"I love my dogs so much they basically take up most of my time," says Shanghai native Huang Yuwen. "My life revolves around them."
Although eight months pregnant, the 26-year-old dog beauty therapist wouldn't dare miss the Shanghai International Pet Expo (SIPE) 2016 – and neither would her pooches. She's brought along two of her eight, who will compete in agility and beauty contests. Huang beams as she tells me about their achievements: "They are my treasures. I am due next month, but I couldn't resist coming here and having them compete."
The National Bureau of Statistics of China reports that the People's Republic is third in the world for dog ownership, behind only the U.S. (55.3 million) and Brazil (35.7 million), with a total of 27.4 million pet dogs. China is also second in global cat ownership, with 58.1 million cats reported (versus 80.6 million in the U.S.). As of 2014, some 30 million urban households, or nearly 7 percent of the nationwide total, have owned a dog. Cat owners amounted to 2 percent.
The pet industry is booming. Forecast to grow by more than 50 percent to RMB15.8 billion by 2019, according to market research firm Euromonitor, the pet care sector in China is rapidly outpacing the world's biggest market – the United States – which grew by just over 4 percent in 2015.
Events like SIPE are, increasingly, becoming the backbone of the sector, offering business opportunities for multinationals and domestic pet ventures alike. Pet Fair Asia, Asia's largest trade show for animal supplies and aquariums, is perhaps an even better example. Started in Hong Kong, the expo moved to Shanghai in 2011, a decision no doubt spurred by the growing demands of the market. Since then, it has grown exponentially, expanding from two to four halls of Shanghai Exhibition Center – a whopping 22,000 square meter floor space – and seeing hour-long lines of people wanting to visit.
"There'll be 800 companies attending this year, and a total of 2,000 brands and 60,000 expected visitors," says Grace Wu, senior manager of Pet Fair Asia's Organizing Committee. "Everyone wants a piece of the pie, including similar trade shows, which have started using our name and model to draw in customers."
Once deemed an elitist pastime by Mao Zedong during the Cultural Revolution, pet ownership in China is becoming commonplace, especially for the rising middle and upper classes.
"Having a dog or a cat is an act of love, of course, but also a sign of financial wealth and success," says Chen Yu, a 27-year-old sales executive who owns two Pekingese dogs. "Particularly if it's pure breed." Chen spends about two fifths of her monthly salary on her pets, buying them imported food and treating them to salon visits.
"Spa services, from manicures to hair styling, are very popular," confirms Jiang Yuxuan, pet beauty director at Naughty Family, one of Shanghai's most in-demand pet salon and private clinic. "We style 40 pets on average, although during holiday season that number can go up to 60 or 70. We are always very busy."
If there's a sector that's really benefiting from China's pet obsession boom, however, it's food. Mars, Nestle, Procter & Gamble and Colgate-Palmolive have all rushed to the Chinese market over the last few years, lured by the possibility for profit. Data from a Mintel review show that China has now become the largest pet food market in Asia Pacific and one of the largest in the world, estimated to be worth over $50 billion and having grown by 30% annually on average.