HONG KONG: He Qi, an English teacher from Guangzhou city, divorced last month. He and his ex-wife split their properties quickly and amicably, but could not escape a big quarrel over their two dearest possessions - the pet dogs.
"They are my children and I would be very sad no matter which one left me," the 36-year-old said.
In the end, they decided to take one each.
"I think I will get another small dog or cat soon, I don't want my 'son' to feel lonely, and I think my ex-wife will very likely feel the same way," He said.
A growing number of young Chinese are choosing to marry later, delay parenthood, or simply abandon both altogether, due to rising living costs and the demands of work life.
At the same time, many of them are choosing to raise cats or dogs, creating a thriving pet economy that is bucking a stubborn trend of weak consumer sentiment in the world's No. 2 economy.
The number of pet dogs and cats in urban areas exceeded 100.8 million in 2020, 1.7% up on 2019 and 10.2% higher than 2018, according to a 2021 whitepaper released by China Pet Industry Association early in January.
The number of pet owners reached 62.94 million in 2020 - up from 62.8 million in 2019 - while the value of China's urban pet market was 298.8 billion yuan (US$46 billion), growing from 72.5 billion yuan in 2015.
The white paper forecast that China's pet market would see a compound growth rate of 14.2% over the next three years and be worth 445.6 billion yuan (US$70 billion) by 2023.
China's new breed of pet owners have several things in common: they are young, well-educated and earning a high income.
Nearly 90% of them have a college degree or above, the white paper said. Some 46.7% have a monthly income of 4,000-9,999 yuan (US$628-1,570) and 34.9% earn at least 10,000 yuan each month. More than 46% were born after 1990.
Just over half of those surveyed by the association had owned their pet for fewer than three years, highlighting the new-found fondness for animals among young Chinese.
Jack Bian, the founder of Hangzhou-based Lang Xiao Zhua, which translates to Waves and Paws, a popular social media platform for pet lovers, said as more young Chinese opt to live with pets it could "delay plans for giving birth".
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"Young people in China are currently marrying and having children at a later age. The general consensus in their 20s and 30s is that stress and the cost of living is high, and working hours very long," said Bian, whose organisation has more than 30,000 members.
A survey of 2,905 unwed urban residents aged 18-26 by the Communist Youth League in October last year found that 43.9% of women had no intention of getting married or were unsure if it would happen. That was 19.3 percentage points higher than their male counterparts.
"Most of our 30,000 members are aged between 25-39, and 71.2% of them are female," Bian said, adding 60% were unmarried or single, and 45.8% of married members had no children.
"An interesting discovery during our trips is that our foreign clients regard pets as good friends, but most young Chinese pet owners like to treat them as 'sons or daughters'," he said. "My parents also call my two dogs grandchildren."
Pets not only bring joy to their owners' lives, but they do not come with high children-rearing costs, like education, Bian said. He expects membership at Waves and Paws to increase tenfold this year.
More specifically, the pressures of daily life in China have given rise to a cat economy, because Generation Z do not have the time or means to care for dogs, according to the white paper. In 2020, the number of pet cats exceeded pet dogs for the first time in China's cities.
Growing pet ownership in China has not been lost on property developers and local governments, who are investing in pet theme parks and even pet-themed towns.
Since 2019, sales of imported cat food have surpassed those of imported infant milk powder at Tmall Global, China's largest cross-border business-to-consumer online marketplace.
And last year, some listed firms in China launched hi-tech pet food with hyaluronic acid, which helps aid joints and repair wounds.
"I think my lovely girl deserves good food. And I find those smart pet toys and feeders very interesting. I am willing to invest a lot in them for my pet," said Luo Ping, a single female lawyer in her 40s, who owns a British Shorthair cat.
"When I was in my 30s, I was anxious I would be left behind without getting married and giving birth.
"But now I have no such desire, especially since I see a large number of Gen Z youngsters with low appetite for marriage and kids too."