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The Big Read: 'Part of the family' — the rising status of pets among households and what it means for society

SINGAPORE — Every few hours while overseas, Mrs Chan would look at her home’s internet surveillance camera to check on her beloved “furkid” Coco Bean — only to find the brown bundle of fur waiting by the main door.

The number of dog licences in Singapore has increased from about 70,000 in 2019 to about 87,000 in 2022, said Animal  Veterinary Service’s group director Jessica Kwok.

The authorities require only dog owners to apply for a licence.

According to an Euromonitor International report, the pet dog population in Singapore is around 114,000 in 2023, up by almost 3 per cent from 2019.

The pet cat population hovers around 94,000 this year, a jump of almost 10 per cent compared with 2019.

Not only are there more pets, their owners are also spending more.

Mr Kam Kok Yen, head of animal health at pharmaceutical company Boehringer Ingelheim Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, said that the increased spending has been fuelled by the humanisation of pets.

“The way in which consumers view and value their pets has evolved, with owners treating their pets more like family,” he said, adding that more pet owners are looking into the animals’ health and well-being.

“Pet owners are becoming more educated on pet health and further driven by the overarching wellness trend with nutritional or medicinal pet food and treats.”

Pet owners told TODAY that they see the animals as more than just pets — the emotional bonds forged have left them feeling more like parents to their furry, feathery, and sometimes scaly pals.

Their love and dedication transcend money and time. One “pawrent” to two dogs founded a premium pet accessories company to ensure they are comfortable while stylish. Another has dedicated Saturdays to walk with his cats — bringing together a community of fellow cat-lovers.

However, “pawrents” and pet advocates said that despite more people having pets and growing more attached to them, there remains some gaps in the pet ecosystem in Singapore pertaining to workplace policies, public transport and pet care services. 

Some suggested implementing compassionate leave for pet owners when their pets cross the rainbow bridge.

Others called for more regulations around pet services, such as daycare centres and hotels and groomers, and implementing a blood bank for pets.

MORE ACTION, LESS WORDS WHEN SHOWING AFFECTION

A fluffy Samoyed sparked Ms Emmanuella Quek’s love for animals. When she was 10, she was caught skipping class and her mother wielded the rattan cane as punishment.

But before her mother could swing the cane, Ms Quek’s Samoyed came to her rescue, blocking the cane. It then charged and chased after her mother to protect the girl.

“But we both ended up getting caned more,” recalled the now 51-year-old Quek of her first pet dog, laughing.

“For some reason after that incident, no one could come near me when I slept. My Samoyed was very protective of me and gave me so much love.”

Touched by her dog’s unwavering sense of loyalty and love, Ms Quek has surrounded herself with pets all her life. She has kept cats, dogs, birds, rabbits, fish, hamsters, guinea pigs and mice.

“Anything that you can keep as a pet legally in Singapore, I’ve probably kept it,” she said.

Currently, the full-time pet-caretaker has two cats, aged 15 and 18, and a five-year-old toy poodle. While she may need to bring them for their vet check-ups often, dispense medicine, cook and care for them “just like a toddler”, the effort is all worth it, said Ms Quek.

“They may not be able to communicate in the same language as us, but they find their way to show their love for you.

“Every day is less monotonous, and full of laughter and joy when they’re around. When you come home and see your pets coming up to you, you forget about the day’s stressors,” Ms Quek said, who is married and does not have any human children.

Like a doting father, 54-year-old retiree Khalirzal Mohd Said smiled as he jokingly complained about how his nine cats wake him up each morning. It starts with nudges, then licks, then having them crawl around him. If that fails, a bite quickly wakes the man up from his slumber.

Mr Khalizal has been surrounded by animals his whole life, and even had a stint as a hornbill trainer at Jurong Bird Park in the 1990s.

Of his nine cats — all of which have been either adopted, rescued or gifted — exotic Persian cat Bumblebee is the most well-known; it is the face of his social media account Myloverlycats. 

Mr Khalirzal’s walks along East Coast Park and swims in the ocean — with his cats in tow — were a peculiar sight for many at the start. But since March 2021, other cat owners join him every Saturday for some fresh air at the park, where Mr Khalirzal dispenses advice for other cat owners.

His bond with his cats stem from the way they have impacted him and helped him become a calmer person. Bumblebee, in particular, has helped make him less angry and more patient with just its presence whenever he is stressed, said Mr Khalirzal.

His cats’ personalities and apparent understanding of his words also affirm Mr Khalizal’s perception that they are his children. 

“They understand and tell me in their own way,” he said of his “furkids”.

“They make me feel happy, and I hope others will bond with their cats, and not abandon them after I give them advice.”

As for 37-year-old Nicole Kow, her six-year-old pups spurred her to start a pet accessories business on the side while working in the marketing department of her family’s design and building firm Nic & Wes Builders.

She founded Paws of Kow in the hope of capturing the personality of her two dogs — Tobi and Coco — in the items they wear with comfort. 

“Coco (was) not comfortable wearing clothes and some accessories… So, I went to learn from scratch and experimented with different (light-weight materials) to make something comfortable,” she said, adding that her two dogs also suffer from different food allergies.

Like other pet owners who spoke to TODAY, Ms Kow pays special attention to her pets’ diets. Each meal is steamed fresh, and she switches between different types of meat and vegetables to give her fur babies a balanced diet.

“You can’t help but want to give your best to your children who are always there for you,” she said.

LOVE COMES WITH A PRICE TAG

The love for their pets has seen some owners going all out to provide the animals with the finer things in life.

For Ms Trina Liang, beyond the time spent in helping Max, her Singapore Special, open up to humans, she also has one small indulgence for the dog — its wardrobe.

The 52-year-old, who works in the finance industry, has about 50 neckerchiefs for Max. They cost about S$5 each, with Ms Liang going to Spotlight store to select the cloth before getting them individually tailored at Far East Plaza.

This touch is small for the amount of love Max has given Ms Liang, a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) board member.

Once a nervous stray hiding at a construction site, Max follows Ms Liang around everywhere she goes.

“Even while on a call, Max has to sit by my side and watch over me. If I close the door and leave her outside, she will scratch and whine to enter the room with me.”

The neckerchiefs are like a security blanket for Max, said Ms Liang.

As for Ms Kow, a custom carriage from Denmark is the biggest luxury for her two “furkids”. Her father, who dotingly calls the dogs his “grandpups”, uses the carriage to cycle the dogs around on joyrides.

She has also spent about S$200 on Rex Specs, which protects her dogs’ eyes from the wind, dust and sun as they go on a drive to the park.

For Mrs Chan, Coco Bean’s owner, the roughly S$800 on paperwork and airline fee for their Europe holiday is just the tip of the iceberg, since she does not keep track of the additional costs that come with planning pet-friendly activities, and additional charges for pets in their accommodation.

She does get queries from other “pawrents” hoping to bring their furkids along on their world travels. But Mrs Chan tells TODAY she emphasises the importance of prioritising pets’ health, ensuring their suitability to travel and need to be responsible.

“You can’t just bring your pet overseas on a whim,” she said, adding it is also important to ensure pets are well trained before bringing them on holidays.

But beyond the holidays, there are the outfits for Coco Bean, and the home-made annual birthday cake. And like other pet owners, Mrs Chan also sends the toy poodle for annual health examinations to ensure that Coco Bean is in the pink of health.

But should the animals be in poor health, the price tag in getting them back on their paws could be quite princely for their owners. For Ms Quek, medical expenses for her French bulldog amounted to more than S$17,000.

She had adopted the dog from a shelter in 2020 just weeks after an operation to treat it from water collecting in its brain. It also inherited multiple issues associated with the dog’s breed and would struggle to eat and breathe.

“We paid over S$17,000 to fix her nose and her throat, and then for the specialist check-ups.”

When asked why she did it, Ms Quek said that she had to give her dog a fighting chance to survive.

“Just like a child. Would you just put them to sleep because they are sick? With animals, it’s the same, you should not give up.”

Pointing out that unlike humans, pets do not have welfare or government support for medical bills, Ms Quek reiterated the importance of thinking twice before adopting a pet.

“They’re your family members, you can’t just give up and drop them when they are sick.”

PREVENTIVE CARE, ENRICHMENT CLASSES GROWING IN DEMAND

The perception that pets are family and benefits their human owner’s well-being has led to the growth of a wellness industry for pets here.

In a 2021 study about pets, Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health Singapore found that 63 per cent of the 1,018 pet owners surveyed believe their pets can understand them, and 89 per cent felt their pets had a positive impact on their mental health.

Ms Celestine Low, a research associate at Euromonitor International, said that premium and ultra-premium pet brands are seeing increasing demand, especially in the health sector and e-commerce space.

Fellow research associate at Euromonitor International Kirstie Chiang added that some areas that have seen growth include freeze-dried food for dogs, and frozen raw food for dogs and cats — driven by demand for health options for pets.

This desire for better healthcare has shaped veterinarian services in Singapore. RehabVet, for one, was established in 2019 to provide rehabilitation services for animals, with a focus on mobility issues.

Since 2020, demand for rehabilitation services has grown by 400 per cent at RehabVet, said Dr Sara Lam, a veterinarian at the clinic. It receives 30 to 50 inquiries a month and has treated over 1,500 animals since 2019.

“(Pet owners) are more willing to look beyond treatment and into prevention. Also, they are better educated on the alternative services available,” said Dr Lam.

Increased knowledge and the changing needs of patients have led the clinic to adopt new therapies, such as Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy which supplies oxygen in a pressurised chamber to promote healing and recovery.

Health concerns aside, veterinarians are also seeing a rise in demand for hospice and palliative care for animals.

Dr Angeline Yang has been getting more requests from clients to make house calls for their older pets that are weaker and may not be able to make the trip to a vet’s clinic.

The 36-year-old co-founder of VetMobile is able to make about four house visits each day but noted that demand for her services has been high.

Noting that some vets have “different opinions” about euthanasia and may be more liberal in its usage, some pet owners fear being judged for not putting their pet down in its ailing years, said Dr Yang.

She helps to make the sick pets comfortable by providing Traditional Chinese Medicine treatments, or doing routine check-ups among other things.

For a greater peace of mind, some owners are turning to DNA tests to ensure that their pets do not have any underlying medical conditions.

One company, EasyDNA, has been providing DNA testing for dogs to help owners determine their pets’ breed, parentage and risk of diseases.

About 40 pet owners buy these kits in Singapore each year, said Ms Sharifah Khairiyah Syed Mohamad, director of Singapore and Malaysia at EasyDNA.

She added that the benefits from having comprehensive information to care for their dogs in a targeted manner have led to increased interest from pet owners to do these tests.

As pet owners humanise their pets, some services long targeted at humans have also been extended to pets, such as pet insurance.

Ms Annie Chua, head of personal lines at Income Insurance said that its Happy Tails Pet Insurance has seen more than 150 per cent growth between 2021 and 2022.

The insurance plan, distributed by Income Insurance and Aon, allows owners to cover themselves from unexpected medical treatment for their pet dogs and cats. Some specified congenital and hereditary conditions and medical treatments like chemotherapy can be covered as well.

“We see a high number of enquiries from pet owners who are concerned about insurance that covers hereditary and congenital medical conditions of their pets,” said Ms Chua.

Health issues aside, some pet owners are treating their pet dogs like toddlers, by sending them to doggy daycare.

While the concept of daycare for pets is not new, The Snuggery director Elayne Kwok told TODAY that she has seen a 20 per cent increase in demand for her services this year, compared to 2019.

Pawrents who can not bear to leave their pets alone at home, or know they need to provide their energetic pets with activities throughout the day spend between S$500 and S$800 a month to send them to the human equivalent of a kindergarten about twice each week.

“We are (like) teachers to kids in a school as we communicate clearly with our clients about their pets,” she said, adding that they typically send multiple updates via WhatsApp daily.

The Snuggery allows pet owners to customise what the day might look like for their pets — such as going on outdoor walks, having one-on-one time with a trainer doing IQ games, simple agility exercises or basic obedience training.

While uncommon, some “pawrents” are also seeking legal help to ensure their pets are cared for if their pets outlive them.

Mr Tan Shen Kiat of Kith & Kin Law Corporation said the firm has seen growing interest in estate planning among pet owners, and has completed two such plans involving pet care last year.

Mr Tan told TODAY that the firm has also been engaged to search for a suitable trustee to be a good caretaker for the pets of a client, and apply the funds towards the pets’ care, which he described as a very “bespoke” service.

Should the pet die before its owner, giving the animal a private send-off has also been slowly gaining ground in recent years.

Mandai Pet Sanctuary, for example, handles on average 2,200 cremations yearly.

Having provided such services for more than 30 years, the company has seen a shift among owners towards providing more luxurious closures and private cremations for their pets’ last journey.

The company told TODAY that it hosts three service halls so such private services can be done concurrently, allowing owners to seek closure.

Private cremations and cremation with ashes collected by owners make up 20 per cent and 38 per cent of cremation services provided by Mandai Pet Sanctuary. A majority still opt for communal cremation, where the ashes are scattered in a communal burial ground.

The ability to offer a proper goodbye to their pets allows owners like Ms Quek to find closure for their grief.

“In the past, there’s no proper send-off or closure… I always wondered how I could send off my precious family member like that,” she said.

“Now, at least you can do a proper cremation, there’re procedures laid out and your pets are sent off with more dignity. It provides more comfort.”

Some pet owners are also opting for more environmentally friendly ways to send their pets off. While the procedure might be longer — taking up to 24 hours — aqua cremation has attracted the interest of some pet owners in Singapore.

“Cremation can be uncomfortable for some because it involves f ire and heat,” noted Mr Yang Loo, co-founder of The Green Mortician. Since launching its services in March this year, the company has aqua cremated 50 pets.

The process, which involves using a mixture of 95 per cent water and about 5 per cent alkaline solution, speeds up the decomposition process. Within hours, the company can retrieve the bones and other foreign materials from the pet, and then grind the bones into ashes.

CHALLENGES IN CARING FOR PETS

When Ms Liang lost her pet in 2021, she recalled heading to work that same day feeling “just terrible”.

Working on the trading floor in full view of others amid the hustle and bustle, she recalled crying while her colleagues laughed.

“They told me ‘it’s just a dog’,” she said, adding that some were snickering as she tried to work while grieving.

But pet owners today said that things have changed, and more around them understand the pain of losing a pet can be similar to that of losing a close family member.

In acknowledgement of such pain, some companies and countries around the world have implemented compassionate leave for employees who lose their pets.

For example, Colombia has a law that grants employees in the South American country two days’ paid leave if their pets die.

Mr Chris Lee, former general manager for Hong Kong at human resource firm Ethos BeathChapman, noted that while it is not common yet, more firms worldwide are moving towards granting compassionate leave for their employees’ pets.

“There is a very real shift in how people view their pets, so it’s not a huge surprise that people will now expect the same compassionate leave,” said Mr Lee, who is also the co-founder of pet food brand Buddy Bites.

He noted that companies which implement pet leave could attract employees and increase retention rates as it “demonstrates compassion in the companies’ values”.

However, such leave is not governed by legislation, and hence companies will find it “vital to carefully define eligibility through a comprehensive internal policy”.

Mr Lee added that human resource departments must ensure that such policies are well explained. Rather than being focused on whether such policies are fair to those without pets, Mr Lee suggested educating people on how owners see their pets as more than just animals.

For pet owners in Singapore, compassionate leave — or lack of it — may be the least of their worries for now.

Pet owners like Ms Kow noted that it can be hard to find someone to trust their pets with. She, for one, always checks reviews and asks other “pawrents” for recommendations.

While rules for pet boarding companies were tightened in 2021, the death of pets while under the care of some pet services have pet owners hoping for more stringent rules across the board.

In May, a dog groomer was fined S$8,000 and disqualified from running any animal-related business after a maltese died when she left it unattended while on a smoke break.

Other pet owners who spoke to TODAY also cited concerns about medical bills and having to rely on crowdfunding for blood transfusions to save their pets’ lives in a medical emergency.

Ms Liang noted that Singapore has no nation-wide blood bank for animals, unlike other countries such as the United Kingdom. Like other pet owners, she often sees requests for blood donations on social media sites.

However, when it comes to medical bills, owners note that little more can be done. 

“Medical costs come with caring for your pets… that’s why you need to know of the responsibilities before adopting,” said Ms Quek.

They also noted that public transport options for pets are limited, and that some taxi drivers turn them away.

Mr Khalirzal drives his cats around in his car, but noted that it can be expensive for pet owners to bring their furry ones out as pets are not allowed on MRTs and buses.

Should their pets face a medical emergency, having a taxi driver turn them away can be stressful when time is of the essence for their pets, added Ms Quek.

Member of Parliament for Nee Soon Group Representation Constituency Louis Ng said that while Singapore lags behind some other countries in being pet friendly, there is hope for further progress.

Some suggestions the animal advocate has brought up previously include an animal polyclinic to provide cheaper healthcare for pets and banning certain procedures that have been recognised as animal cruelty in some countries around the world, such as declawing and debarking.

Speaking to TODAY, Mr Ng raised other potential regulations to improve pet welfare here, such as ending “convenience euthanasia”, where animals are euthanised without other training or healthcare options considered.

However, he noted that some suggestions can be difficult for the Government to implement due to the tight fiscal budget it has to work with. He also noted that there are “religious reasons” that must be taken into consideration.

This is where non-governmental organisations have stepped up. SPCA for one has a community clinic that provides subsidised treatment.

Just last month, the organisation offered its first of 10 free pet health screening for low-income households for 2023.

On a brighter note, some pet owners are happy to see further moves towards making Singapore a more pet-accepting nation, such as allowing Housing and Development Board dwellers to own bigger dogs and possibly cats too, should a public consultation by AVS this month produce the result that animal lovers are rooting for.

For Mrs Chan, the owner of toy poodle Coco Bean, just seeing the expanding number of pet-friendly food and beverage outlets expanding is reason for cheer.

While she hopes that Singapore will be more pet-friendly, the woman said that “pawrents” also need to be more responsible so as to raise acceptance among members of public as Singapore becomes more pet-friendly.

“While more pet-friendly cafes are willing to accommodate pets, it is equally important to maintain cleanliness for the comfort of all patrons and be considerate to others who may not be pet owners,” she urged.

Ms Liang, Max’s owner, called on animal lovers here to do their part by adopting “the many animals that need homes at the SPCA”.

“We (must) also be prepared to be the forever home for our animals,” she added.

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