XIAO Guai is a 5-year-old Scottish fold, a breed of domestic cat with a gene mutation that causes its ears to bend forward and down, giving the animal the appearance of an owl.
Many people claim he is the ugliest cat they have ever seen, but that doesn’t stop a certain awe. Xiao Guai is one of the brightest pet stars on Weibo.com, China’s largest social networking service. Lynn Wang, the cat’s owner, lived in Tokyo for a decade, where she began an e-commerce company exporting pet-care products to China. Xiao Guai is the celebrity of her online advertising campaign.
Originally, she just posted pictures of him on her Weibo account to share with friends, but soon a popular cat-lovers site noticed the photos and began re-posting them. A star was born.
“Xiao Guai is ugly; I don’t deny it,” said 28-year-old Wang, who was born in the city of Zhengzhou, capital of central China’s Henan Province.
“But he is, magically, also very charming. People love him so much, and I do find that a bit funny.”
Love him or loathe him, Xiao Guai has proven to be a bit boost for Wang’s business. She now has her own office and is planning to hire delivery staff in China.
She is an example of being in the right place at the right time. Household pets have become very popular in China, and people are willing to spend a lot of money on their care and pampering.
“Pets: A Rising Consumption Power,” a report issued by global media network Carat China, said the economic slowdown in China hasn’t affected the pet-products industry. It predicts the industry will continue to expand until at least the end of next year.
Like all social trends, having household pets has become an online phenomenon. On platforms such as Weibo and WeChat, popular pet sites attract thousands of followers. Niu Niu the Samoyed dog is so big and fluffy. Zhao Cai, a hybrid cat, looks like a rag doll. Gua Pi, another mixed-breed cat, has huge, innocent eyes.
“Many fanatical animal lovers say they are ‘cloud-raising’ pets, which means that they closely follow the daily lives of cats and dogs online,” said Wang. “Sometimes, when I’m too busy to post new pictures, netizens ask me if something is wrong.”
Amid all the cute pictures and video footage are advertisements for pet food, clothes, toys and other paraphernalia.
Yuan Xiao, owner of a 6-year-old poodle named Luka, said she spends about 2,500 yuan (US$361) every year on Luka, and most of the food, toys and clothes she buys come from online stores run by other pet owners.
“One of my hobbies is to watch cute puppies online,” said the 54-year-old. “I especially like poodles and huskies, and when I see a cute toy or new snack that dogs online seem to enjoy, I buy it for my Luka.”
Yuan said the Internet is the best channel for keeping up with pet fashion trends.
“You don’t find ads about pet food or other things in newspapers or on TV,” she said. “Online, you don’t even need hard advertisements. A fluffy footage tells you everything.”
China’s attitude for pets is part of the nation’s social evolution.
Decades ago on the Chinese mainland, people didn’t raise animals as pets. Dogs and geese were kept for guarding rural households. Cats were kept to catch mice, and poultry was raised for eggs and meat. For many years, pet dogs were prohibited in cities like Beijing because they were deemed to be symbols of “decadent bourgeoisie.”
Nowadays, many people want to have a dog or cat as a household companion. The Carat report said people born in the 1980s and 90s spend 4,000-6,000 yuan a year on pets, topping people in other age brackets.
More than 60 percent of cats and dogs dine on commercial pet food, not table scraps. High-end pet food is an expanding market.
Some pet owners are so zealous that they install home cameras so they can see what their pets are doing when they are away from home.
Felicia Shen, who has two pet cats, is one of them.
“At that time, I had just adopted a second cat, and every day when I came home from work, the apartment was in a mess and there was fur about,” she said. “I installed the camera to see if they fought a lot while I was gone. And indeed, they did.”
The cats have since learned to get along, so now the camera records their daily camaraderie.
“It’s fun to watch my cats play, eat or just sleep during my work breaks,” she said.
Mobile apps are full of platforms aimed at giving people instructions on caring for pets, such as grooming and training.
The app “Doggies at Home” is one example. It gathers information of families with pets so that if a pet-sitter is needed for a short period, they can choose someone who is reliable and simpatico.
Many people don’t trust kennels to take care of their pets while they are away.
Another widely popular app is “Cat Snaps.” The main purpose there is selfies for cats. The app attracts cats with little games, and while cats are playing, the app snaps a shot.
“My two cats are obsessed with the app,” said a user with the screen name “ILoveScience.”
“I just went to the bathroom, and when I came back there were 30 more pictures of them in my photo stream.”
Favorite pets in China
According to Mingchongshe, an organization studying the pet market in China, 6 percent of mainland families had pets last year, most of whom lived in larger cities like Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu, Chongqing and Guangzhou.
One big surprise in the Mingchongshe data was gender. The report said nearly 60 percent of the pet owners are men, though women remained the most active on pet social media sites. The institute surmised that Chinese men might be a bit shy in displaying online their “soft side” with animals.
Dogs top the league table among popular pets. Some 61 percent of domestic pets are dogs, followed by cats at 19 percent. Other pets include fish, birds, rodents and reptiles. Cats are closing the gap and are growing in popularity because they require less living space and don’t need the same level of care as dogs.
The organization said pet number in China may increase by 20 percent a year for the next decade, creating new opportunities for breeders, vets, groomers and pet trainers. Pet product suppliers are also expected to benefit from the boom.