Deaths reveal a dark side to Japan's obsession with pampered pets

By Simon Scott

Pampered pooches meet at a Dog Festa in Yokohama. Photo / AP
Pampered pooches meet at a Dog Festa in Yokohama. Photo / AP

When the Japanese do pets they do them cute - very cute.

But in Tokyo it's not enough to just take the toy poodle to the groomers.

That pooch must be pampered in every way you can imagine, and there is yen to be made.

In trendy Tokyo shopping districts like Shibuya or Harajuku, boutiques selling designer dog clothes and accessories are a common sight.

Ripped designer jeans for the chihuahua, a heavy knit English duffle coat to keep the Pomeranian warm in winter and a Buzz Lightyear costume for the miniature dachshund because, of course, he loved Toy Story.

Then there are dog necklaces, bracelets, hats, bootees, socks, carry bags, push chairs, nappies - even the doggie bandana with a gel cooling pad for those hot summer months.

And if money is no object, Chanel, Dior, Hermes and Gucci now have luxury dog product lines in Japan.

Then there are the service industries - pet theme parks, restaurants, cafes, hotels, swimming lessons, grooming sessions, manicures, massages, facials, and, since it's Japan, of course, special pet-only hot spring resorts. Veterinarian Midori Wada from Daktari Animal Hospital in Tokyo says Japanese pet owners are conscientious and devoted.

"A pet is family, not a family pet.

"If an animal has an incurable disease, Japanese owners tend to be very devoted and they will do whatever they can to prolong the pet's life rather than euthanise, so they can be together for one more day," she says.

But owners can at times go too far.

"We have many pet owners who treat animals too much like people, making them good parents to their pets, maybe, but still, becoming too obsessed with them at the same time.

"I'm used to seeing Louis Vuitton carriers, baby strollers, and a dog's diet including Kobe beef and Yubari melons." The melons sell for US$50 or more each.

Wada adds that sometimes this over the top treatment can lead to medical and skin problems, and obesity.

Yet for better or for worse, Japan is experiencing a pet boom and there is money to be made.

The industry is worth billions and, in a stuttering economy, appears recession proof.

Japan has 22 million pets, compared with 16.6 million children under the age of 15.

Yet beneath all the pampering and cuteness, there is a dark side to Japan's obsession with pets.

Data released by the Government reveals that more than 204,000 pets - 82 per cent of the total taken into public animal shelters - were euthanised in 2010. About 25 per cent were dogs, and the remaining animals domestic cats.

In that same year, less than 29,000 abandoned pets - 11 per cent of arrivals - were successfully re-homed. In comparison, Britain euthanised 7000 dogs in 2011, even though more than 126,000 were abandoned.

Such comparisons highlight Japan's very low pet adoption rate and raises questions about why so many pets end up being put down.

Hiroyuki Satake, deputy director of the Tokyo metropolitan government's Animal Protection and Consultation Center, says it is an uphill battle to get the public to adopt abandoned pets.

"Japanese people are in the habit of going to a pet shop and buying a puppy.

"In Tokyo there are no puppies brought to the pound and so we only have adult dogs to rehome.

"People don't want an adult dog - they want to get a dog when it is still young," he says.

Yet for some pets that come through the centre, adoption is not attempted and they are sent to their death after only seven days.

"We observe the animals and decide if the chance of rehoming is high or low," Satake says.

Factors considered are the health, condition, age and character of the animal, such as whether or not it is overly aggressive.

"If the odds of rehoming are good we keep it here for a long time, but if they are low then we quickly destroy the animal."

And in the cases where animals are put down, carbon dioxide is used. The method came under attack in a report by the World Society for the Protection of Animals, which said it caused suffering.

Satake says gas was more practical, given the large number of strays being put down.

He acknowledged that the system was not ideal, but says changing to a more humane method would cost a lot of money.

- NZ Herald

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