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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China’s First Commercially Cloned Cat Unveiled in Beijing


A Chinese biotech company aiming to cash in on people’s desires to duplicate their beloved pets has successfully cloned the nation’s first house cat, according to an announcement delivered at a press conference Monday afternoon.

The cloned cat — named Dasuan, or Garlic in English — is a British shorthair born naturally on July 21, 66 days after a successful embryo transfer. The company behind the procedure, Sinogene, began researching cat cloning last August. According to the Beijing-based biotech firm, the surrogate mother — who is not the same breed as the cloned offspring — is behaving “maternal enough,” and the kitten is in good health.

Garlic’s owner, Huang Yu, says he read about Sinogene in the news late last year. When his 2-year-old cat, the original Garlic, died from a urinary tract infection in January, he brought the animal’s body to a pet hospital in Wenzhou, a city in eastern China’s Zhejiang province. Veterinarians there were able to extract cells from the deceased animal to be sent to Sinogene in Beijing. After months of waiting, Huang finally got to meet the new Garlic on Monday, and became the country’s first owner of a cloned cat.

“I felt guilty for delaying treatment,” Huang told Sixth Tone, referring to the old Garlic’s dire medical situation. “Having him cloned makes up for my regret and gives me another chance to love him.”

Though the number of cats in China’s pet industry and the rate of cat ownership remain less than those of dogs, the “cat economy” has been steadily growing. According to a Chinese pet industry white paper released Thursday, the size of the domestic pet market is expected to reach 202 billion yuan ($28.6 billion) this year, up from 171 billion yuan in 2018. The domestic cat market is projected to reach 78 billion yuan in 2019, up 19.6% year over year — a growth rate that’s outpacing the domestic dog market. While there are still 55 million pet dogs in China compared with 44 million pet cats, ownership of the latter is also growing at a faster rate.

Sinogene cloned its first dog — Longlong, or Dragon — for medical research in May 2017 before offering the service commercially the following year. The company says it hopes to be cloning 500 dogs per year in the near future. “We decided to get into the cat business after witnessing the rising popularity (of cats) among China’s younger generations,” Zhao Jianping, Sinogene’s deputy general manager, told Sixth Tone during an interview last month.

Sinogene charges 380,000 yuan to clone a dog and 250,000 yuan to clone a cat. The company currently cooperates with some 600 domestic veterinary clinics to promote its pet cloning business.

The world’s first cloned cat — dubbed CC for Copy Cat or Carbon Copy — was born at Texas A&M University in December 2001, several years before the world’s first cloned dog, Snuppy, was born in South Korea in 2005. The Texas A&M researchers went through 82 embryos before they were able to get a surrogate mother pregnant with a single kitten. Though CC was a clone, she reportedly grew up with a slightly different look and personality from her genetic mother.

Despite his excitement leading up to Monday’s press event, Huang confessed to Sixth Tone that he was a bit disappointed when he finally saw the new Garlic for the first time. “The basic pattern of his coat is the same, but the distinctive patch of black fur on his chin is gone,” he lamented.

Shanghai resident Feng Tanyu is the proud owner of a 7-year-old purebred ragdoll. “He has a multifaceted personality just like lots of other cats,” Feng, 32, told Sixth Tone. As a cat owner, Feng says he understands the premise behind cloning. “If an owner can’t get over the pain of losing their beloved cat, I think a clone might be a good idea to help them during the grieving process,” he said.

But another cat lover, Zhang Yuan, doesn’t see how a cloned cat could be an adequate substitute. “Dogs and cats are different: Dogs can live happily alongside most humans, while cats are picky and follow their feelings about whether to like people,” the Shanghai native told Sixth Tone. “Having the same appearance but a different personality and temperament will only lead to disappointment and more pain in the long run.”

Regardless of what the future holds for Huang and his new fur baby, he says he can’t wait to take Garlic home in October. “If the technology for cat cloning hadn’t been developed in time,” he said, “I probably would have lost Garlic for good — and then I’d have to live with regret for the rest of my life.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

China’s Copy Paste Pups


SHANGHAI — When her beloved dog Nini turned 10, Zhang Yueyan became concerned. How many years would she have left with her companion?

The news that Hollywood star Barbra Streisand had her pet cloned brought comfort; by the time Nini was on her last leg of life, Zhang could do the same. The only thing holding her back was that the cheapest option, a South Korean company, charged $100,000. But last year, a biotech company in Beijing, Sinogene, entered the market at about half the price. “Ever since, I didn’t fear her death anymore,” Zhang, 32, tells Sixth Tone.

Zhang has become one of just a few dozen Sinogene customers so far. But the company sees great growth potential in China’s market. The country’s dog owners spent 106 billion yuan ($16.5 billion) on their estimated 50 million pets in 2018, a 20.5% year-over-year increase, and have spawned such lavish amenities as pet hotelsand pet funerals. From 20 cloned dogs in 2018 and 20 more orders in the first quarter of 2019, Sinogene hopes to grow to duplicate 500 dogs annually within five years, serving Chinese and foreign customers. The company also clones horses and is developing more “biotherapy” products for pets.

After her beloved dog Nini passed away, Zhang Yueyan spent 380,000 yuan ($54,000) to create a clone. By Zhao Yinyin, Zhu Yuqing, and Cong Yan

Twenty-three years after Dolly the sheep, animal cloning is no longer necessarily cutting-edge technology, however Sinogene’s duplicate dogs are part of China’s fast-developing world of genetic research. In recent years, Chinese researchers have successfully cloned two monkeys, produced healthy mice from two female parents, and cloned a gene-edited dog — the latter also done by Sinogene.

The Chinese government is supportive, with its latest five-year plan calling foraccelerated research into DNA testing and therapy. But lagging regulation has left large ethical blind spots, such as when, late last year, a Chinese researcher caused a storm with his announcement of the first gene-edited human babies. In June, new rules restricted the collection and use of human DNA in China, but cloning dogs and other animals remains unregulated — as it does in other countries — despite considerable moral issues.

But for Sinogene’s customers, love for their pups trumps any concerns. “Nowadays people treat their dog as a family member who is their spiritual sustenance or companionship,” says Zhao Jianping, the company’s deputy general manager. “When they lose their pets, they want their (pets’) lives to continue.”

The first step of cloning a dog is taking a DNA sample of the parent animal. Last August, when Zhang’s 19-year-old Nini fell seriously ill, Sinogene sent vets to collect a tissue sample from the dog’s rear leg. “It was a minor procedure. She didn’t even bleed,” Zhang recalls. Using the sample, Sinogene produced and stored identical cells that, after Nini passed away in October, the company could use for another Nini.

But the rest of the process involves many more dogs than just the old and new Ninis. Sinogene maintains a breeding base on the outskirts of Beijing with some 1,000 beagles — the international lab dog of choice. According to Zhao, Sinogene collects immature egg cells from three to five of these lab dogs, and then combines them with the parent dog’s cells to form embryos. One embryo is then implanted into a surrogate mother, who will successfully get pregnant 50% of the time. In case of failure, this monthslong process is repeated with another surrogate mother. On average, it takes half a year for a cloned puppy to be born, and they are then delivered to their owners after two months.

A technician does a cloning-related experiment at Sinogene’s lab in Beijing, July 2, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

A technician does a cloning-related experiment at Sinogene’s lab in Beijing, July 2, 2019. Fan Yiying

During Sixth Tone’s visit to Sinogene in early July, six surrogate beagle mothers and their eight cloned newborns were resting in the nursing room, each mother and their one to three puppies in their own 1-square-meter cubicle with water, food, and toys. Staff keep a close eye on the moms and pups. Twice a day, the mothers get to run around outside. Sixth Tone could not visit the breeding base, but Zhao says conditions there are “as humane as possible” and include two meals and up to three hours of playtime a day.

Zhao defends the use of lab dogs, saying “it’s the beagle’s mission to cooperate with experiments.” He adds: “Surrogacy is a very small trauma to dogs, which is similar to sterilization.” To surrogate, the animal will have a small wound in their abdomen, and then the cloned embryo will be transferred directly to the fallopian tube without any damage to other tissue. The abdominal wound usually recovers within a week. Every dog is used as a surrogate twice, usually between the ages of 2 and 5, and then put up for adoption, Zhao says. Already some 200 beagles have found new homes. A majority of customers choose to adopt the surrogate mother of their cloned puppy.

In any case, dog cloning now requires significantly fewer dogs compared with when the technology was first successfully attempted in 2005. Then, South Korean company Sooam Biotech reportedly implanted 1,000 embryos into 123 surrogate dogs to produce the world’s first cloned dog, Snuppy.

In December, Nini’s clone was born, and in February, on Zhang’s birthday, Sinogene’s crew delivered the 2-month-old to her new home in Shanghai. “It was the best birthday ever,” says Zhang, petting her new pal on her lap. She’s decided to also call her Nini. “I only want one dog in my life,” she says. Initially, there were some doubts on whether the new Nini would age to look like the original, but after some months of growth and a haircut, the resemblance is striking, says Zhang. “They even sound the same and have the same twisted joint in their tails.”

At Shanghai Companion Animal Hospital, Dr. Yang Qiqing, who’s a veterinary specialist, tells Sixth Tone that clients have been inquiring about pet cloning since last year. “Some pet owners’ feelings for their pets may be beyond the imagination of non-pet owners and vets,” he says. Yang considers cloning unnatural. “It can only restore the appearance, but it can’t restore the personality, memory, or emotion,” he adds. Sinogene’s Zhao says that clones will look like the parent dog and have the same general health, but that differences in how they are raised may cause their behavior to be different.

Yang says the surrogate dogs used for cloning may suffer some psychological pain. “It can only be compensated by providing more living space for surrogate dogs and increasing dog-walking time,” he suggests. Despite increased attention to animal welfare, China still lacks a law to protect their rights. “When we do have such laws and regulations, I think we should include provisions for cloning pets,” says Yang.

Despite this lack, there is plenty of interest. In March, China’s first cloned police dog, Kunxun, was born in Sinogene’s lab. She is the genetic copy of Huahuangma, a 7-year-old veteran of the Pu’er City police force, in southwestern China’s Yunnan province, who earned the nickname Sherlock Holmes because she “helped crack dozens of murder cases,” according to newspaper China Daily. The hope is that cloning such top-rate police dogs will reduce training time and costs. “Cloning is the best way to pass on a good individual’s genes,” says Zhao. “If done in batches, the cost will be relatively low, and the quantity can increase rapidly.”

Hu Bao, a 31-year-old advertising manager in Shanghai, has decided to clone his dog. Tuoba, 3, is a rare mix of poodle and bichon, and Hu is concerned he might not be able to find another one. “She has a perfect size, she’s smart, she’s quiet at home, she doesn’t shed, and she doesn’t smell,” he says.

Hu pays close attention to developments in biotechnology and has read about Sinogene. He’s decided to clone Tuoba in 7 years’ time, when she’s 10. “I look at cloning from a rational perspective,” he says. “I’m aware that the cloned dog won’t be the same, but I know I will want dogs like Tuoba to accompany me for the rest of my life.” He adds: “If I had another dog, I’m not sure if they would be functionally as perfect as Tuoba.”

Hu Bao shakes hands with his pet dog in Shanghai, May 7, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Hu Bao shakes hands with his pet dog in Shanghai, May 7, 2019. Fan Yiying

For now, Hu’s priority is saving up. Sinogene currently charges 380,000 yuan for a cloned dog, but Zhao says the price could come down in the future. “If the market is large enough, and our efficiency is relatively stable, then the price has room for adjustment.”

Back in Zhang’s apartment, three of her neighbors drop in to play with the new Nini. They joke that they have to be gentle and careful since she has cost a fortune. Zhang acknowledges that the new Nini won’t replace the old one, but the cloned puppy is helping her with the grieving process. “Now every time I flash back to the things I did with the old Nini, I carry the new Nini in my arms. I look at her and talk to her as if Nini is still here.”

Additional reporting: Ai Jiabao; editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.


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.

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.