Pets enjoy a high, if sometimes fraught, status in contemporary Chinese society. For all the stories of household animals being confiscated for being too big, stolen and sold for food, or killed in the name of “pandemic prevention,” the value Chinese attach to pets — and the companionship these animals provide — has arguably never been higher. Online, people joke about being “slaves” to their cats; offline, growing numbers of dog owners are fighting to make the country safer for their beloved companions. Many non-pet owners are even getting in on the act, living vicariously through the social media feeds of people with pets — a practice so common it has a name: “smoking cats.”
In fact, calling these creatures “pets” is no longer that accurate. More precisely, they’re companion animals: if not necessarily the equal of their ostensible owners, they remain deeply valued and respected. Nationwide, the number of households with companion animals jumped from 69.3 million in 2013 to 99.8 million in 2018, according to consulting firm Frost & Sullivan. That year, China was home to approximately 67 million cats, 74 million dogs, and 110 million pets of other species, and the pet industry was worth a whopping 172.2 billion yuan ($24.3 billion).
One of the defining characteristics of this market is its highly gendered nature. In 2018, the China Pet Industry White Paper reported that 87.5% of dog owners and 89% of cat owners were women, and most of them college graduates born in the 1980s or later.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, people have adopted more caring attitudes toward their companion animals. So-called cat slaves like to say they treat their companion animals better than they treat themselves. One Shanghai-based cat shop owner told me she feeds her cat before she feeds herself. “The masters (zhuzi) should eat first,” she said.
Why do educated, middle-class urban women, in particular, invest so much time, energy, and love into their companion animals? To start, the animals are status symbols. In the early years of the “reform and opening-up” policy, urban Chinese were growing richer, and many urbanites acquired expensive animals as symbols of their newfound wealth. The price of a particular pet depended on its breed, the purity of its bloodline, its appearance, and its fertility status, but the price for a top-grade dog was in the six figures. Preferred breeds included golden retrievers, standard poodles, and Japanese spitzes. These were both expensive and needed plentiful room to exercise. Since expansive spaces require expensive real estate, the bigger the dog, the more obvious a status symbol it was.
Previously, pet ownership had also been largely functional: dogs were raised for protection, cats to guard against mice. But this new generation of pet owners gradually began to regard their pets as part of the family, or even as a substitute to one. In research interviews with urban middle-class women in their 30s, many participants stressed how they treated their companion animals like sons or daughters. Some even claimed to respect their pets’ autonomy. For example, an owner of two cats told my team that she let them choose their own names — hence one of them being named “Awoo,” the sound he made when the woman politely asked. Lengleng, a 31-year-old engineer, told us that to ensure her golden retriever had enough space to play, she sold the treadmill in her living room. Later, she bought a new house with a backyard. Instead of working for humans, the relationship between companion animals and their owners is increasingly reciprocal and social.
The vast majority of our research participants were unmarried at the time of our interviews, something that reflects both the status of many pet owners and the declining interest in marrying and starting a family shared by many millennial Chinese. Lengleng, for instance, got her dog as a compromise with her ex-boyfriend. He wanted to get married and have kids, but she wasn’t interested. Eventually, she lost the boyfriend and kept the dog. Most of my team’s research participants explicitly questioned the norms of romance, marriage, and child-rearing that dominate public discussions of gender responsibilities in China. “I don’t want a husband,” said 33-year-old Sesame. “I’m already the breadwinner in my household. Why do I need a man?”
Like Lengleng, Sesame has rejected her current partner’s offers of marriage. “I can feed my son by myself,” she said, referring to her dog.
Sesame and Lengleng are not alone. Many other interviewees we talked to also regarded their career achievements and future goals, not marriage, as central measures of their self-worth. They pointed out that their careers were on an upward trajectory, and their pets could provide them with companionship without jeopardizing their plans and life aspirations. Getting married, on the other hand, would almost certainly mean having to put their careers on hold to take care of their children and in-laws.
For other women, their companion animals act as a kind of extension of themselves in an increasingly digital world. The animals offer a steady stream of social media-friendly content: cute pictures and fun anecdotes that can be shared without revealing too much about their personal lives. They’re also reliable conversation starters and a good way to meet and connect with people who share their interests. Finally, they remain useful status symbols. In some cases, the women we interviewed posted pictures of themselves on leisurely walks with their dogs in order to project an image of a more relaxed life.
After a while, the pets become instantly recognizable stand-ins for their owners, allowing them to sidestep some of the toxicity that comes with being always online. In addition to posting images of their companion animals on their social feeds, many women we interviewed also used their dogs or cats as profile photos. In doing so, they can strike an acceptably safe compromise between the need to socialize online and the desire to protect one’s privacy. From the perspective of, say, Lengleng, if her contacts know who she is, they don’t need to see a photo of her to help them remember. Her dog is recognizable enough. As for everyone else, she sees no reason to share photos of herself with them.
Over the past four decades, millions of Chinese have migrated to new cities in search of work and opportunity. Detached from their hometowns and local networks, many find it hard to establish relationships in their new homes. Even starting a family is no longer the reliable source of companionship it once was. This is especially true for women, who increasingly chafe at traditional gender norms that demand they sacrifice their career and aspirations to raise a family.
For women able to support themselves — and a pet — a companion animal can be a way to fill this void, giving them an outlet for their love without the trade-offs of marriage or childbirth. Within China, there is still a widespread unwillingness to accept this shift. Family is a husband and wife, parents and kids, not their animals. It’s time to widen that definition. Companion animals are helping middle-class Chinese, and single, urban women especially, co-construct their urban lives and give these lives meaning. If that’s not family, what is?
Editor: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell
(Header image: A woman holds her cat by the Yangtze River in Wuhan, Hubei province, April 7, 2020. Shi Yangkun for Sixth Tone)