Pet businesses going to the dogs — to their owners’ delight

by Shinya Ajima

Two-year-old Melon slept on a small bed at one of the many beauty salons in Tokyo’s Daikanyama shopping district, under a mist of negatively charged ions that reputedly reduces stress.

The hourlong relaxation treatment — with a price tag of 9,000 yen — included a body massage using specially blended aromatic oil and a thorough brushing. Afterward, Melon popped up onto his four legs, wagging his tail excitedly.

With more Japanese treating their dogs as actual family members, spending on pooches has taken off. Experts say the market for related businesses has ballooned over the last few decades and could become larger still.

Melon, a miniature poodle, had just received the most luxurious treatment option at the dog beauty salon, which opened last September.

He seemed happy and refreshed before returning to his ordinary life as the salon’s mascot.

“An increasing number of Japanese are seeking to keep small dogs to relieve their weariness in this stressful society,” said Shinobu Ishimura, manager of the Caramel Melon dog salon. “But we also need to consider dogs. How can you say they never feel stressed in a society their owners see as being stressful?”

Keeping a dog as a means of “iyashi” — comfort or healing in Japanese — has become entrenched over the last few years. More than 30,000 people commit suicide in Japan every year — four times the number of people killed in traffic accidents — while the government struggles to prevent a further rise.

As the number of people who seek the companionship of pets swells, opportunities in the pet-care business, especially for dogs, appear to be growing. And the trend may gain momentum this year, given the increased media coverage of canines, with the start of 2006, the year of the dog.

“I sense dog-related businesses are expanding, including hotels and beauty salons,” said Taro Watanabe, manager of a pet shop specializing in dogs near Roppongi Hills, where customers can often be seen strolling through Louis Vuitton and other high-fashion boutiques — along with their dogs.

“Most of our customers are women in their 20s and 30s,” Watanabe said. “We just sold two miniature poodles priced at 500,000 yen each for Christmas.”

It is not at all unusual for a puppy to cost more than 1 million yen, he said.

Small dogs like miniature poodles and Chihuahuas are “increasingly popular among female office workers who live alone,” said Ishimura, a dog beautician.

But with their owners out working all day, some dogs find it hard to adjust, causing them to suffer hair loss or diarrhea due to stress.

“We want to support healthier relations between dogs and their owners,” Ishimura said as she held Melon. Her salon offers a variety of products for dogs — diet foods, frilly clothes and silver accessories costing several thousand yen.

The pet boom in the world’s second-largest economy has led some companies to launch hotels for pets.

The largest of these opened December in one of the terminals at Narita airport to meet the needs of people who cannot travel with their beloved pets but want to stay with them as long as possible before their flights and to see them as soon as they touch down on their return.

“It is quite natural for people to think pets are family members,” said Yuki Yoshizaki, head office manager at Narita’s Pet Inn Royal. “Decades ago, dogs were kept only for their role as watchdogs, staying outside the house. Today they are no different than children.”

For the most devoted pet owners, money is no object.

The Narita facility features an air conditioning and purification system for all 170 “rooms,” which range in price from 4,000 yen per night for a cage-type accommodation to 20,000 yen for a luxury suite. There is also an open-air exercise area, an adjacent animal hospital and grooming facilities.

The two suites have been booked for weeks, Yoshizaki said.

According to a Nomura Research Institute estimate, the market for dog-related businesses in Japan has expanded to 1.2 trillion yen from 30 million yen in the 1960s. A survey in 2004 by Chibagin Research Institute found that dog owners spend an average of 130,000 yen a year on their pets.

Experts say demand has been shored up as Japan ages and the number of children declines.

“Many old couples who are freed from raising children have extra money to spend on their dogs,” said Hiroyuki Inami, an analyst at Nomura Research Institute. “Interestingly, dogs have a crucial role as a link, or a common topic (of conversation), between even some tired husbands and wives.”

Nomura Research found that roughly half of Japan’s 40 million households now keep dogs.

The canine goods and service market already appears to have matured to some extent, with most potential new businesses already launched, Inami said. But if the number of dogs can be increased, the market will grow further, he added, suggesting companies find a way to raise productivity in breeding, a business currently conducted by just a handful of individuals.

Not all dog owners, however, are caught up in the market hype.

“I love dogs, but I don’t think they are an object (that requires) spending a bunch of money,” said Isamu Makino, a furniture maker who keeps a collie named Star in his workshop.

Makino thinks that making dogs wear clothes or taking them for treatments at beauty salons is no more than self-indulgence on the part of their owners. “I feel sorry that dogs cannot say they don’t like it.”

Star, a relatively meek watchdog, does not bark much and spends most of his day lying on a tattered couch in the workshop while his master works.

“One day, he might bite someone’s hand suddenly. That would be very shocking to me,” Makino said. “That is why I believe owners of dogs must really train them in order to reduce the chances (of that happening) as much as possible.”