’Tis the season to make heavy weather out of heavy petting among pets

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More and more Indians now have pets. Owners often call themselves pet parents, implying that pets are considered equal to human children. But it so happens that not all pets are treated equally or well.

Can I haz pet parent?

 

M, a good friend of mine is grappling with a particularly intricate problem. My friend is a pet parent. Apart from being a mother of two, she is also mama to a Shih Tzu, better described as a walking, yapping, extremely active piece of fluff.

M’s dog is two-and-a-half years old. And M has been made aware that there are potential partners (of the same breed) in the neighbourhood. I say “made aware” because there are three virile males around and all have come to meet the young female in question. The gallant trio (accompanied by either their owners/parents or domestic help escorts) make it a point to greet her (the dog, I mean) on their neighbourhood jaunts. It has all been very friendly and neighbourly.

Recently, however, things have heated up. The owner of one of the males had met M recently. “He introduced himself and got straight to the point. He asked if I had thought of mating my dog,” M told me. The neighbour insisted his dog was her pet’s ideal partner. “So, then I had to tell him that she has two other friends who have been coming to see her for months”. This revelation had left the determined man unfazed, she said. “He told me that, on one occasion, my dog had encountered all her ‘friends’ [including his dog] and had clearly preferred his dog over the others. This proved, he told me, that his dog was her perfect match!” Slightly staggered by this assertion, M had told the eager pet parent that she needed time to think things over.

“But honestly, I don’t know what to do,” she told me. Couldn’t she let all three suitors have their chance, I asked. “No! The male’s family get first claim on the pups. So, if all three males are involved, how will we know who the father is,” she pointed out. Okay, I don’t know the answer to that, either.

 

While my friend debates what to do, I have realised that pet parents are a growing tribe in Bengaluru city and India, as a whole. The country, is in fact, considered one the world’s fastest-growing pet markets. And yes, pets are part of a hugely lucrative industry, said to be worth $1.22 billion and growing at 35 per cent per year.

For, where there are pets, there’re also pet food, nibbles and chews, clothing and accessories such as grooming products, beds, cat baskets, scratching posts, bird cages and even poop scoops. Mordor Intelligence, a market research firm, notes that “…in 2014 the Indian pet food market was valued at around $198.6 million and is expected to grow at a CAGR of 13.9% to grow into a $434.3 million market by 2020.” What’s more, there are associated enterprises catering to everything a pet parent might want to indulge their pet in — from customised nutritious food delivery services, to pet salons, spas and resorts (with paddle pools) facilities for short-term stays, so on.

Also, the term ‘pet’ today, encompasses all creatures great and small. Literally. From Great Danes to Guinea Pigs, Huskies to hares, St. Bernard dogs to snakes, Rottweilers to rabbits, you can find animals and creatures of all shapes and sizes in Indian homes. So much so that, the country even merits its very own India International Pet Trade Fair (IIPTF). And according to the IIPTF, “on average, 600,000 pets are adopted every year” in India.

A deep and abiding love

So, what is this fascination with pets? Market analysts find that rising disposable incomes are a huge factor in why Indians choose to have pets. IIPTF also finds that pets fulfil a need or desire for companionship — especially as more young people opt to stay single and more couples put off having children. Ajay Arjun, who works at CUPA (Compassion Unlimited Plus Action), an NGO in Bengaluru, is an example. Ajay has two cats at home and tells me he doesn’t want to marry or have children.

However, those who do have children, like my friend M, also care equally deeply for their pet. M’s Shih Tzu is much loved. “She is my baby, after all,” is how M puts it. Fellow Bengalureans, Ganesan and his wife Uma, know exactly what M means by that. They describe themselves as proud parents of four girls — three Labradors and a toddler.

The Ganesans and their four ‘babies’ | Courtesy the Ganesans

 

When one of the Labs had a hip dislocation and needed surgery, the Ganesans researched what they could do to help. They found that hydrotherapy could help the Lab. So, they set up an entire facility to help the dog walk again. For a while, the Ganesans opened Pooch Aqua Gym for other “canine friends” that needed hydrotherapy but eventually, shut it down as it was being run out of a rented location. But they don’t regret doing all this. “Pets give you unselfish love in return,” points out Ganesan.

The thing is, there are pet parents who find great satisfaction in loving and being loved in return. There are others who look at pets as money-making opportunities. For them, the more exotic the breed, the more attractive the dog becomes. That partly explains why a tropical country like India where summer temperatures regularly cross 40 deg C (104 F), is now home to so many Huskies and St. Bernards that are native to icy, snowy, extremely cold climes. Ajay and his CUPA colleagues, like others who work with similar NGOs, are people who see the dark side of India’s pet fixation.

NGO Compassion Unlimited Plus Action provides rescue and relief to thousands of injured, ill and needy street animals in Bengaluru. | Divya Sreedharan

 

You see, when an imported breed falls ill, treating it can be even costlier. Or when a breed becomes too big to manage, what can be easier than simply turning it out? “We get one call a day about an abandoned animal or a pet in distress” Ajay tells me. CUPA has a Trauma and Rescue Centre for strays and injured animals. “This year, we also opened a Second Chance Adoption centre in Bengaluru specifically for pedigreed dogs because so many of them now end up abandoned, ill-treated or in distress,” says Ajay. The new shelter now has 80 dogs, including five or six St. Bernards, some mixed breeds and some Indian breeds. “Some of the St. Bernards have skin problems. We also get abandoned Huskies, but they get adopted very quickly,” he tells me, matter-of-factly.

Breeds are also big bucks

All dogs are first neutered before being re-adopted. “This is to prevent breeders from using these dogs,” says Ajay. Why would a breeder want an abandoned Husky or St. Bernard? The reason, of course is money. St. Bernard pups can cost anything upwards of ₹30,000 each. Huskies can go for ₹45,000 at least, per pup.

And it is not just breeders. Ordinary pet owners, err… pet parents cannot resist the chance to make some quick bucks either. Don’t believe me? Look up an online marketplace like Olx.in or Indiamart.com. There are people who post pictures of newborn pups for sale. There are also people who advertise the mating services of their dogs and cats online — with a fixed rate per mating session. Yep, welcome to the Great Indian Online Bazaar, where you can buy, sell, or mate anything online. Is this illegal, is this unethical? Possibly. But who will regulate this burgeoning industry? I honestly don’t know.

 

 

But back to my friend M. She has not yet decided what she will do. She and her fellow pet parents all live in the same area, and know each other. This of course, complicates things a bit. No matter whom M chooses for her Shih Tzu, the others are going to feel left out. And I am talking about the humans. She has a difficult task ahead of her.

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