Fur-ever love: cuddly pets, doting owners and a lucrative industry
Jerry, in his 20s, was disconsolate after his pet dog Berry died, especially after their close companionship during a COVID-19 lockdown in Shanghai earlier this year.
Pet funeral parlor owner James Cheng recalled how Jerry dutifully cooked Berry's favorite food – chicken breasts – and brought them to the parlor every day. His parents finally persuaded him to stop after three days for fear his grief would be prolonged, the pet undertaker said.
Offering food to the deceased is an old funeral tradition practiced by many people to farewell family members. It has now been extended to pets amid a rising number of people devoted to their cats and dogs. And just like for humans, Buddhist monks can also be hired to pray for the afterlife of pets.
Catering to pets and their indulgent owners is big business in China. From food to veterinary services, from pet cafes to breeding, there's money to be made from the surging trend.
A pet industry white paper released by e-commerce giant JD.com last month estimated the number of Chinese families with pets will top 100 million by the end of this year. In the main, pet owners are families with children, unmarried young people and the elderly.
Some 31 percent of pet owners have more than two pets – often a combination of cats and dogs.
Zealous pet owners are prone to sparing no expense when it comes to their furry friends. That spending trend is fueled by increased disposable income, rising numbers of people who live alone and, more recently, the need for emotional attachment during the pandemic.
"I've had an obvious increase in orders since 2020, and many clients said they really got attached to their pets during lockdown," said Chengdu resident Yolanda Yue, whose services include pet matchmaking.
Other popular services – both online and offline – include dog-cat cafes, medical insurance for pets, robotic pet walkers and gourmet pet food brands.
"From cradle to grave, you can pretty much find everything for your 'baby'," said Yue. "Many people are really treating their pets like family members – like their kids."
The JD.com report revealed how pet owners celebrate all kinds of festivals with pets.
It showed a 63 percent jump in sales of festival costumes for pets on its platform between 2021 and 2022, with the biggest increases for New Year and Halloween. Other popular festival offerings include sticky pet dumplings for the Dragan Boat Festival and mooncakes for the Mid-Autumn Festival.
Funeral services are a relative newcomer to the mix.
Enchongtang, a national chain pet funeral service founded in 2019 in Hangzhou, capital of neighboring Zhejiang province, now covers 68 Chinese cities and serves over 100,000 pets per year.
One funeral package, for a pet weighing less than 5 kilograms, ranges from 680 yuan (US$94) to 1,370 yuan.
Last year, Enchongtang earned more than 20 million yuan and completed a 15-million-yuan first round of financing, according to founder Xu Hua.
It was among a handful of companies allowed to continue operation during the two-month COVID lockdown in Shanghai earlier this year. It cremated about 2,000 pet remains during that period.
According to the corporate information provider Tianyancha, now there are more than 2,400 pet funeral-related companies in the nation.
"Pet funerals are nothing new in developed countries," Xu said. "In Japan, for example, pet funerals have been in operation for some 16 years, and a funeral can last three to four hours, with 32 steps."
Lucien Ye, his wife and two friends became Xu's franchisees in August.
"Many friends talked about the growing demand for pet funerals, so I did my own research and found huge potential," Ye said. "People are changing the way they deal with pet remains."
Cat owner Jaimee Jin used to have hamsters when she was at university. When they died, her mother dumped their remains in the garbage bin, without her consent. Her ex-boyfriend, who also owned some hamsters, casually buried his pets in the posh downtown Xintiandi area, saying he wanted them to "lie where he can't afford to live."
Both disposal methods are illegal. According to national regulations, pet remains must be cremated or buried in a 1.5-meter hole filled with lime. Burial sites need to be at a specified distance from water sources.
"Now that I have learned about pet funeral services, I won't let my mom dump my cats' bodies in a bin when they die," Jin said. "They deserve decent farewells."
Unlike emerging funeral services, medical insurance for pets has been around for 18 years. It developed rather slowly for 10 years until major insurance companies saw the potential and stepped in. Today, nearly all major insurance companies offer pet coverage.
"There has been quite a sharp increase in pet owners coming to us in the last two years," said Zhang Xin, president of Mary's Veterinary Hospital in Shanghai. "Between 10-20 percent have their pets insured. We often help them filing the claims. Most policies cover common pet illnesses, though some rarer afflictions may not be covered."
Some people rank pet services as a consideration when moving house.
"The pet environment was part of my decision-making when I had an offer for a job in Shenzhen," said Julian Ong, a Canadian who adopted a stray dog shortly before getting the offer from the southern Chinese city. "I found quite a lot of services existed there, even pet funerals."
When his dog Pidan died last year, Ong gave him a decent send-off that he said eased his grief.
Enchongtang founder Xu said the now-crowded pet funeral market has its unscrupulous purveyors.
"I hope there will be standards adopted for the industry so that pet owners can be assured of quality services," he said.