Puppies and kittens reign supreme for childless young Chinese

Society & Culture

Young people are treating their pets as family members as government pleas to procreate fall on deaf ears.

pet shop
With the approach of the Spring Festival, pet shop staff are busy with pet grooming in Lianyungang, Jiangsu Province. Image from Reuters.

China’s birth rate is falling precipitously as young adults delay traditional life milestones like marriage and baby making. But it turns out that nurturing another being has not completely lost its appeal to Chinese millennials — just not in its traditional form. A new report, released this week by market research firm CBNData, shows that accompanying the decline in fertility is a marked rise of pet ownership, especially among young Chinese, who have driven the country’s pet economy to new heights.

According to the industry white paper (in Chinese), China’s pet market has boomed, reaching a size of 206 billion yuan ($32.3 billion) last year, more than double the number in 2015. As of 2020, there were approximately 63 million people who kept dogs and cats as pets.

The report also shows that consumers are prepared to lavish money on animal companions. In 2020, cat and dog owners in the country spent an average of 6,653 yuan ($1,040) on pet products and services, ranging from food and toys to costumes and veterinary care. 

For the first time since CBNData started issuing annual reports on the consumption of pet products in 2015,  online sales of cat food surpassed dog food last year, primarily because the population fo Chinese cat owners rose by a staggering 10.1% last year to almost 27 million. The firm noted that cats are especially popular with urban residents, particularly in dense cities like Shanghai and Beijing, where most people live in small apartments and have less time available to tend to pets due to busy schedules. 

Other notable findings from the report include:

  • More and more people in China see their pets as family members or friends. About 16% of the respondents surveyed by CBNData said they regarded their pets as “children.”
  • Gen Z pet owners generally prefer cats to dogs, as they believe that felines offer companionship that relieves stress and curbs loneliness — without taking up too much energy. 
  • It’s believed that China’s pet industry still has room for growth. According to analysts at CBNData, this will be driven by empty-nest seniors in search of companionship, as well as young adults living by themselves, who have no imminent plans for starting families. 

Social media reactions to the report have shed some light on why pets are gradually replacing human babies in the hearts of Chinese millennials. “I’m lying flat. No marriage or family. Taking care of a little pet is my silent protest against capitalism,” a Weibo user wrote (in Chinese), while another person commented, “Owning a pet requires much less money and time than raising a child.”

This pet craze might be concerning for the Chinese government given that the country’s fertility rate was 1.3 children per woman in 2020, far below the replacement level of 2.1 needed to keep the population stable: If things don’t change, China’s population will fall from 1.39 billion now to 730 million by the end of the century. Given the tepid reception to China’s recent announcement of the three-child policy, it seems doubtful that anyone will be inspired to procreate for patriotic reasons, especially those who have pets to pamper.