China’s Pet Industry Is Making Money Hand Over Paw
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2017-08-26 11:12:54

SHANGHAI — More and more Chinese are becoming enthusiastic pet owners willing to spend big on their dogs, cats, and other animals — a fact that the hundreds of exhibitors at the four-day Pet Fair Asia (PFA), which kicked off Thursday in Shanghai, are keenly aware of.

Spread out through eight cavernous halls for an estimated 100,000 visitors, companies both domestic and foreign are selling premium pet food, delicate pet clothes, and high-tech pet toys to China’s increasingly eager consumers. According to a 2016 white paper, the market for such products has grown rapidly since 2010 and was worth nearly 100 billion yuan ($15 billion) in 2015. Estimates put the number of registered pets in China at 100 million.

Bai Jing, who owns a dog training school in Hangzhou, in eastern China’s Zhejiang province, told Sixth Tone on Thursday that she has come to Shanghai for the annual expo every year since 2012. “It’s the best place to find the trendiest products and exchange ideas with insiders,” she said, standing next to the large box of pet beverages she had just purchased.

Specialized pet products like drinks for dogs are no longer a rarity in China. “Ten years ago, owners thought their leftovers were good enough for their dogs and cats,” said Liu Dongfang, a manager at Huaxing Pet Food in northern China’s Hebei province. “But now our buyers purchase premium products for their pets according to their weight and breed.”

Visitors take photos of a dog groomed to look like a raccoon during Pet Fair Asia at the Shanghai New International Expo Centre, Aug. 24, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Visitors take photos of a dog groomed to look like a raccoon during Pet Fair Asia at the Shanghai New International Expo Centre, Aug. 24, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

According to a report on pet food trends published in 2016 by German marketing firm GfK, China’s market is shifting toward premium products. In 2015, nearly one-fifth of the pet food sold in China was of the more upscale, “natural” variety, meaning it contained no synthetic ingredients — an increase of 12 percent from the previous year.

And pet food producers are convinced that this kind of growth will continue. Lü Ruixi, an executive manager at Belgian pet food brand Brabançonne, was introducing a new food product specifically for aging pets to a few curious visitors. “We believe that high-end pet food for elderly dogs and cats is a promising niche that has yet to be exploited in the domestic market,” he told Sixth Tone.

Another reason why consumers might opt for premium products is frequent pet food scandals. Chen Hao, the national marketing director of Guangdong-based Harriet Nutrition Technology, told Sixth Tone that the market for pet food in China is messy, and that the quality of products varies widely. “We do have industry standards, but unfortunately many don’t follow them,” Chen said.

In March, state-owned Xinhua News Agency reported that the Guangzhou inspection and quarantine bureau had found that imported German dog food contained prions, the misfolded proteins that cause mad cow disease. And earlier this year, e-commerce platform Taobao sued one of its shops for selling counterfeit cat food.

Wang Jue, a visitor at the fair, told Sixth Tone on Friday that she is reluctant to buy pet food for her cats from Chinese companies. “Though these imported brands don’t have big booths, their packing looks delicate, and I trust their quality,” said Wang. “I would rather spend more money on my cats’ food and litter so that they can stay healthy, rather than pay ridiculously high veterinary fees.”

Bai, the dog trainer, is proud to see that Chinese brands have improved their quality standards over the past five years, but she said that for her own dogs, there are only a few domestic companies that she feels safe buying from.

And despite all the luxuries on display this week, animal wellness doesn’t seem to be on everyone’s mind, said Bai, who expressed concerns about the furry models stationed at some of the booths. A Pomeranian groomed to look like a raccoon was particularly popular with visitors. “Summer is too hot for them,” Bai lamented, “and they are stressed about being petted by thousands of visitors every day.”

Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.

(Header image: Fake dogs wearing costumes at Pet Fair Asia at the Shanghai New International Expo Centre, Aug. 24, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone)