Pusses galore: Cats dominate the pet industry

February 23rd, 2015 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

Free at last: Stray female cat after undergoing spaying and about to be released

Free at last: Stray female cat after undergoing spaying and about to be released

Feb. 22 was Cat Day in Japan, because “two-two” in Japanese can be uttered using an approximation of a sound that cats make. It’s a typical pseudo-event, invented by the pet food industry, which is doing quite well by cats. In fact, it’s doing better by cats than by dogs if you’re talking about growth.

According to the Japan Pet Food Association, about 10.9 million dogs and 9.7 million cats are kept as pets in Japan. The pet-related market, including medical care, is worth about ¥1.4 trillion, but while the parity between the two species as animal companions is about equal, sales of respective food products is increasing more for cats than it is for dogs.

Dog food sales peaked in 2004 at a little more than 490,000 tons and has been gradually dropping ever since. Cat food sales in 2005 was much less, about 271,000 tons, but cats tend to be smaller and thus need less food, and at any rate, sales have been steadily increasing in the meantime. In 2014, the association says that a household with at least one dog spends on average ¥2,884 a month on dog food, while a household with at least one cat spends ¥2,996.

The slight difference can be explained by a number of factors: people with cats are more likely to have more than one animal than do dog owners, and dogs eat anything. Cats’ famous finicky tastes means that cat owners will likely buy more food to make sure their pets don’t get tired of the same thing.

Another economic related difference between cats and dogs is in their trafficking. According to the Yaseisha Pet Data Yearbook, in 2006, dogs accounted for 55.8 percent of pet shop sales (¥76.2 billion) while cats only accounted for 8.2 percent (¥11.2 billion). This wide gap is easy to explain. People who want dogs are more likely to buy them since they want pedigrees, while cat lovers are less particular about breeds and can easily pick up strays or get kittens from neighbors and shelters.

More to the point, the development of a pet culture in Japan has given rise to a concurrent awareness of the sanctity of non-human lives, an awareness that, taken to its natural ends, would not countenance the trafficking of pets, because when they are sold they are at the mercy of commercial prerogatives.

Only puppies and kittens are marketable as commodities, so once a pet-for-sale reaches a certain age it has to be “disposed of.” This realization means that, in all probability, the selling of dogs and cats for profit will someday be outlawed, or, at least, phased out in some way.

The manifestation of this pet-oriented sensibility is incumbent in the satsu shobun zero movement, which has become more prominent in the public sector. On Feb. 12, 60 national lawmakers representing all political parties formed a bipartisan group that “aims” to reduce the number of dogs and cats put down at public facilities to zero by 2020, when the Tokyo Olympics takes place. Kanagawa Prefecture already accomplished this aim with regard to dogs in 2013 thanks to the help of volunteers.

The prefecture’s next goal is no killings of cats, though the relevant authorities admit it’s more difficult since many cat owners still let their pets roam outside and don’t get them neutered, thinking it’s somehow cruel. Female cats can have two litters in a single year so the problem of stray cats killing birds and bothering neighbors will never go away, and so neither will the problem of having to somehow deal with unwanted cats.

Consequently, a lot of local governments also subsidize spaying and neutering of cats. According to Tokyo Shimbun, 30 percent throughout Japan have already implemented policies that address the stray cat issue. After successfully reducing the number of dogs put down in facilities by two-thirds over a five-year period, Kochi Prefecture set aside ¥4.9 million to spay female cats — ¥6,000 for a house pet, ¥10,000 for a stray.

The higher amount for an alley cat can be seen as encouraging to the TNR movement, wherein people trap stray cats, have them neutered, and then release them back in their familiar environment. Of course, some local governments don’t like this idea at all. Kyoto has proposed an ordinance making it illegal to feed stray cats, because people who don’t like cats somehow think that feeding them increases their numbers, but if you want to control the stray cat population TNR is a much more effective means.

Though not as effective as just catching and killing them outright, which is still the norm. In 2013, 128,135 dogs and cats were put down in public facilities, of which 99,566 were cats and 59,387 kittens. One of the hallmarks of the satsu shobun zero movement is finding new homes for abandoned pets. Of the 60,811 dogs brought to facilities in 2013, 15,129 were returned to their owners, since they were lost dogs, and 16,950 found new homes through adoption services.

Cats were less lucky: 115,273 were brought to facilities, with 305 returned to owners and 16,023 going to new homes. The rest were destroyed. Some local governments who have a zero-killing policy get around the problem by just not accepting abandoned animals, which is hardly a solution because in all likelihood the person who wants to bring a cat into a facility will just let it go in a local park. For the most part, a cat is abandoned because its owner’s living situation has changed and he or she can no longer keep the cat.

Government commitment is essential for reducing the number of unwanted cats, either by funding facilities that prioritize adoption or subsidizing spay-neuter operations. As it stands, the Environmental Ministry has set aside ¥100 million for pet-related matters. That means local governments have to come up with more money themselves, or pet-related NPOs have to rely on donations from concerned pet-lovers. Some people have suggested a tax on pet food that would pay for shelters and operations.

Supporters of the TNR movement point to Tokyo Chiyoda Ward as a success story. The local government pays up to ¥17,000 for male cat neutering and up to ¥20,000 for female cat spay operations. Moreover, they will pay ¥25,000 for cat abortions. Consequently, there have been no cats put down in the ward for the past several years.

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