By Jemma Galvin
For the first time in seven years, Mango, born and bred in Singapore, got to see the sights of his home city – all the while trotting alongside a rollerblading Mexican and slobbering happily into the wind.
Mango is a cross-breed dog and had not seen the light of day for the majority of his life, refusing to step out of his cage at the Animal Lovers League’s pet villa and unable to be coaxed out by its volunteers due to his aggressive behaviour and the threat he posed to his human handlers.
That was before he met Cesar Millan, Dog Whisperer. The pearly toothed TV star descended on the city-state earlier this year to help its growing number of dog owners as part of his reality TV series, Cesar to the Rescue.
Millan’s trip across the pond was just one sign that pet ownership is becoming quite the boom industry in Southeast Asia. Everyone from Oprah Winfrey to your everyday Southern redneck has received help with their problematic pooches courtesy of Cesar, now a household name thanks to the decade he’s spent on our TV screens. And he chose Singapore, the affluent business hub of Southeast Asia, as the destination for his first foray into the world of international dog whispering.
Singapore is also the nation of choice for the region’s biggest pet expo. Next year’s Pet Asia, the fifth instalment of the event, expects to draw more than 20,000 visitors who will experience thrills such as creative grooming showcases, show rabbit competitions and free pet seminars as part of the four-day line-up.
Jennifer Lee, Pet Asia’s events manager, says that the expo is a great indicator of the exponential growth being experienced by the region’s pet industry.
“In Singapore, we typically see pet owners who demand quality and unique products and services for their pets. These owners consider their pets to be members of their family and they are really into organic or human-grade food for them,” Lee explains, referring to the biggest moneyspinner for the industry – pet food.
Despite the global financial recession, worldwide sales of pet-related products and services reached $81 billion in 2010. But that figure is bird feed compared to the expected $88.9 billion the pet food market alone is set to generate by 2016, according to research firm Companies and Markets.
Dominated by dog and cat food products, which account for 90% of the market, the pet food sector is not only growing, it is also becoming a sophisticated market influenced by trends and the whims of discerning consumers.
“The typical Southeast Asian pet owner is likely to spend their money on quality pet food, or on ingredients to concoct homemade meals for their furkids,” says Justina Tan, editor of the bimonthly Pets magazine. “There has also been a growing trend in the bones and raw food, or BARF, diet, due to its purported health benefits.”
Pet care, meanwhile, is undergoing the fastest growth of any pet-related segment in the region and is expected to surpass
$1 billion in Southeast Asia alone by 2016. From bedazzled collars and the latest canine kicks to bespoke beauty products and brain-enhancing games, it seems that only the best will do for our four-legged friends.
“Some of the grooming products available on the market today boast advanced formulas that seem even better than human shampoos and conditioners. They’re also often pricier,” says Tan, whose magazine has a readership of more than 8,000. “Dog toys also now go well beyond squeaking – many have educational value or are made of high-tech materials. Lifestyle services such as luxury pet hotels and dog spas are becoming more prevalent too.”
One recent and extravagant example of this lifestyle phenomenon is the Wagington, a 27-room, 400 square-metre, five-star pet hotel located in Singapore’s ritzy Dempsey Hill. A preserved heritage cluster, the area is favoured by the fash pack and hobnobbing elite. They would no doubt feel right at home when staycationing with their pets at the Wagington, which boasts a room-service menu featuring rabbit and kangaroo, TVs set to doggie-themed programming and even a spa that offers “pawdicures” and other pet-safe treatments such as facials, bubble baths and massages. There is even a bone-shaped pool for Fido to get in a few laps of doggy paddle.
Estelle Tayler, the Wagington’s owner, invested $700,000 into the business and says it targets the elite pet owner who doesn’t mind splashing the cash on their ‘furkids’. A night in the Royal Suite, complete with crystal chandelier, costs a tidy $280, after all.
“We have clean, beautiful homes and a comfortable bed when we are away,” Tayler told the Straits Times. “If we deserve the best in life, shouldn’t your most loyal companion deserve it equally?”
Despite the excitement of seeing a prized pooch preened to within an inch of its life at Pet Asia, as well as the joy of being greeted by a bumbling ball of hysteria after a long day at the office, there is a dark side to the rising popularity of pet ownership in Southeast Asia. While specific breeds, such as the designer labradoodle, a cross between a labrador retriever and a standard poodle, are wildly popular, many end up facing dire straits.
“The rise in the popularity of owning dogs, often of specific breeds, has not been coupled with adequate responsible pet ownership education and public awareness campaigns,” says Lola Webber, programmes director at the Change for Animals Foundation. This means that the number of puppy mills and pet shops are increasing rapidly without the necessary regulations in place to guarantee animal welfare and ensure the health of both animals and humans. When popping into the local pet shop and cooing over the fluffy puppies on display, it is essential to look into where they came from.
“Many dogs are bred under factory-like conditions, with indiscriminate breeding resulting in poor health and poor socialisation. This increases the rate of animal abandonment, which adds to stray and roaming dog populations,” says Webber, who is based in Bali, and therefore only too familiar with the problems street dog populations present.
Rather than dropping $500 at the mall for a designer hound, Webber suggests checking out local shelters and welfare groups.
“The top line messaging is always to adopt, don’t buy, and to vaccinate and spay or neuter your animal,” she says.
Whether a pup has a fancy double-barrelled name and is specially bred to ‘teacup’ size, or is a misunderstood mutt in need of some serious dog whispering, it seems the region’s pet lover population is set to keep growing – and dropping some serious dollars as it does so. “We don’t blink an eye at vitamins for our pets that cost $100,” says Lee. “In fact, we bought our dog $400 pet insurance just last week. Talk about humanisation.”
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