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A Penchant for Pets: China’s Booming Pet Industry

China's pet market is accelerating and driven by a new profile of pet owners - young, digitised and connected.

China’s pet market is growing exponentially. Although this might not come as a surprise with the amount of dogs with questionable haircuts making the rounds online, figures confirm this is an area worth paying attention to. During the 2020 ‘Double Eleven’ event, Tmall’s pet product and pet food sales doubled. These numbers were trumped by their competitor JD.com, where pet category products sales were triple that of 2019. If we regard the ‘90s as the turning point when the notion of ‘pets’ became widely accepted, it’s taken less than three decades for this market to reach ¥206.5B (£22.99M).

Looking back for some context, consumerism boomed as a result of Chinese economic reform, shaping people’s lifestyles and living habits. The influence of foreign producers like Mars and Royal Canin traced as early entrants opening factories in China, are direct players in introducing food and products specifically designed for cats and dogs as pets, rather than common domestic animals. These products shipped alongside the new image for man and animal became available for consumption for the mainstream.

New technology launched via AliPay app allowing for pet owners to identify their animals and purchase pet insurance using facial recognition and individual snout ‘prints’.
New technology launched via AliPay app allowing for pet owners to identify their animals and purchase pet insurance using facial recognition and individual snout ‘prints’.

On average, pet owners in China spend over ¥6000 (£668) annually on related categories. In this unique market, there are all kinds of products and services catered for pets and their owners. And, like most things in China today, they combine home culture with digital efficiency. Upon first glance, Weibo or WeChat seem to be the go-to platforms for posting and sharing about animal adoption. Breeders can also be found through e-commerce and second-hand trading platforms like Xianyu (part of Taobao), which secures payment safety and logistics tracking. At the tail end of a pet’s life, a full Buddhist funeral including a private cremation can be booked seamlessly through Taobao. Further online digging surfaces pet cloning services available for ¥300,000 (£33,400), though they have been met with heavy criticism. This extreme solution is an indication of China’s new love for animals combined with the extreme digitisation of consumer goods and services that can be made reality quite readily at the click of a button.

For younger generations who have grown up against the backdrop of China’s rapid urbanisation, raising pets have become a serious hobby, even necessity, and their spending habits reflect that. September 2020 saw China’s leading pet focused platform Boqii officially list on the New York Stock Exchange, while one-stop pet life service PetKit announced more than $10M in its C+ round of financing. Examining these developments at the consumer level, the increased attention and investment pet owners are forking out translate in the form of good quality food and care. Pet love and responsibility may appear somewhat selfless, however spoiling these furry companions with toys and costumes undoubtedly offer ample joy and solace for the owners themselves; emotionally and socially. Evelyn, a 25 year old television director who lives in Hefei, Anhui with her boyfriend and two dogs is proof of this, “I never look at the price tags. I simply want to give my dogs the best that I can offer, because they are my sisters and brothers, and family deserves the best of everything.”

一郎” (Firstborn) and “柠檬” (Lemon) owned by Evelyn, a Television Director from Hefei.
一郎” (Firstborn) and “柠檬” (Lemon) owned by Evelyn, a Television Director from Hefei.

For university graduates migrating to big cities for work, keeping pets is a way of combating loneliness. In 2018, the single adult population in China reached 240 million, of which more than 77 million adults live alone. It’s expected that this number will rise to 92 million by 2021. One of them is Fuyun, a 26 year old Shanghai book publisher originally from Suzhou, Jiangsu, who describes her cat “豆苗” (sweet pea sprout) as “a family member who will always be there for me but at the same time, a master, because she takes care of me emotionally.” Fuyun is among the many young pet owners that define themselves as “poop-digging officers” and servants of their “pet masters”. To them, these animals are more than personal possessions or properties. “I became more organised after I adopted my cat. When adding new furniture or home objects, her mobility and comfort are always prioritised because I want my home to become a place we can both enjoy.”

豆苗 (Sweet Pea Sprout) owned by Fuyun, a Publisher from Shanghai.
豆苗 (Sweet Pea Sprout) owned by Fuyun, a Publisher from Shanghai.

Many pet owners are proudly active, exchanging information and staying abreast of relevant news, something they see as integral to their role. Whether it’s discovering new tricks, sharing the latest pet care technology or recommending dietary supplements, this is a serious duty and a lifestyle that comes with its challenges. Pet KOLs are no exception either, generally eager to connect and network with other pet lovers, but also reflect and amplify many of the same insecurities of urban life. “豆苗” has some fans on Douban, a subcultural community. “Sometimes people chase me for new photos and I oblige because I’m proud of my cat.” However, Fuyun never posts photos on WeChat because “my landlord is a WeChat contact, although I assume he’d be fine knowing there’s a cat, it’s better to be low-key.” Things are no easier for Evelyn, even though she’s a homeowner. “You never know if people hate pets, my friend’s dog got poisoned and died. Since then, I’ve become extra cautious and sometimes even paranoid. Now I only walk my dogs late at night to avoid any potential risks.”

PETBLE SmartTag by SUGA: Wearable technology that accurately detects the health and activity levels of a pet, which is tracked via the partnering PETBLE app.
PETBLE SmartTag by SUGA: Wearable technology that accurately detects the health and activity levels of a pet, which is tracked via the partnering PETBLE app.

More recently there has been growing pressure calling for further legislature of domestic animal protection in China. This is happening in parallel to other shifts in laws and regulations concerning animals and animal welfare. For consumer goods from 1st May 2021, it will no longer be mandatory for imported cosmetics to undergo animal testing, a huge step towards ‘cruelty-free’. In the private sector, many companies are starting to allow employees to bring pets to work as a corporate benefit, a sure recognition the value this new set-up brings for big businesses, employees and their pets.

Well-being and companionship aside, animals also play in part in individual belief systems and identities. “I’m more empathetic, more aware of environmental issues and I always opt for cruelty-free products,” Laurel, a 33 year old marketer tells TONG. As well as her day job, she runs a rescue group in Shanghai called ‘Nice Little Cats’ a shelter for the cats and dogs in the office compound where she works. “We share expertise and best practices for living with animals. Many colleagues have joined and we have a regular team now. People read our stories on WeChat and provide their services, an illustrator even offered to design our logo and charity merchandise for free.” Laurel funds the group through donations and income created by the merchandise sold. Originally from Chengdu, Sichuan, she and her husband from Zhejiang now call Shanghai home and they live with “乌咪” (dark-coloured kitten), the first cat she rescued on a business trip many years ago. “So far we don’t plan to have babies. I’m happy with what I have in life now, I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Resident cats at the “Nice Little Cats” Rescue Group founded by Laurel, based in Shanghai, and the sanctuary's merchandise.
Resident cats at the “Nice Little Cats” Rescue Group founded by Laurel, based in Shanghai, and the sanctuary's merchandise.

So, what’s next? Ultimately, the pet industry is powered by people. China’s rising generation of young consumers signal an increasing respect for animals as well as a growing love for pets and all things related. Combined with hectic modern lifestyles pointing to rising singletons working longer, marrying later and yearning for companionship nonetheless, the bonds between people and animals will continue to strengthen in different forms and across difference spaces. It has taken a few decades for attitudes to evolve and this next turning point for the pet industry in China is one that is defined by digital and disposable income elevating consumption to new heights.

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