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China’s Booming Pet Acupuncture Trend Spotlights Its Burgeoning Love for Animals

3 minute read

China’s relationship status with animals: It’s complicated.

The world’s most populous nation has an unfortunate track record for animal cruelty, thrown into sharp focus by last month’s Yulin Dog Meat Festival, during which an estimated 1,000 canines were bludgeoned to death and eaten.

Some 10 million dogs are devoured in China every year, say animal welfare activists, mostly stolen pets or snatched strays. But it’s not just pooches on the menu; wander around any Chinese wet market — especially in the nation’s south — and the old adage, “The Chinese will eat anything with four legs except a table,” still holds true. Lizards, big cats, rare birds — all are fair game, usually for tenuous health benefits they are supposed to bestow.

But Chinese households are increasingly appreciating animals for companionship — and just like on the dining table, taking that love to the extreme. City-dwellers are increasingly lavishing hard cash on coiffured pets, spending fortunes on groomers, pet spas and even elaborate cremation ceremonies when furry friends pass away.

But that’s not all. At the Shanghai Traditional Chinese Medicine and Neurology Animal Health Center, pet owners fork out around $400 for a course of ten acupuncture treatments to solve a range of ailments. The clinic also offers traditional Chinese cupping and herbal remedies normally reserved for people.

“Acupuncture for pets is almost the same as that for humans,” says pet acupuncturist Jin Rishan. “You have to figure out the main and accompanying accupoints based on the disease.”

Mr. Wang brought his nine-year-old toy poodle to the clinic after he got run over by a car. “I think the treatment works, because now my dog can stand up with just a little help, so I’m optimist about his recovery,” he says.

There are more than 150 million pets throughout China, according to local media, with dogs most common. Pets have been popularized by social media accounts of celebrities like movie icon Fan Bingbing, who regularly posts pics of dogs and cats to her over 60 million followers. China’s pet industry was worth $20 billion in 2017, according to China Industry News, and predicted to grow by around 20% each year.

It’s a far cry from when Communist China’s founder Mao Zedong banned pets as a bourgeoisie folly. But since China’s economic reforms of the 1980s, a combination of One-Child Policy population controls and mass migration to coastal manufacturing hubs has gnawed away at traditional family bonds. Millions of young career-driven Chinese now adopt pets to fill the loneliness of life far from the homestead. Almost three-quarters of China’s pet owners are aged 20-35, according to MarketingtoChina.com.

“Maybe because most families [in China] have only one child, more and more people are staying single, and the population is aging, so they are willing to spend a lot of energy and money on pets,” says Jin.

With video by Zhang Chi / Beijing

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Write to Charlie Campbell / Beijing at charlie.campbell@time.com