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Firms filling needs of graying population’s aging pets

by

Kyodo

As the Japanese continue to age, so do their pets. Improvements in animal rearing and care have seen pets living longer, prompting the creation of new businesses that cater not only to the elderly, but to their animals as well.

Tokyo-based Seikatsu Kagaku Un-Ei Co., which operates nursing homes and condominiums, allows residents at 18 of its 27 facilities to live with their pets. There are 25 households in its condominiums that keep dogs or cats.

“I decided right away (on this property) once I heard that I can live here with my pet,” said Kayoko Kitao, a 76-year-old resident who lives with her cat, Ku, in a condominium managed by the company in Fujimino, Saitama Prefecture. “My conversations with other residents and the staff members here are more lively thanks to little Ku.”

The company recommends facilities to the elderly depending on their lifestyles and specific requests on living environments. The basic rules for keeping pets are residents must take care of their own animals, and prior consent must be obtained from the neighbors living adjacent to and directly above and below the unit.

Meanwhile, new products for aging pets are becoming popular.

Major health care and household products maker Unicharm Corp., for example, began marketing a cat food in 2015 specifically for felines around 20 years old, which is equivalent to about 90 in human years.

Taking into consideration health and other feeding issues for old cats, the product contains reduced phosphorus to ease the burden on the kidneys and is available in finer pellets or flakes for easier consumption.

The average life span for cats in Japan rose from 14.4 years in 2011 to 15.8 in 2015, and the tally of those over 20 is on the rise, according to Unicharm and the Japan Pet Food Association.

“Requests from customers with old cats inspired us to develop this product,” said Junichi Okamoto of Unicharm’s pet food business. “The aging (of the pet population) is expected to continue further and we hope to roll out more products in the future.”

Newcomers from other industries are also joining the competition. School uniform maker Tombow Co. in Okayama Prefecture ventured into the pet goods market in 2014, amid dim prospects for growth, given the declining birthrate. By applying expertise and techniques gleaned from the uniform business, Tombow decided to develop a special walking support harness for elderly dogs.

The harness helps dogs with injured hips or weakened legs to stand and walk. The company sells some 40 variations of the product to fit different breeds, sizes and color schemes.

Customers can purchase them online, at large pet shops or through catalogs available from about 1,000 veterinary clinics across the country.

The dark side of the pet boom in Japan, however, is its long-ingrained problem of abandoning pets.

In search of a new way to minimize the mass culling of cats at animal shelters and other places, Tokyo-based nonprofit organization Tokyo Cat Guardian launched in 2014 a new concept of shared housing — living spaces that come with cats awaiting adoption.

“Share houses” are an increasingly popular type of dwelling in Japan where strangers live on the same property, often to enjoy lower rent and the company of housemates.

At each of Tokyo Cat Guardian’s three share houses in Tokyo, residents act as volunteers to care for several cats there until new homes can be found, taking turns with the feeding and litter box cleaning duties.

The NPO said it plans to recruit residents for three similar share houses in Tokyo and expand the concept into a franchise network of 10 locations within the year in the capital and elsewhere. Amid a rise in cat ownership, the group has detected increasing interest from real estate and property agencies, it said.

Keeping a pet involves responsibility. In some cases, owners have no choice but to abandon a pet due to old age or changes in living situations.

“We will work hard to promote this approach, in which we work together with the real estate industry such as through share houses, as a new way to help reduce the number of cats being culled,” said Yoko Yamamoto, the group’s representative.