Royal Canin Wants Shanghai To Be China’s Most Pet-Friendly City


SHANGHAI — French pet food company Royal Canin will partner with the Shanghai Municipal Public Security Bureau, as well as local pet industry associations, veterinary clinics, and social organizations, to provide a comprehensive solution to the city’s rescue programs for stray cats and dogs, Cai Xiaodong, the general manager of Royal Canin China, said at a press conference Wednesday during the five-day Pet Fair Asia.

Under the new initiative, Royal Canin will cooperate with the public security bureau to capture and provide shelter for homeless animals, as well as send them to 14 pet hospitals for vaccination and desexing, and to local nongovernmental organizations to be put up for adoption.

Moreover, Royal Canin aims to promote more harmonious human-pet relationships in Shanghai, its China headquarters, by 2025. “We want to make Shanghai a pet-friendly city as a national benchmark,” said Cai. “Our new vision is that dogs will be able to go to public places like parks and offices without a hitch.”

To achieve this goal, Royal Canin and its partners will host lectures and summer and winter camps to share expert guidance on pet rescue and adoption with children and young people, to lay a foundation for broader public education in the long term.

Royal Canin’s booth at Pet Fair Asia in Shanghai, Aug. 22, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Royal Canin’s booth at Pet Fair Asia in Shanghai, Aug. 22, 2019. Fan Yiying

There are around 100 million pet dogs and cats in China, according to a white paperon the country’s pet industry published last week. But the problems of abandonment and unchecked reproduction have led to growing populations of strays, which in turn have put pressure on the social environment. “Although Chinese people are now more willing to participate in animal rescue, the knowledge and norms for doing so, and for immunization and sterilization, remain backward,” Niu Guangbin, a veterinarian at the Shanghai animal disease control and prevention center, told Sixth Tone.

Every neighborhood in Shanghai has stray cats, Niu said. “This is partially because people are constantly feeding them out of love,” he explained. But this doesn’t solve the problem of homeless animals. “The best way is to rescue them for sterilization,” he said, “and then release them or put them up for adoption so that they can live with dignity.”

Shanghai’s public security bureau accepts nearly 12,000 stray animals each year, which are dispatched to social organizations and around 1,000 veterinarians in the city for treatment and adoption, according to Yang Qiqing, director of the Shanghai Pet Trade Association. “Animals and humans should have the same rights,” he told Sixth Tone. “To care about the health of animals is to care about our own health.”

To make Shanghai a better place for pets, Kai Ling, brand marketing director for Ta Shanghai — a pet adoption platform that incorporates a Chinese character meaning “he,” “she,” or “it” into its name — says it’s crucial to correct a few common misconceptions. In cooperation with select celebrities, Ta Shanghai organizes around 10 pet adoption events each month, mainly at shopping malls throughout the city. But oftentimes Chinese parents — especially mothers — will veto potential adoptions out of concern for their children’s safety. “We always educate the parents, explaining that animals are not as scary as they might think,” Kai told Sixth Tone. “I draw from my own experience to tell other mothers how much my son has benefited from growing up with three disabled cats in the family.”

Meanwhile, another adoption organization, Beijing Pet Adoption Day, has helped nearly 10,000 rescued dogs and cats find new homes in 24 Chinese cities over the past eight years. Since 2017, it has crowdfunded 10 million yuan ($1.4 million) toward food for over 20,000 strays. Beijing Pet Adoption Day is also building the country’s first stray animal educational center in Beijing, scheduled to open in October.

“When we had just launched the adoption platform on social media, we often received private messages asking whether it was a place to adopt children,” Yang Yang, Beijing Pet Adoption Day’s founder, told Sixth Tone. “Chinese people once considered strays dirty, unhealthy, and unsuitable for families — but now, many have gradually embraced the notion that adopting rather than buying pets is a life attitude, and a meaningful one at that.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

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World Dog Show Features Chinese Breeds, Aims to Turn Hearts


SHANGHAI — In some parts of China, dogs have the unenviable reputation of being mean and unclean. They might spend much of their lives watching front doors, waiting for their humans to come home, all the while at risk of being dognapped, sold, butchered, and eaten.

So when Liang Xiaojun saw a Chinese dog about to come onstage at the 2019 World Dog Show, she was stunned. “I never expected to see a dog from rural China competing alongside those other, more expensive breeds,” the 26-year-old dog lover told Sixth Tone on Tuesday, the first day of this year’s four-day event in Shanghai.

Sanctioned by the Fédération Cynologique Internationale (FCI), also known as the World Canine Organization, the World Dog Show is one of the most important international dog shows in the world, held in a different FCI member country each year since 1971. This year is China’s first chance to play host, and it’s only the second time the event has been held in Asia. Often called the “Canine Olympics,” the World Dog Show’s evaluation categories include agility, obedience, conformation, handler, and grooming, among others.

China’s pet industry has grown tremendously in recent years. In 2018, the value of the country’s dog industry alone exceeded 106 billion yuan ($15.7 billion). Moreover, Chinese consumers have increasingly shown they are willing to pamper their pets, spending big bucks on everything from pet hotels to pet funerals.

However, frequent headlines of animal abuse and dog eating in some parts of the country have damaged China’s reputation for protecting animal welfare. When Shanghai in 2015 won the bid to host the World Dog Show, a petition was circulated online to stop China from hosting the event. The FCI then released a statement, calling the show an “excellent opportunity” to raise awareness among the Chinese population that “the dog, our beloved friend, is a member of our families, a living entity and most of all, Man’s Best Friend.”

A woman looks at a Chuandong hound — an ancient Chinese breed that’s little-known on the international stage — during the World Dog Show in Shanghai, April 30, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

A woman looks at a Chuandong hound — an ancient Chinese breed that’s little-known on the international stage — during the World Dog Show in Shanghai, April 30, 2019. Fan Yiying

This year’s event — which has adopted the slogan “Respect life, love world” — will see more than 2,100 dogs of 171 breeds from over 40 countries compete, and the number of visitors from home and abroad is expected to exceed 50,000, according to Xie Dianqi, secretary-general of the China Kennel Union (CKU), the only recognized FCI member from China.

“We want to take this opportunity to promote animal welfare in China, and at the same time let the world know that Chinese people love dogs and respect lives,” Xie said at a press conference Tuesday. He added that hosting the event would give China the chance to promote its native dogs on the global stage: This will be the first time in World Dog Show history that Chinese breeds will compete.

In 2016, CKU established a club to protect and breed native dog species. So far, six purebreds have been identified and bred for three generations each. According to the FCI’s requirement, each breed must be bred for five generations and be at least 1,000 in number before it can be registered as a new breed and participate in international competitions. “With new DNA technology, we expect to register the first native Chinese dog breed with the FCI by 2022,” Wang Ting, the director of CKU’s native breed conservation club, told Sixth Tone.

To achieve this goal, CKU is cooperating with local breeders and native-dog enthusiasts like Li Kunlin. Li bought four purebred Chuandong hounds — originally from the border between the southwestern Sichuan province and Chongqing municipality — to display at the World Dog Show. The ancient, little-known breed had soon caught visitors’ attention.

The history of the Chuandong hound can be traced back 2,000 years, Li told Sixth Tone, and today, locals in the mountainous eastern part of Sichuan use the dogs to hunt. “They’re intelligent and fearless, with an outstanding sense of smell — they aren’t inferior to any of the expensive foreign breeds,” he said.

When asked how much a Chuandong hound might cost, Li said they aren’t for sale. In the past few years, he’s bred around 20 Chuandong hounds through three generations from his home in Chongqing. “These dogs aren’t valued by the villagers, and this leads to cross-breeding and all kinds of (genetic) diseases,” Li said. “The number (of purebreds) is dropping rapidly, and if we don’t protect them now, they will die out before we know it.”

In 2017, a Tang gou — a Chinese breed also known as the “meat dog” — won best in show at a competition organized by CKU. “In that moment, it was no longer just another meat dog that’s so often abandoned or rejected in China,” Wang said. “Whatever their breed, Chinese or foreign, all dogs should be respected and loved.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

Credit Score for Canines Keeps Dog Owners on a Short Leash


SHANDONG, East China — Ever since she was bitten on the leg at age 5, Zhang Qiaoling has been afraid of dogs. Years later, as a teenager, the sight of an unleashed dog still scared her so much she’d freeze on the spot. “I hate it when owners tell me their dogs don’t bite,” Zhang, now 25, tells Sixth Tone. “In my eyes, even a cute breed like a toy poodle is basically a wolf — never mind something like a husky.”

Dog ownership has increased sharply in China, with over 50 million pet dogs currently registered in China and corresponding increases in sales of everything from high-end pet products to breeding and cremation services. But the large number of pooches has brought resentment among those who don’t consider them to be man’s best friend and who blame dog owners for raising badly behaved pups.

Luckily for Zhang, unleashed dogs have become a rare sight in her hometown of Jinan. Early last year, the city launched its “Civilized Dog-Raising Credit Score System,” a first in China that has since been copied elsewhere. Reminiscent of other point systems introduced throughout the country that aim to improve people’s behavior, its stated goal is to make dog owners more responsible.

The compulsory program gives every registered dog owner a license that starts with 12 points. As with drivers’ licenses, points are deducted for infractions, such as walking a dog without a leash or tag, not cleaning up poo, or being reported for a disturbance. Good deeds, like volunteering in kennels, are rewarded with extra points.

A pet owner’s smartphone displays the registration information for her dog in Jinan, Shandong province, Aug. 31, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

A pet owner’s smartphone displays the registration information for her dog in Jinan, Shandong province, Aug. 31, 2018. Fan Yiying

Over 1,400 owners have thus far been penalized under the new system, 122 of whom lost all their points and had their dogs placed in a government kennel until they passed a test on pet policies. According to police, 10 owners of confiscated dogs have yet to pass so far.

The prospect of losing one’s beloved pet is apparently effective. Authorities said in August that 80 percent of dog owners now use leashes — up from 20 percent in previous years — and that in 2017 complaints about barking and biting had decreased by 65 percent year-on-year. State-owned newspaper Legal Daily has praised the point system for its “strong operability and great effectiveness,” and argued for its countrywide implementation.

Zhang, too, supports the new system. She feels like almost everyone walks their pups on a leash nowadays, and she rarely sees dog poo on the street. “Civilization does need a strict legal push,” she says.

When Xing Ruizhi took her black-and-white foster pet, Coco, to be registered last year, the dog got vaccinated, had her picture taken, and was implanted with a microchip. Xing received a tag with a QR code that now dangles off Coco’s collar. When scanned, police can look up the breed, age, immunization status, owner information, and point total for each of the city’s 100,000 or so dogs. The tag also comes with geolocation technology that can help Xing find Coco if she ever goes missing. The whole process took less than 10 minutes, but it cost Xing 400 yuan ($58) — and she’ll have to pay an additional 200 yuan each year for tag inspections.

The points program also gives police the right to confiscate unregistered dogs, owned by people who might want to avoid such fees or who have more than the one dog per person allowed by the city. Last summer, when Ken Cari was walking 1-year-old Jenny in his neighborhood, passers-by warned him that police were on patrol in the area. Since he hadn’t yet applied for the dog registration, Cari and Jenny high-tailed it back home. “I heard the dogs need a license and can only be a certain size,” he says while petting Jenny, a decidedly rotund golden retriever. “I wouldn’t let them take her away from me. She’s my baby.”

When Cari, who hails from Montana in the U.S., called the dog management office to ask how to register, he was told that foreigners like him couldn’t own a dog, regardless of his fluent Jinan dialect and long-term job in the city. The next day, accompanied by a local friend, Cari took Jenny to the police station. They waited for hours as staff made endless phone calls to their superiors. In the end, he got the license.

Ken Cari sits on a bench beside his dog, Jenny, in Jinan, Shandong province, Aug. 31, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Ken Cari sits on a bench beside his dog, Jenny, in Jinan, Shandong province, Aug. 31, 2018. Fan Yiying

Everyone in the neighborhood knows Cari and Jenny: “A big foreigner raising a fat dog,” he laughs. Cari has noticed an increasing number of dogs in his apartment complex, from just a few when he moved in about a decade ago to more than 40 now. Not everyone is enthusiastic about the change, however. One major reason for this, Cari believes, is that few owners in China get their dogs spayed or neutered, leading to large numbers of strays and a public perception that the animals are “dirty, scary, and mean.” Dog bites are a frequent occurrence: Statistics show that 60 to 80 million doses of rabies vaccines are issued annually in China, and that 644 people died from infections in 2016, mostly from dog bites.

Canine-related tensions turn hostile at times. In July, a Chinese pharmaceutical company was found to have produced and sold substandard rabies vaccines. Following the scandal, a viral post on the social media platform Weibo suggested scattering pieces of meat with isoniazid, a drug for treating tuberculosis, to kill dogs walking around unleashed. The post was ultimately deleted, but not before generating pages of discussion and hundreds of thousands of views. Shops on the e-commerce site Taobao immediately pulled isoniazid off the digital shelves to avoid legal trouble.

When people get hurt by dogs, the public often questions the lack of severe punishment for owners, who usually only need to refund the cost of victims’ vaccinations. In September, for example, a court in the northeastern Liaoning province ordered an owner to compensate the family of a child whose face was bitten by an unleashed dog with roughly 19,000 yuan, which equals $2,740 — a fraction of the average amount paid out for dog bite claims in the U.S. last year: $37,051. In addition, almost every U.S. state has laws and regulations on how to raise dogs. But in China, now one of the largest pet-owning countries in the world, regulations and their implementation lag behind.

Xing, the owner of Coco, supports Jinan’s point system but says the government should do more to help dog owners in return, such as building parks where the pets can run free. Many dog owners would also like to see an animal protection law. Currently, owners can only file cumbersome lawsuits based on dogs’ legal status as property in cases of harm. Especially since the isoniazid post, such scenarios have worried pet parents. “I have no choice but to put a muzzle on my dog to protect her, but I know she really hates it,” Xing says.

Xing Ruizhi holds her foster dog, Coco, in Jinan, Shandong province, Aug. 31, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Xing Ruizhi holds her foster dog, Coco, in Jinan, Shandong province, Aug. 31, 2018. Fan Yiying

Jinan dog owner Liu Jin says a friend’s dog was poisoned to death last month after eating a piece of sausage laced with drugs. Her own dog, a tricolor corgi called Baobao, now only goes outside on a leash. Liu had a hard time convincing her father to stick to the rule, however. “He is so stubborn,” she says. But Liu’s father caught on after police spotted him walking a free-roaming Baobao and deducted three points from the family’s license. “Ever since then, he has followed the rule because he doesn’t want our dog to be taken away,” Liu says.

Yet not everyone is a good boy. Thirty-something Leng Bing owns a bar hidden down a lane in Jinan’s historical city center. To the delight of his customers, he sometimes goes to work with his aging crossbreed, Dian Dian. Though Leng registered him last year and put a tag around his neck, he still walks Dian Dian unleashed. “I only walk him in my residential area,” he says while pouring a beer for a customer. “So I think it’s okay to set him free and release his inner nature.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

The New Breed of Handlers Preening China’s Prize


HUBEI, Central China — With her bushy beard, expressive eyes, and wavy coat, Feifei enters the ring and walks a lap. Set up outside a shopping mall in downtown Wuhan, the show makes some shoppers stop in their tracks to snap photos of Feifei. “What’s going on here?” one asks. “It’s a dog beauty pageant,” a middle-aged woman responds, carrying a toy poodle in her arms.

Feifei’s handler leads her to the judges’ table, where the dog strikes a pose as a judge, flown in from Latvia, checks Feifei’s teeth and makes sure her bones are properly proportioned. Spread out in the mall area, other dog handlers — themselves looking their best in sharp suits and dresses — are busy with last-minute preparations. A corgi visibly enjoys getting its butt brushed, and a Doberman pinscher is sprayed with water to cool down.

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Schnauzer Feifei waits for more grooming at Wang Xu’s new training kennel before a dog show in Wuhan, Hubei province, May 24, 2018. Fan Yiying

These 200-or-so purebred pups are the pampered pioneers of China’s growing love for dogs. As the number of pets — now estimated at around 100 million — is ever on the rise, more and more people are willing to pay a small fortune to own a standout dog. Shows like the one in Wuhan attract owners eager to have champion dogs, and kennels who want to show off their breeding prowess. Audiences are slowly catching on

Feifei is a 2-year-old miniature schnauzer whose coat shades from gray to white. “She must feel like a supermodel on the stage,” says Wang Xu, Feifei’s handler and owner. At China’s dog shows, dogs compete at the breed level in the morning. After that round, each Best of Breed winner advances on to the group stage, wherein the dogs are separated into sporting, hound, and other categories. The winners of that round then compete for Best in Show. Feifei has won the top award four times.

Dog shows have a long history in the West. The first English dog show took place in Newcastle in 1859, and every year, thousands of dogs fill New York City’s Madison Square Garden for the annual, multi-day Westminster Dog Show. In China, however, the events are a new phenomenon. The Wuhan show is one of about 80 shows organized around the country by China Kennel Union (CKU) — a nonprofit established in 2006 that’s the only recognized Chinese member of the Fédération Cynologique Internationale (FCI), the World Canine Organization. Whereas the Westminster Dog Show is nationally televised and has a large, paying live audience, CKU’s shows are free, and likely wouldn’t attract any viewers were they not organized in downtown shopping areas, says Wang. But the number of shows is growing.

Much like the shows, being a dog handler is a relatively new occupation in China. Fewer than 100 handlers are full-timers like Wang. “Presenting dogs in a show is just a part-time job or a hobby for most dog handlers in China,” the 33-year-old says. In Wenlin, the village in suburban Wuhan where Wang lives and trains his and his clients’ canines, people think he walks dogs for a living. “They don’t understand that dogs can be showed or should be groomed,” Wang says with a shrug.

To prepare the dogs for top performances, handlers give them daily exercise, obedience training, and continuous grooming. It can be physically demanding work, and requires passion and patience. “The dogs I train come in all sorts of different personalities and tempers, so dog handlers need to be able to communicate with dogs on a spiritual level,” says Lu Bing, who became a dog handler in 2015 after learning from Wang.

But dog handlers are well-compensated, mostly from the fees they charge owners for taking care of their pets, which can be more than 10,000 yuan ($1,450) a month. Depending on how many dogs they manage, the best handlers in the industry can earn over a million yuan a year. Wang has six dogs of his own, all schnauzers, and handles up to 14 dogs from clients — a self-imposed limit to make sure they all get enough care and attention.

Growing up in the Hubei countryside, Wang’s family had mutts, though back then he had no concept of dog breeds. In 2012, Wang was getting tired of working as an engineer in a state-owned company. He decided to learn from his sister, who is a schnauzer breeder, and later to become a handler. “I feel happier and less stressed when I am with dogs than humans,” he says, adding that, purebred or not, “emotionally speaking, I love them all.” In 2015, he became the first A-level dog handler in Hubei province — the top level as certified by CKU.

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Wang Xu’s dog handling team at their new training kennel in Wuhan, Hubei province, May 25, 2018. Fan Yiying

For every breed there are particular techniques to achieve the best look. For schnauzers like Feifei, it’s all about the back hair, which is tangled and thick in its natural state. About three months before she is to compete, Wang will pull out most of the hairs on her back — which he says is slightly painful but bearable for the dog — so new hairs will grow and form a neat, needle-like coat come showtime.

Dogs are judged on their posture, appearance, expression, and pace. Whenever Wang gets a new dog, he’ll first conduct a series of inspections — such as the dog’s bone structure, waist circumference, and ear and eye spacing — to check whether the dog meets its breed’s standards, which are determined through the FCI. The dog’s character is also crucial. “If a dog is too stubborn and refuses to change after a period of training, it can’t compete,” says Wang.

Wang competes in about 30 shows a year, and has so far won over 200 Best in Show awards. There’s no prize money. Instead, he’s been rewarded with trophies, dog food, promotional items in every shape and form, and even the latest iPhone. “It’s not about the money,” he tells Sixth Tone. “I just want to present the dogs’ best sides and enjoy the show.”

But winning can be profitable. Wang Lin — not related to or a client of Wang Xu — is the manager of a kennel in Wuhan that’s registered with CKU. The kennel has over 200 dogs of about 10 breeds for sale. A few years back, they hired professional dog handlers to compete in shows. “After earning a couple of Best in Show honors, it’s definitely boosted our visibility and raised the dogs’ prices,” she says. Business has improved so much that the kennel didn’t have the time to partake in any shows this year.

Some clients are enthusiasts with deep pockets. “Owning a champion dog is a way for the wealthy to show off,” says 24-year-old Lu, Wang Xu’s former protégé. “Once their precious dog has a breakout performance onstage, they can brag to others: See, even my dog is awesome!”

Tan Liang, a thin and soft-spoken 50-something who works in finance, has wanted to show his dogs since he bought a purebred German shepherd back in the late 1980s for over 2,000 yuan — then a whole year’s income. Since then, he’s grown his pack. “I know I bought good dogs, and I want other people to admire them and have professionals judge them,” he says. “It’s all about gaining face, you know.”

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Lu Bing, right, and Wang Xu with border collie Yuanyuan outside their new training kennel in Wuhan, Hubei province, May 24, 2018. Fan Yiying

Tan bought a black-and-white border collie he named Yuanyuan — meaning destiny in Chinese — at a certified CKU kennel for 10,000 yuan in 2017, and has entrusted her to Wang Xu. “I can imagine that handling my own dogs would be one of the most enjoyable things in the world,” Tan tells Sixth Tone. “But presenting a dog to show its best qualities is an art, and I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to do such a good job.” Last year, Wang Xu handled another of Tan’s dogs to Best in Show awards at all the competitions in which he participated. “This is rare in the history of Chinese dog shows,” Tan says with pride.

On the day of the Wuhan competition, Wang Xu gets up at 5 a.m. He bathes the dogs, and then packs his equipment — from grooming tables and cooling mats to brushes and blow dryers. Then he puts his four show dogs — Feifei, a French bulldog named Cool, and border collies Weiwei and Yuanyuan — into his van and hits the road.

Arriving at the venue an hour before it begins, Wang Xu has no time to waste. He finds an empty spot, and one by one gives the dogs their last go-over. “I’m trimming her legs into the shape of a baseball bat,” Wang Xu says while working on Feifei. “They’re slightly thinner on the top and slightly thicker on the bottom.”

After a little while, Tan spots his border collie, Yuanyuan, entering the ring. He is thrilled and nervous, and eventually takes a step back so as not to distract her. “It’s her first show,” he whispers. “I don’t want her to see me and get too excited.” He takes his camera to capture every moment.

In the end, Feifei is judged Best in Group but falls short of the top award. Yuanyuan wins Best of Winner, a prize which is four levels lower than Best in Show. But Tan is happy. After the show he goes backstage, and strokes Yuanyuan. He hasn’t seen his furry friend for weeks. “You did great today,” he says softly. “Let’s keep it up.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

Caring for China’s Smog Dogs


SICHUAN, Southwest China — When Li Xiaolu adopted two puppies last summer, she worried about how to train them, where to buy them the right food, and whether the two would get along. What she didn’t worry about was how badly they would be affected by smog.

Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province, is often described as the home not only of giant pandas, but also of some of the happiest people in China: Chengdu residents are known for their relaxed and slow-paced lifestyle. But recently, a decline in air quality has had the city’s 14 million people feeling worried and anxious.

The smog this winter was so heavy that at one point, the runway of Chengdu’s international airport had to be closed. “I saw the haze in the air, and it felt like the sky was falling down,” the 22-year-old Li recalled, describing the view from her window on a return flight from the southern city of Guangzhou.

When her dogs started to cough last November, Li didn’t associate it with the air pollution right away. “At first, I thought Bu Yao had food stuck in her throat, as she’s so tiny, so I held her upright and shook her,” says Li, who moved to Chengdu in 2010 to study nursing.

In December, when other dog owners in the neighborhood began talking about both them and their dogs coughing a lot, they started to suspect that it was due to the air pollution. Li started to worry about the health of her Bernese mountain dog, Bu Dong, and her toy poodle, Bu Yao — whose names translate to “don’t know” and “don’t want,” respectively. She says she named them after her life philosophy of being content with what she has and not desiring too much.

Throughout early March, official figures put Chengdu’s air quality index (AQI) at around 110, or “unhealthy for sensitive groups,” including the very old, very young, and immunocompromised. “But dogs, especially big ones, need to be walked so they can release some of their energy,” Li says.

When she takes her dogs for a walk, Li makes Bu Dong wear a muzzle and a snout mask. Masks made for humans don’t fit the 34-kilogram dog, so she puts wet tissues inside the muzzle and covers it with a piece of cloth on the outside. “Bu Dong doesn’t like it, but it’s for her own good,” Li says.

Li Xiaolu holds her two dogs, Bu Dong and Bu Yao, in Chengdu, Sichuan province, March 5, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Li Xiaolu holds her two dogs, Bu Dong and Bu Yao, in Chengdu, Sichuan province, March 5, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Bu Yao, however, has to make do without one, as the toy poodle isn’t even big enough to climb onto the sofa yet, and is far too small for smog masks. When the tiny poodle coughs, Li puts holds her in her lap and pats her back. “They mean the world to me,” Li says of her canine companions.

This winter, the unusually heavy smog has kept Chengdu’s veterinary clinics busy. Huang Li, a vet with over a decade of experience, tells Sixth Tone that since the new hospital she works at opened last November, she has treated coughing dogs every day. “I had never seen this at the clinics I worked at in previous years,” she says.

Although there are no official figures or research on how China’s pets are affected by air pollution, several vets told Sixth Tone that the health implications are similar to those in humans.

“Since dogs and human beings share a similar physical structure, smog that harms humans also damages the lungs of dogs,” says Huang. Several vets in Chengdu also confirmed an increase in coughing and sneezing in dogs, which coincided with periods of heavy air pollution this winter.

Huang explains that larger particles that are obstructed and filtered by the human nose can have adverse effects on dogs, as their nasal hairs are too short and sparse to protect them from dust and larger particles. Furthermore, dogs breathe at a faster rate than humans, and because they are closer to the ground, they’re more susceptible to breathing in particles that can be absorbed by their lungs to cause coughing and sneezing, and then enter their bloodstream to cause a variety of conditions, from retinal disease to fevers. In some cases, air pollution can even cause life-threatening diseases like lung cancer.

Air pollution has a greater impact on puppies, older dogs, and dogs with weaker immune systems — “in much the same way that children and the elderly are more vulnerable to air pollution,” Huang says.

Huang feels that there’s little she can do to comfort pet owners. In severe cases, she prescribes antitussive drugs to relieve coughing. Generally, though, she just advises them to avoid long walks.

Following the dog doctor’s orders, Li now walks Bu Yao and Bu Dong for very short periods of time — about 15 minutes in the morning, and then again during lunch. In the evenings, when the AQI is usually higher, she rarely takes them outdoors. “When you see the data climb to over 300, you don’t want to go out anyway,” she says.

While many dog owners are using face masks to protect themselves from air pollution, similar masks for dogs currently don’t exist. “The market may not be large, but someone has to take the risk eventually,” says Mary Peng, CEO and founder of Beijing-based International Center for Veterinary Services, an animal hospital and pet care facility.

Peng says she’s been looking for dog masks for years but has only come across homemade products from particularly concerned pet owners. “Necessity is the mother of invention,” says Peng, who owns four cats and one dog herself.

Peng believes that a tight-fitting, well-designed mask could protect dogs from smog, but also that do-it-yourself versions like the one Li uses might not be as effective as optimistic pet owners hope. “I still encourage them to try it though,” Peng says. “They’re just showing how much they love and care for their dogs. At least they’re doing their best and feel good about it.”

Last year, Peng approached Cambridge Mask, a U.K.-based pollution mask manufacturer, and asked whether they would be interested in producing masks for dogs. “I planted this idea in their head, and now it’s sprouting,” she says.

Cambridge Mask CEO and founder Christopher Dobbing told Sixth Tone that his company has already started working on the new line of masks specifically for dogs.

According to estimates, more than 1 million pets — the majority of them dogs — live in Chengdu, and Li is not the only one who is worried about their health.

Fang Ling hugs Jian Jian at her dog hotel in rural Chengdu, Sichuan province, March 4, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Fang Ling hugs Jian Jian at her dog hotel in rural Chengdu, Sichuan province, March 4, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

The only truly viable option appears to be escaping the bad air — something entrepreneur Fang Ling is trying to turn into a business, in the form of a pet hotel in the mountains outside Chengdu, where the air is fresh and clean.

Last year, Fang bought an apartment in the city center with the needs of her young Labrador in mind. She chose one with a big balcony, which would allow her dog, Jian Jian, to enjoy sunshine and fresh air. In the winter, however, air pollution levels were so bad that Fang and Jian Jian spent all their time indoors, never far from their air purifiers.

“He looked sad,” Fang says of Jian Jian. Late last year, the 35-year-old took a drastic step: She sold her apartment, moved 30 kilometers east of the city center, and opened a dog hotel where owners can drop their dogs off while they are away on holiday. Key to choosing the right location, she says, was finding a place where the air quality was fairly good.

As a former marketing director, Fang is adept at promoting her hotel on social media, and although she only opened it in January, more than 50 dogs have already stayed with her. Most of them come from the city.

“We chose this place from many other options in the city because of its relatively good air quality on the mountainside,” says Wang Peipei, who brought her 1-year-old Labrador, Abu, to spend a week at Fang’s pet villa in late January. “Abu really enjoys playing outdoors here because we only let him out a few minutes a day when the pollution is bad in the city.”

Business is going well, and Fang is currently expanding the facilities and adding a pool where her canine guests can swim.

Fang Ling plays with dogs staying at her dog hotel in rural Chengdu, Sichuan province, March 4, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Fang Ling plays with dogs staying at her dog hotel in rural Chengdu, Sichuan province, March 4, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Fang says that her friends and family laughed at her when she told them about her plan to move for the sake of her dog’s health. But life up on the mountain, surrounded by fresh air, has put her at ease with her choice of lifestyle. “They would understand if they had dogs,” she says of those who criticized her. “I see Jian Jian as my family, and I hope he can live a longer and healthier life.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.