A growing trend among Japanese to keep dogs, cats and other animals as companions has turned the pet industry into a 1 trillion yen behemoth.

The Food Manufacturers Association said there are about 9.5 million dogs and around 7.1 million cats in Japan, which averages out to a pet in one in three households.

The industry includes pet shops, pet food manufacturers, animal clinics and kennels.

Many people used to keep dogs to provide security and cats to catch rats. But these days, purchasing pure-bred and exotic animals has become the norm for many households.

The elderly and those living alone keep pets as companions. Others believe pets can help their children form better relationships — with animals as well as humans.

There was a boom in Dachshunds, but Chihuahuas have since replaced them in popularity, according to canine dealers. Chihuahuas weigh around 5 kg even when fully grown, meaning the elderly can keep them indoors and small children can walk them on a leash.

Cat lovers appear to favor docile felines. American short-hair cats are popular because they are easy to trim and wash compared with their long-hair counterparts.

An increasing number of Japanese are breeding rare and exotic creatures, including ferrets, prairie dogs, chameleons, turtles and other reptiles and amphibians, according to pet shop owners.

“Ferrets by far outpace all others except dogs and cats” in terms of sales, said Jun Nakano, manager of the Inner City Zoo NOAH at Yokohama Bayside Marina. “Ferrets are affable and have the habit relieving themselves in a set place.”

Ferrets come from the weasel family and are suitable for domestication. They like to play with their owners and sell for about 70,000 yen each.

But Nakano said some people are not crazy about their musky smell, adding that “we would like them to buy (ferrets) by fully understanding their odor and habits.”

About 27,000 ferrets and 11,000 prairie dogs were imported from the United States and other countries in 2002. Both figures are lower than in the previous year.

Japan only began keeping detailed statistics on imported animals in 2001.

Prairie dogs are popular, according to Kojima Corp. of Tokyo, which specializes in the sale of big dogs. Prairie dogs, or prairie marmots, are friendly and this adds to their popularity, according to Kojima staff.

The price for prairie dogs has been on the rise since the government banned their import; they are considered carriers of diseases and pests.

A rare white prairie dog costs more than 500,000 yen.

“There have been cases of (people) getting infections from animals whose ecosystem was unknown,” said Kazuo Asano, supervisor of Japan Pet Owners Club Co. in Tokyo.

Items purchased for pets in 2002 amounted to 14,225 yen per household, up almost 60 percent from a decade ago, according to a survey by the Public Management, Home Affairs and Posts and Telecommunications Ministry.

But the Pet Food Manufacturers Association said business in the pet industry has leveled off due to the sagging economy.

The summer heat is the greatest enemy of foreign pets; they can die if they are locked in a closed room all day, Asano said.

“It is necessary (for pet owners) to raise (their pets) by paying attention to the kinds of pets they breed and the air conditioning system.”

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