To say the country has more than 100 million pets would be a conservative estimate. At least a tenth of its exploding pet population is dogs.
The market potential of pets is expected to reach 15 billion yuan this year, and thousands of pet stores are opening up to get a piece. However, despite being the most regulated of Chinese pets, the dog selling industry is almost entirely unregulated.
From Chow to mongrel
A woman walked quickly through Tongzhou Liyuan dog market, her new “Chow Chow” in tow. She was searching for the stall-holder who sold her the dog several months ago.
“It looked like a cute baby Chow Chow when I bought it, but it has changed a lot,” she said. A trip to the pet hospital revealed her pet was not a pure Chow. She failed to find the seller, but when others heard she paid 500 yuan for the dog they said it was obviously not a real Chow Chow.
“A pure baby Chow Chow never sells for less than 2,000 yuan,” a nearby vendor said.
Dog sellers, especially the fly-by-night vendor variety, are notorious for passing off mixed dogs as purebreds.
“That dog was probably the product of a male Chow Chow and female mutt,” he said. The seller may have injected saline solution into the dog’s chin, to give it the breed’s characteristic look, he said.
“She is just lucky the dog isn’t dead yet.”
Other breeds are put through a battery of full-body tabletop cosmetic surgeries. Some shave and stretch the skin of a Pekingese with iron wires to make it look like a Shar-Pei; others turn a generic white dog into Dalmatian. Poodles and Pomeranians are dyed and trimmed.
“After dyeing, the poodle comes out looking like an easy-to-sell teddy bear,” Zhang Xinran, a Golden Retriever seller, said. Zhang has a kennel and has bred dogs for years.
“Even I cannot tell whether they have been dyed sometimes,” he said. Few experts can tell until the dog is given a bath.
“The hair dyes they use are not designed for dogs because those special dyes would cut into their profits,” he said. They turn instead to cheap, toxic dyes that sicken or kill the dogs soon after sale.
But beyond the usual skullduggery that plagues all Chinese markets, the most notorious is the “week dog”: the pet that expires after seven days.
“They (dog sellers) buy animals with congenital diseases for next to nothing and pump them full of new blood laced with painkillers to keep them bouncy,” Zhang said.
This, of course, aggravates their conditions and leads to a swift death. When the buyer returns, the seller throws the blame in his face. “They blame you for not taking care of the dog,” Zhang said.
The market in a mess
The Liyuan dog market in Tongzhou is the largest dog market in China. It developed spontaneously in the 1980s as breeders from northeast China brought their dogs into the city for sale. The market was shut down and scattered several times for its shady dealings, but it always came back. Since it could not crush it, the municipal government legalized it a decade ago.
Today, it is a bazaar which moves a million yuan worth of dogs and dog accessories every day.
In the market, there are two kinds of sellers: fixed shops that operate every day and pay rent to the market and those who rent temporary stalls. Some attempting to dodge the license and administration fees do not even set up shop, instead opting to stroll about shadily with a box or pocketful of puppies.
A woman selling a baby “Chow Chow” approached Beijing Today’s reporter trying to sell it for 1,000 yuan: half the going rate.
Unlike these strolling vendors, the shopkeepers stand behind their dogs even if they charge more. “If the dog you buy in my shop has any problems with health or breed then you can bring him back,” a shopkeeper selling baby Chow Chow for 2,000 yuan said.
Stall-holders or strolling vendors may vanish after leaving the customer with a “week dog.”
“A white poodle dyed red can be sold for 1,500 yuan instead of 700 yuan,” a stall-keeper who sold Golden Retrievers said. These days, red dogs are in fashion, so many vendors are turning their poodles and Pomeranians red. Beijing Today could not find a white poodle being sold by any stall-holder.
Another reason for the existence of the “week dog,” some shopkeepers said, is that “since the dog may die right after you buy it, the seller expects you to return and buy another.”
The man selling Golden Retrievers said he knew which vendors were selling “week dogs,” “but I do not dare tell you who they are.”
In one corner of the market was a big board with the words “We Buy Dogs.” The vendor buys the unwanted dogs cheap and resell the animals based on breed and size. Even below the market price, the vendor still makes a killing.
“Unlike the breeders who have their own kennels and sell only specific dogs, those “dogmongers” just purchase them from anyone and resell them cheap,” a shopkeeper said. “Their profits are extremely high.”
This reporter walking beside the bazaar asked a woman seller what her Huskies cost. Immediately, a minivan marked as a “Law Enforcement” car pulled up and honked at her. She got up, then directed the reporters to follow her down the side of the building to discuss business.
The minivan stopped honking and drove away.
It was driven by people appointed by the municipal government to chase off roadside vendors and those who sell dogs without license. They only drive the sellers temporarily into the bazaar, and within minutes the vendors are back on the street selling dogs.
“We just shoo them away instead of confiscating their goods, since their goods are dogs,” an official with the city bureau said. “When we ask to see their license for selling animals, they deny that they are vendors and say they are carrying around their own pets,” he said.
This reporter turned to the Tongzhou substation of the Industrial and Commercial Administration, which is in charge of the Liyuan dog market. The official there said anyone who purchases a dog “that is diagnosed as being sick” must go to the market’s administration department to file a report.
The owner of the dog must then track down the seller and leave arbitration up to the Liyuan administration. At best, “the seller may give you another dog,” the official said.
From the window of the Liyuan dog market’s administration section one could see placards marking offices as “Registration” and “Quarantine,” but these doors are bolted shut and no one is inside, even during work hours.
“There are no laws on pet transactions,” an official with the China Animal Health Inspection Bureau said. The current market administration leaves everything to the buyer. Dog buyers should demand veterinary inspection certificates and proof of vaccinations. “To be extra sure, you should take the dog to a local animal quarantine station or pet hospital immediately,” he said.
“Don’t just buy a dog because it looks cute from dog sellers who don’t have a license. That only encourages the dogmongers to keep up their illegal trade,” he said.
Officials expect that laws on pet trade will be made eventually, and say China’s current knowledge of animal welfare remains in infancy.