The Year Of the Dog Spa

Sara's secret passion is a 1-year-old pooch named Pugster. The twentysomething Malaysian businesswoman, who declined to give her family name because many in her predominantly Islamic country believe canines are unclean, rarely takes her pet outdoors and hides him in the kitchen when certain friends visit. Yet that doesn't stop Sara, a Muslim, from lavishing her pedigree pug with goodies from a Kuala Lumpur pet shop, or counting him a better companion than her ex-husband. "Pugster is so cute and he looks out for me," she says. "I don't get lonely anymore, and we even watch TV together."

The Year of the Dog has dawned in Asia--and not just on the lunar calendar. From Seoul to Jakarta, pedigree breeds are the hottest accessory and the latest consumer obsession. That raises real humanitarian concerns that many of today's pups could end up like last year's designer handbags: throwaways. Yet the trend is also driven by powerful--and irreversible--social changes that may bode well for man's best friend. The rise of a moneyed middle class, the decline in three-generation households, and a region-wide trend toward smaller families has pushed canines up the pecking order. Today they're playmates for only children, surrogate partners for the lovelorn and companions for the elderly. "This is where the dichotomy is: [Asians may] eat dogs, but when they start keeping one it's even more precious than their kid," says Singapore-based holistic veterinarian Jean-Paul Ly.

Following Japan, where a national dog obsession began back in the 1980s, the rest of industrialized Asia has grown decidedly more canine-conscious. In Singapore, the number of dogs registered has increased by a quarter over the past decade while the number abandoned has fallen by a third. Boutique pet shops have sprung up across the region, their shelves crammed with imported foods and designer-made animal clothing. Demand for services like dog grooming, training and sitting and quality veterinary care has spiked. There are new pet cafes, pet spaces, pet hotels and pet playgrounds, as well as new pressure groups lobbying for dog-friendly parks. "There is definitely an increase in dog owners and those pampering their pets," says Deirdre Moss, executive officer of Singapore's SPCA. "I think it's a reflection of an evolving society."

Taiwan's transformation has been extraordinarily fast. Until recently, dogs were raised for food (Taiwan's last legal dog farm closed two years ago). Today businesses like Taipei's Shotdogs Photo Studio have struck gold catering to indulgent pet owners because "nowadays modern people would rather keep a dog than raise a child," says Shotdogs' Allen Lin.

In financial terms, Asia's dog fever is potentially huge. Ly, for example, markets a line of fusion fare for canines featuring entrees like possum, venison and eel. His latest venture: a multi-million dollar animal hospital in Shanghai, with MRI and ultrasound technology "even Australia doesn't have," he says. In Taiwan, dog spas complete with hot tubs have opened, and pet owners can send their animals to "doggie kindergarten," a high-end kennel where guests are taught tricks.

Animal-rights activists aren't uniformly sanguine. Some lament that dogs are now "promoted as fashion accessories," says Kirsten Mitchell, cofounder of the charity Hong Kong Dog Rescue. During her 22 years in the former British colony, she has witnessed breeds going in and out of fashion, creating a run on the puppy mills followed by a rash of abandonment. The cycle will likely be repeated this Dog Year, she warns, because many would-be dog owners fail to appreciate the responsibilities of pet ownership until it's too late: "They don't understand that a dog would rather go for a walk than wear a dress."

Still, there's no end in sight for Asia's dog fascination. A husky in Taiwan recently saved a newborn's life by snatching it from a toilet after the mother gave birth, then passed out. When the impoverished woman put both child and dog up for adoption, hundreds of calls came in--all but a few inquiring about the husky.