Taiwan’s Booming Pet Economy

More and more young Taiwanese are choosing to own and raise pets instead of having children, causing a surge in the pet-care market and opening the door for a wide variety of new products and services.

Rather than having children, an increasing number of young Taiwanese are opting to raise pets. A Council of Agriculture survey found that there were more than 2.5 million pet cats and dogs in Taiwan in 2017 – almost double the number in 2006.

As a result of the declining birth rate and increasing pet ownership, this year the number of pets in Taiwan is expected to surpass that of children aged 15 years or younger for the first time.

The dramatic rise in pet ownership in Taiwan has sparked a surge in the island’s pet-care industry. Market research provider Euromonitor International, in its June 2019 report Pet Care in Taiwan, observes a steady increase in pet-related retail purchases in Taiwan each year since 2015. Last year, Taiwanese pet owners spent a projected US$713.9 million on pet food alone, compared with US$494.5 million in 2015, a more than 40% increase. Spending on other pet products – including healthcare-related retail items – rose from US$283.2 million in 2015 to a projected US$402.9 million last year.

“We are seeing a growing trend in sales of healthcare-related products, particularly foods, in recent years,” says Christina Chien, an analyst at Euromonitor’s Hong Kong office. “Manufacturers are now focusing on specialty foods for elderly dogs that contain vitamins or ingredients recommended by veterinarians. For cats, wet food is being opted for instead of dry food, as it is better for kidney health in cats who might not drink enough water.”

The pet-care boom has been spurred by a shift from more traditional ideas of pet ownership to a desire among Taiwanese to form a closer relationship with their pets, as has long been the case among pet owners in Western countries. That shift has led to the appearance in the Taiwan market of a range of new products – such as high-tech, microchip-enabled feeding dishes and snuffle mats that allow dogs to find treats hidden inside – as well as such specialized services as pet behavior advisers, photographers, masseuses, hotels, and personal caretakers. A popular recent trend in Taiwan is to hire pet psychics, or “whisperers,” who claim to be able to communicate with pets and relate what they are thinking to their owners.

Cat behavior consultant Jill Henley-Su works with clients to develop and strengthen their relationship with their cats. Photo: Jill Henley-Su

“People are starting to realize that it doesn’t matter what the animal looks like or what breed it is,” says Jill Henley-Su, a certified cat behavior consultant and pet photographer based in Taipei. “Rather, they’re focusing on the spiritual relationship with their pets, and have more respect for animals now.”

For Henley-Su, the idea for starting her businesses came less from spotting a market opportunity than it was a natural outgrowth of her interest in building a good relationship with her own pets – two cats, whom she admits she views basically the way parents view their children. Her experiences first as a high school student in rescuing and raising an abandoned cat and later volunteering at an animal welfare NGO for a decade imbued her with a passion for animal advocacy and for learning how to make pets feel safer and calmer in any situation.

While building the clientele for her pet photography business, J. Su Photo, Henley-Su realized that many of the owners she interacted with were experiencing difficult behavioral issues with their cats, similar to those she had previously faced with her own. “I started to realize that resolving these issues is what mattered the most to these owners, rather than having beautiful photos of their pets,” she says.

Inspired by her client’s stories, she did some research and found a certification program from a U.S.-based organization called International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. After becoming certified as a behavior consultant specializing in felines, she founded Pet Buddy, through which she works with clients on how to improve their cats’ behavior and consequently the pet-owner relationship. She is now one of only a handful of pet behavior consultants in Taiwan. Though the concept is still relatively new, word-of-mouth recommendations and a few local media appearances have helped boost her client list over the past two years.

Pet Buddy’s clients cover a range of demographics – younger and older, single and married, and both middle- and upper-income. She also notes that she is “the most LGBT-friendly cat consultant in the industry.” One common thread, however, is that the vast majority of the pet owners are childless. They have chosen to raise a pet in lieu of a child, and a substantial portion of each month’s income tends to go toward their pets.

Pet owners who opt for private behavior consultation, says Henley-Su, also tend to be those who possess at least a basic level of understanding of pet care and are sensitive to their pets’ needs. The same goes for those who seek out the services of Natasha Liu, a Taipei-based pet masseuse and agent for specialty pet products.

Photo: Natasha Liu

Liu’s beginnings in professional pet care are quite similar to Henley-Su’s. Although she began her career as a graphic designer, the sudden death of her rescue dog pushed her to reconsider what she wanted to do with her life. Liu started by learning TTouch, a type of circular touching technique designed to help animals relax, through an instructor in Japan. Two years ago, she went on to study animal massage through a U.S. institution, and now incorporates both methods in a holistic approach that she says reduces stress and muscle pain in pets. She provides her services through her main company, HooHoo Animal.

Many of Liu’s clients own older pets who have mobility issues due to tight muscles in their hindquarters. While she mainly focuses on dogs, she has also worked with cats and rabbits, and notes that some masseuses will even service hamsters and other small pets. The owners that Liu works with are mostly in a relatively high income bracket and generally do not have children. “However, one thing all of my clients have in common is that they care a lot about the comfort and happiness of their pets, rather than merely giving them food and a place to sleep,” she adds.

Liu’s other business, HS Enterprise Co., focuses on importing specialty pet products – in particular, a made-in-Korea snuffle mat for dogs, and selling those products through pet shops she partners with. Regarding current pet-product trends in Taiwan, Liu observes that there has been a shift away from cheap toys with no determinable benefits for the pets. Instead, creative products and services aimed at improving animal wellbeing are becoming more popular. Goods like the snuffle mat target common problems such as separation anxiety and excessive barking in dogs.

Chien of Euromonitor makes a similar observation, noting that as Taiwanese pet owners are putting more emphasis on their relationship with their animals, products designed to increase interaction are on the rise. Given the more independent nature of domesticated cats, toys that allow owners to engage in play with their cats are increasingly in demand.

Pet-sitting or caretaking?

Since a large portion of Taiwan’s new pet owners are young professionals with at least a reasonable disposable income, the question often arises as to what to do with their companions while they’re at work or on vacation. Some companies and organizations do have pet-friendly policies, particularly in Taipei, but these are still rare elsewhere on the island.

In the rush to fill the void, dozens of boutique pet hotels have popped up throughout Taiwan in recent years. These differ from the traditional kennel in that they generally hire trained staff, provide 24-hour care, and contain common areas for pets to play and socialize. Such pet hotels generally charge between NT$1,200 and NT$1,500 (US$40 to$50) per day for boarding.

But even upscale pet hotels come with their own issues, including the spread of illness as well as personality clashes between animals of different temperaments, which may lead to situations that staff members are not equipped to handle. Some animals, says freelance pet caretaker Nina Cheng, are just not fit to be boarded away from home in unfamiliar places. Cheng and her business partner and husband, Da Shu, therefore occupy a role that is increasingly in demand by well-informed pet owners: pet caretakers providing on-site services.

Cheng and Da Shu live in New Taipei City’s Tamsui District, but due to a constantly expanding client list, they frequently travel across both Taipei and New Taipei Cities throughout the week. Their business model – services tailored to individual pets’ habits and needs, but less expensive than boarding them at kennels or pet hotels – became so popular through word-of-mouth and effective social-media marketing that a few local news outlets ran stories on the couple. 

“We’ve been offering on-site caretaking for seven years now, and promoting ourselves online the whole time,” Cheng says. “We’ve found that owners really appreciate this kind of service; rather than worry about their pet when they’re away, they can simply go online, fill in a form, and we come and provide our services at the requested date and time.”

Beyond the new products and services now available in Taiwan, pet owners also have to deal with the high cost of healthcare for their animals. Although most estimate that their biggest expense is food – pet masseuse Liu spends around NT$5,000 (US$170) monthly on food for her dog – pet-related spending skyrockets if medical attention is required. Henley-Su of Pet Buddy says that when her cats became ill last year, the amount she and her husband spent on pet care rose to around NT$60,000 (US$2,000) per month, most of it on medical treatment. The cost generally rises for elderly animals. Caretakers Nina Cheng and Da Shu say that their 12-year-old cat’s recent dental treatment set them back NT$25,000 (US$835).

There is no convenient, inexpensive single-payer insurance option for animals, for whom some medical operations can cost twice as much as for their human counterparts. In 2012, a couple of local non-life insurance companies began offering injury and medical treatment insurance for pets, but the cost of these plans was high and the scope of coverage quite limited. Dogs aged nine years or older, or cats over the age of 11, were denied coverage, as were those with certain pre-existing conditions.

Starting from mid-2018, however, several additional insurance companies have entered the market, offering plans with expanded coverage and lower premiums. The first of these plans was offered by Fubon Insurance, a subsidiary of Fubon Financial Holdings. Executive Vice President Victor Chen notes the company began offering its accident and sickness insurance to help relieve the financial burden pet owners face in getting the medical care their animals need.

Fubon’s accident insurance covers all types of pets of all ages, doesn’t require a medical report or examination, and places no restriction on which animal hospital or clinic can be visited. Pet owners aren’t responsible for extra deductibles when claims are settled.

For the sickness insurance, on the other hand, pets must be seven years old or younger when first insured, though they can continue to be insured until they are 16. In addition, Chen says, Fubon is the only non-life insurance company offering reimbursement for allergic reactions to vaccines and blood transfusions.

Chen says that based on the company’s analysis, the overwhelming majority of those who have taken out pet insurance are female. Jill Henley-Su, Natasha Liu, and Nina Cheng all say that while they are aware of the recent increased availability of pet insurance in Taiwan, they have not given insuring their pets much more than a passing thought. Very few of their clients have done so, either.

Liu says that the concept is still very new, and that it generally takes around two to three years for such trends to fully catch on in Taiwan. Henley-Su says she is doing due diligence on the idea of pet insurance, and in the meantime is maintaining an emergency fund in a bank account in case another medical issue arises. She recommends that other pet owners do the same.