To say the country has more than 100 million pets would be a conservative estimate. At least a tenth of that 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 raising industry remains an untamed frontier.
From Chow to Mongrel
A woman walks quickly through Tongzhou Liyuan dog market with her new “Chow Chow” in tow. She is 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 says. A trip to the pet hospital revealed her pet was not a pure Chow. She fails to find the seller, but when others hear she paid 500 yuan for the dog they say it was an obvious fake.
“A pure baby Chow Chow never sells for less than 2,000 yuan,” a nearby vendor says.
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 says. The seller may have injected saline solution into the dog’s chin to give it the breed’s characteristic look.
“She’s just lucky the dog isn’t dead yet,” he says.
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 common white mutts into Dalmatian with industrial ink. Poodles and Pomeranians are dyed and trimmed.
“After dyeing, the poodle comes out looking like an easy-to-sell teddy bear,” says Zhang Xinran, a Golden Retriever seller. Zhang has a kennel and has bred dogs for years.
“Sometimes, even I cannot tell whether they have been dyed,” he says. Few experts can tell until the dog is given a bath.
“The hair dyes they use are not designed for dogs because buying properly formulated 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 and stimulants to keep them bouncy,” Zhang says.
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 says.
A Mess of a Market
The Liyuan Dog Market in Tongzhou is China’s largest. It developed spontaneously in the 1980s as breeders from the northeast 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. Unable to crush it, the municipal government opted to legalize it a decade ago.
Today it is a bazaar which moves a million yuan worth of dogs and dog accessories every day.
There are two kinds of sellers in the market: fixed shops that operate every day and pay rent to the market and those who rent temporary stalls. Some attempting to dodge the licensing and administration fees do not even set up shop, instead opting to stroll about shadily with a box or pocket full 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 the strolling vendors, most 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 return him,” says a shopkeeper selling baby Chow Chow for 2,000 yuan.
Stall-holders or strolling vendors often vanish after sticking their customer with a “week dog.”
“A white poodle dyed red can be sold for 1,500 yuan instead of 700 yuan,” says one stall-keeper selling Golden Retrievers. Red dogs are in fashion this year, and many vendors are turning their poodles and Pomeranians red. Beijing Today could not find a single white poodle for sale in the market.
Another reason for the existence of the “week dog,” shopkeepers say, 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 says he knows which vendors are selling “week dogs,” “but I do not dare tell you who they are.” Fraudsters are often associated with gangs, and those who expose them face may beatings or worse.
In one corner of the market is a big board with the words “We Buy Dogs,” where one vendor buys unwanted dogs cheap and resell the animals based on breed and size. Even selling below the market price he says he can make 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 says. “Their profits are extremely high.”
Beijing Today’s reporter attempts to buy a Siberian Husky from a woman selling dogs outside the market. Within a few moments, a minivan marked as being from “Law Enforcement” pulls up and began honking. The vendor motions to follow her behind the building and complete the sale.
The minivan is driven by government employees assigned to chase away roadside vendors and those who sell dogs without a license. Within minutes of the car’s departure, the vendors are back on the street.
“We just shoo them away instead of confiscating their goods, since their goods are dogs,” says an official with the city bureau. “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.”
The Tongzhou substation of the Industrial and Commercial Administration – the market’s supervising body – shows little interest in bringing Liyuan under control. Anyone who purchases a dog “that is professionally diagnosed as sick” can only go the market’s administration department to file a report, an official at the substation says.
The owner is expected to track down the seller at his or her own expense and leave arbitration up to Liyuan’s internal administration. At best, “the seller may give you another dog,” the official says.
From the window of the administration section, one can see placards marking offices as “Registration” and “Quarantine,” but these doors are permanently bolted shut. No one is inside, even during work hours.
“There are no laws on pet transactions,” says an official with the China Animal Health Inspection Bureau. 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.”
“Don’t just buy a dog from an unlicensed seller just because it looks cute. That only encourages them to keep up their illegal and harmful trade,” he says.
Officials expect China to one day pass laws to rein in its pet trade. However, the country’s current knowledge of animal rights remain locked in infancy.