Over lunch at a hotel on the edge of an industrial city in the middle of China, with roars coming from a wedding in the next room, two women were telling me about their cats. One had been given a stray kitten only a few weeks old which had grown into the most devoted pet.
“She’s more like a dog than a cat. She follows me around everywhere and sits looking at me, even in the bathroom,” she said.
She reckoned that feeding and taking care of the cat cost the equivalent of about €40 per month and she had neighbors who were happy to look at the animal when she was away. The other woman’s cat was a very different story, a rag doll that cost her the equivalent of €4,000 to buy.
“He was cheaper than any of his brothers and sisters because he had a black mark above his mouth,” she said.
“He only eats shrimp. I tried feeding him other things but he won’t eat anything else. I spend more on food for him than for myself.”
Unlike the other woman’s pet, this cat ignores its owner most of the time.
“I have to pursue his love. I don’t want a dog because it would always be looking for my love and I’d feel guilty. My cat only shows me love about once a month but that’s enough affection for me,” she said.
Although she pursued her cat’s love, she didn’t seem to do it too vigorously and the other woman and I exchanged a glance when she said the cat could be left alone for up to a month.
She had a shrimp dispenser from which the cat could feed herself and an automatic, self-cleaning litter box that was so expensive that she would not tell us the price. I asked where the cat slept at night.
“I bought him a house,” she said.
The house was big enough for three or four cats but the cat liked it and spent most of the night there, although he liked to come into his owner’s room in the early hours to wake her up by jumping on to her face. Both women speak to their cats, talking in a baby voice, and both like to dress their cats up as little girls, something neither the male nor the female cat enjoys.
More Chinese people now own cats than dogs as the number of dog owners fell by 5.7 per cent to just over 34 million between 2021 and 2022 while the number of cat owners rose by 12.6 per cent to more than 36 million. Nearly half of China’s pet owners were born after 1990 and almost half did not have children, as Chinese people were getting married later than before.
Ninety per cent of pet owners have a university degree, although only one in four Chinese people have received higher education, and they have higher than average incomes. The pet care industry is growing, with spending on cats 16 per cent higher last year than in 2021 and most pets are relatively new, with more than half the owners saying they have had their pet for less than three years.
With so many of China’s pet owners still in their 20s, the appetite for pet tech like the automatic food dispenser and the self-cleaning litter box is burgeoning. Sales of pet food are also buoyant, and a meat importer told me this week that China lacks expertise in manufacturing pet food.
Products like pet photography, pet healthcare, pet psychology clinics and pet funerals have been growing, particularly in big cities where cats and dogs are sometimes treated like luxury goods. Women are more likely to own pets than men and I asked the two cat-owners what they would do if they met a man who didn’t like their cat. Would it be a deal breaker?
They both hesitated but one said she could not part with her cat now that it was such an established part of her life. The other said she didn’t think she would like to be with someone who disliked animals.
I told them they were right, adding that if he said no to the cat today, he would be trying to veto something else tomorrow. They both looked at me and nodded but they each had a faraway look that made me worry just a little on behalf of those cats.