As in other Asian countries, pet ownership has become just as much about branding and aspirational living as companionship. This subjects dogs to the same kind of throwaway mentality that plagues our consumer culture. Viral videos and internet trends will catapult various breeds into the public’s awareness. However, this does not create a sustainable climate for pet ownership. “Indonesians mostly have a pet because it’s a trend,” notes Irma Dana Dana, an activist with the Indonesian Green Club - “You will see people adopt a husky and then abandon it after five months because they get bored.”
Similar casual attitudes to pet ownership are seen in Malaysia, albeit to a lesser degree given the country’s stricter Islamic jurisprudence tradition. Dog-related headlines often become national news in Malaysia, often as a result of some heavy-handed response from the country’s federal religious authority (Jakim). Recently, the Jakim publicly chastised a Malaysian woman for posting a video online of herself playing with her dog.
“We find her actions to be deeply disturbing to Muslims here, as they contravene our culture [...] Jakim hopes the individual will immediately stop her actions and repent to Allah.” Jakim also made headlines last year when it ordered vendors selling hot dogs to rename their products to avoid confusion. This move elicited substantial flak from the populace, with the public complaining about Jakim creating problems where none exist. Even Malaysia’s tourism minister Nazri Aziz chimed in: “I am Muslim and I am not offended. Please do not make us seem stupid and backward.”
While the fervour of the Jakim often makes for collective eye-rolling there nevertheless exists a large enough demographic that agrees with the organization’s pronouncements. For instance, back in 2014, pharmacist Syed Azmi Alhabshi had to seek police protection after receiving death threats for organizing an ‘I Want to Touch a Dog’ event designed to create dialogue between pet owners and Muslims.
What makes this a distinctly Malaysian issue is the fact the government only recognizes the Shafie school of Islamic jurisprudence. Said school considers dogs to ritually unclean, whereas other schools of thought permit individuals to keep dogs as pets.
“This isn’t a cultural war between conservative and liberal Muslims,” argues Derek Kok, an analyst at IMAN Research, “but rather it is reflective of a lack of theological diversity as only one school of thought is deemed correct by the state, despite the differences in the various jurisprudence school of Islam.”
Higher incomes sees less dog meat consumption, but not everywhere
Rising incomes and education levels in many Asian countries are leading to increased awareness about animal welfare. This in turn is leading to greater resistance to treating animals - specifically dogs - as more than just unthinking automata. These changing attitudes were on display in Taiwan, as the country outlawed the consumption of dog and cat meat in April.
Fines for consuming said meat now range between $1,640 and $8,200 with the maximum prison sentence for animal cruelty also increased to two years. Taiwan’s higher living standards and greater access to Western social media (versus mainland China) have seen the country (along with Japan) embrace pet culture in a manner recognizable to Western observers.
Alongside the companionship which dogs provide, pet ownership is also increasingly seen as a lifestyle choice, specifically a status symbol, with certain breeds being viewed as luxury items. Whereas the consumption of dog meat in mainland China continues, the People’s Republic is also home to over 100 million registered pets. Indeed, personal pets are often victims of dog snatchers supplying the meat markets. Pet theft joins the theft of other aspirational items as a concern for China’s growing middle-class.
Interestingly, rising incomes are having the opposite effect in Vietnam, where consumption of dog meat is widespread. Some five million dogs are slaughtered for consumption in Vietnam each year. Originally considered an expensive delicacy reserved for special occasions, dog meat has become increasingly popular due to rising incomes in Vietnam. Dog meat has become an aspirational item for Vietnam’s working class as prices drop and more Vietnamese become upwardly mobile.
Moreover, dog meat is increasing in popularity due to its perceived health benefits. Conversely, activists and health officials warn of disease transmission, with Asia Canine Protection Alliance coordinator Lola Webber noting that “the existing trade in and slaughter of dogs fails to comply with many of the compulsory animal disease prevention measures.”
It is also important to note that there is evidence of commonplace distinctions between breeds of dogs in areas where dog meat is popular. In other words, various breeds; either due to appearance, size or price, are seen as pets, with many individuals opposed to their consumption. On the other hand, various mongrels, mutt and other street dogs are viewed more like livestock than pets. A notable example of this is the Nureongi breed in South Korea which are often raised on large farms in a manner akin to other livestock.
Whether friend, foe or food, dogs play important roles across Asia; roles that are evolving in tandem with the region’s economic development. It is important to note that not all these trajectories are heading in the same direction, making it imperative to recognize Asia’s regional differences. Even though 2018 is the Year of the Dog, for some it will still be a dog’s life.
Jeremy Luedi is the editor of Asia by Africa. His writing has been featured in Business Insider, The Japan Times, The Diplomat, FACTA Magazine, Yahoo Finance, Asia Times, Huffington Post and Qrius. His insights have also been quoted by TIME, OZY, and the Washington Times, among others.