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Paws-perous business: The booming pets trade that's also feeding an illicit market

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PAWS-PEROUS BUSINESS: The boom in Singapore’s demand for pets that’s also feeding an illicit market.

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PAWS-PEROUS BUSINESS: The boom in Singapore’s demand for pets that’s also feeding an illicit market.

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SKC's Mr Chua notes that some 'hobbyists' will have their dogs compete in shows, after which winners may be bred to continue the champion bloodlines.

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A retailer at The Animal Lodge packs a dozen of its breeding dogs into two crammed crates for transport. Sellers are not required to show buyers the living conditions of their animals.

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All sellers should educate consumers on responsible pet ownership, urges Designer Bengal's Mr Khan, who breeds exotic cats such as the Bengal, Sphynx and Devon Rex.

SINGAPORE'S demand for furry companions is at an all-time high, stoking growth in the pet sector with uptrends in both local sales and imports of domestic animals. But the black market is likewise thriving, and animal welfare remains an issue as more businesses - both licensed and illicit - wrestle for a share of the prosperity. Standards and practices in the business vary widely, with grey areas and gaps in regulation raising enough concerns for the Animal and Veterinary Service (AVS) to begin a review of the pet trade in August 2019.

In line with the rise in overall pet ownership, Singapore's pet dog and cat figures have grown nearly 19 per cent in five years to reach 196,600 in 2019, Euromonitor data show. (This figure includes pets not registered with AVS as well as adopted pets.) While the number of pet shops licensed by the AVS has remained fairly constant above 260, businesses interviewed by The Business Times (BT) report an uptick in sales of puppies and kittens. For instance, Wag A Tail Pet Store sold 5-10 per cent more pups in 2019 from a year ago, its spokesman says.

With demand still outstripping tight supply, Singapore's pet sale industry has seen rapid price inflation over the past decade. Higher compliance costs, a consequence of tighter rules on animal welfare and more frequent inspections by AVS, have also led to higher selling prices.

Pricey pooches, patient paw-rents

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Price increments vary across breeds. Wag A Tail cites Toy Poodles as an example: popular for its hypoallergenic qualities, the breed retailed at S$1,800-S$3,000 in 2016, but that range is now today's cost price paid by retailers.

For highly sought-after dogs such as French Bulldogs and Shiba Inus, the upper end of prices at shops has almost tripled to S$6,000-S$10,000 from S$2,000-S$4,000 five years ago, says Singapore Kennel Club (SKC) president Chua Ming Kok. SKC-registered local breeders price their pups at S$4,500-S$5,500 on average, up from S$3,500-S$4,500 five years ago.

Crossbreed "designer" dogs like Maltipoos (Maltese-Poodle) and Pomskies (Pomeranian-Husky) have also surged in popularity, commanding similar or even higher retail prices than some purebreds. "I've heard some designer breeds go at S$8,000-S$10,000. Ten years ago, you'd be very lucky to sell one at S$800," says Mr Chua.

In general, prices are only marked down due to perceived defects. A store at The Animal Lodge cluster in Sungei Tengah slashed the price for an "unattractive" Yorkshire Terrier by half to S$1,500 because it had sparse fur and too-long legs.

Wait lists and pre-orders are not uncommon.

"Some buyers are willing to wait six months to two years to find the right dog," says an SKC dog breeder. Pedigree British Shorthair breeder ChubbyBuddy Cats has a wait list ranging from four months to two years. At Designer Bengal, buyers typically wait three to six months for their pre-ordered exotic kittens.

Singapore buyers are also increasingly looking to breeders abroad, import data from AVS show.

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Undergraduate Shirley Lu spent S$3,665 to bring in her Japanese Spitz from New Zealand. The dog's retail price made up one-third of the amount and nearly S$2,000 went to import fees. Ms Lu steers clear of Singapore sellers after seeing an odd-looking Spitz in a local store. The local pup looked "poorly bred" because it had long ears and a thin coat, unlike the small ears and thick coat that a standard Spitz should have, she says.

Pet relocation agencies, handling customs clearance, quarantine and delivery of imported animals, report growing business. One such agent, Ricted Kennels, handled almost 800 imports in 2019, and its numbers have grown 10 per cent year-on-year for the last three years, says its general manager Joanne Lim.

Uneven standards, questionable welfare

But as the pet sector flourishes, standards and practices have varied. In response, AVS began a review in August 2019, out of a public consultation via an online survey and focus groups with industry stakeholders including breeders, retailers, welfare groups, veterinarians and academia.

"Through our regular engagement with the industry, we've heard that standards need to improve and we acknowledge there are gaps (in regulation) to be filled in areas such as home breeding," says Dr Chang Siow Foong, group director of professional and scientific services at AVS under the National Parks Board (NParks).

The breeding and boarding scenes as well as pet traceability are the initial focus areas for AVS. It expects to recommend measures to raise standards in these areas by early 2020, Dr Chang says.

Shops and farms are not required to show buyers the living quarters and physical conditions of breeding animals, for instance. Most of the 20-odd sellers at The Animal Lodge do not let buyers see pets' parents. Some cite a fear of contamination, while one sales assistant claims their breeding dogs have been shaved to prevent matted fur, so "they look ugly, which will turn clients off".

However, Ms Koh*, who works at a shop at The Animal Lodge, says it's crucial buyers can see the parents are clean and healthy, and to get a sense of the offspring's likely temperament: "Our breeding dogs are shaved, but we let buyers see them because we've nothing to hide. In fact, shaving is better because it makes any skin issues obvious."

AVS encourages consumers to ask to view the breeding animals and may in the future require sellers to show buyers the parents. "Consumers play a big role in keeping the sector honest," Dr Chang says.

Some responsible traders also screen buyers. At ChubbyBuddy Cats, potential homes are evaluated "extensively" to ensure the kittens' welfare, says co-owner Sheryl Chia. They fill out a questionnaire and are invited to the shop only if deemed a good fit. "We insist on meeting them in person to assess their suitability and for them to interact with our kittens," adds Ms Chia. "We've turned down buyers we're uncomfortable with, regardless of how much they're willing to pay."

Designer Bengal store owner Alfred Khan requires buyers to attend a training session and provides a checklist of pet-care products to prepare. "The session is also important for the kittens to familiarise with the new owners' smells and sounds," he explains. Mr Khan also gives talks on cat care at offices and schools.

But most sellers do not screen customers as it isn't mandatory. "Some just offload their 'stock' at high prices and won't care about the animals' welfare," says Ms Koh from the pet shop at The Animal Lodge. At her shop, staff will follow up with buyers after every sale to check on the pups, she notes.

The breeding scene: local or fur-eign?

While such selective selling is, to be sure, time-consuming and non-profit-maximising behaviour, not all breeders are motivated by commercial gain. "Hobbyists" like ChubbyBuddy, Designer Bengal and SKC's breeders only produce the occasional litter, through what they call responsible, purposeful breeding.

They do it to improve the pet's health and breed quality to conform to international standards. Some will have their pets compete in shows, after which winners may be bred to continue the champion bloodlines. Breeders usually keep the pick of the litter and put the rest up for sale.

Hobbyists tend to be registered with organisations that maintain pedigreed registries and organise shows. These include The International Cat Association, and SKC which has 20 to 30 active dog breeders in Singapore.

At this time, there is no separate AVS licence for home breeders, which means some hobbyists who operate out of their homes and opt not to get licensed as shops or farms are in fact breaking the law. However, AVS doesn't actively monitor the unlicensed scene, unlike for licensed businesses which are subject to both planned and surprise inspections. AVS relies on tip-offs on poor animal welfare before it investigates operators.

In reality, most shops in Singapore source their animals locally from farms or home breeders, to do their own breeding or sell to consumers.

Mr Ng*, who works at an AVS-licensed farm with over 100 breeding dogs, says its pups "sell like hot cakes" to retailers within three to four days of being displayed. According to him, the majority of pups in Singapore are not bred from foreign parents, contrary to what some sellers claim. "It's unlikely people will import dogs just to breed because the cost is too high," he adds.

Buying an overseas pet-quality adult dog suitable for breeding will set anyone back at least S$5,000. Show-quality ones - those conforming to breed standards - are costlier at S$10,000 to S$30,000. On top of that, importers fork out up to S$10,000 in fees such as boarding while awaiting customs clearance. "If a seller refuses to show import papers, you can probably assume their animals are actually local," Mr Ng says. Sellers are not required to provide documents aside from vaccination records - be it import permits, invoices from local farms, or breed certificates. This is also something AVS is considering making mandatory, Dr Chang notes.

O-purr-ating costs

For sure, demand-dictated pricing helps feed profits for pet shops and suppliers, who decline to reveal their bottomline numbers. Yet some of the biggest business expenses lie in rental, manpower, sourcing of animals, and pet food.

Breeders licensed as shops must rent commercial space, even if they don't produce a consistent supply of pets for sale. NParks declined to disclose the rental at The Animal Lodge, although it said on Jan 2 that it will lower total rental charges for commercial tenants by about 15 per cent, while non-commercial tenants such as animal welfare groups will see a 30 per cent drop in charges.

The cost of the animals also racks up a pretty penny. Wag A Tail, which sources 90-95 per cent of its pups locally, says procuring the pups are its largest cost. Mr Ng from the farm declined to reveal the prices at which it supplies pups to retailers, but says its marked-up prices to consumers are about S$3,300-S$4,500. And shops that buy their animals from local farms might sell these pets at retail for up to S$7,000-S$8,000.

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Medical tests are another business cost (which not all sellers take on). Screening for hereditary diseases is recommended, especially for the more susceptible breeds, says Dr Brian Loon, principal veterinary surgeon at Amber Cat Vet and Amber Vet. "Breeders should refrain from breeding animals with inheritable disorders," he adds.

Small dog breeds often inherit conditions like patellar luxation (dislocating kneecap), while large breeds are susceptible to hip laxity (loose hip joints), says Dr Esther Lam, veterinary surgeon at Point Veterinary. Among cats, British Shorthairs and Persians are prone to polycystic kidney disease, which can easily be screened with a DNA test from a cheek swab.

If an animal is of show quality or from a champion bloodline, breeders also order DNA tests for proof of lineage, which cost S$350-S$400 per dog.

Ruff and tumble: the black market

Industry participants warn of bourgeoning illicit activity. The booming black market, driven by the sizable profits to be made, is dominated by backyard breeders (BYBs), unlicensed home breeders who care little for animal welfare due to ignorance or to cut costs. Pets bought from BYBs can be ridden with birth defects, infectious diseases, and/or behavioural problems. Some conditions have been fatal while others cost up to five figures to treat.

BYBs' favourite haunts are Facebook groups, classified ads website Gumtree and some online forums. BYBs are quick to delete their posts once they get enough interest, usually in one to three days. On Gumtree, kitten ads can garner as many as 60 replies in a day, says Estelle Yu, a cat fosterer who monitors the site. "It's hard to track. They create new accounts for every ad," she adds.

Based on ads with prices listed, at least S$28,000 in BYB kittens was transacted on Gumtree over two months from mid-June to mid-August 2019, according to data collected by Ms Yu. "The actual value is much higher, since some ads don't state prices upfront," she notes. BYBs may also masquerade as rehomers, asking exorbitant "adoption" fees running into thousands of dollars. "Real rescuers usually ask for no fee or up to S$150 for cats to cover medical bills," says Joanne, an independent car rescuer. "Adopters should ask for vet bills to ascertain the pet is a rescue."

AVS investigates transactions if they receive feedback that the animals are in poor condition. But it has not begun to track the online avenues. "Frankly, these platforms are not on our radar yet, and we realise it's another area we need to look into," Dr Chang says.

Dogged and dodgy

Some sellers use aggressive sales tactics. Stay-at-home mother Adeline, who bought a Pomeranian from a BYB, tells BT: "He claimed other buyers are viewing the pups soon, so I must buy now to secure one. He even drove me to an ATM to withdraw S$2,400 to pay for it." The seller also appeared "dodgy". He picked a deserted car park to meet, placed the pups in a cardboard box, and "forgot" the vaccination card, she says.

It's not just BYBs flouting the rules. There have been no shortage of licensed traders violating regulations. In 2018, Bernat Ong of Pretty Pets Kennel (PPK) was fined S$48,000 for the poor health of the farm's dogs, while PPK licensee Choo Pui Lee was fined S$8,500 for breaching licensing conditions. PPK has since moved its premises to #02-04 at The Animal Lodge, Acra records show.

Cat rescuers tell BT there are also stores selling sick animals. One such store claims its cats are imported from Taiwan but refuses to show import papers, says Brenda Wang, who manages a Facebook group for cat lovers with more than 11,000 members. "People believe all licensed shops must be ethical. But backyard breeders or animal mills can supply to retailers too," she says.

Irresponsible breeding for small mammals is just as prevalent. Two licensed stores, one in Downtown Core and the other in north-east Singapore, are promoting Syrian hamsters with "giant genes" at S$90-300 each, several times that of S$30-50 for normal Syrian hamsters. BT understands the "giant" hamsters are obese from eating high-fat diets and living in tiny cages; they're not a special breed or the result of "recessive" genes as the shops claim. Weighing 250-350g and bigger than a drink can, the hamsters are double the size of a normal 100-140g adult.

Refunds, exchanges and compensation are common for sick animals that irate buyers reject as "defective goods". Vets are sometimes caught in the crossfire. Frustrated owners cite the vets' diagnoses or medical opinions when complaining to sellers, who may confront the doctors. One vet says: "Angry sellers have harassed us and even threatened to sue, accusing us of misdiagnosing. This makes some of us wary of giving our professional opinions when treating purchased pets."

Animal neglect

As demand for pets continues to rise and spell big business, the growing presence of inexperienced and ignorant breeders is worrying. Excessive breeding can lead to deteriorating physical condition and health. Many overbred parents are malnourished or emaciated, says Dr Lam.

Things can get even more dangerous when sellers try to play doctor. A farm owner was pulling on a newborn pup stuck during delivery when he accidentally decapitated it, says a vet who performed a C-section to remove the carcass. Some sellers also treat sick animals themselves using human medication or drugs they had obtained from vet clinics without a consultation.

To aspiring breeders, Dr Loon has this advice: "Do thorough research on the hereditary diseases your animals are prone to and the methods to screen for them. Be ready for the costs, effort and time involved, including managing health issues that may come up along the way.

"It's not just a fun home project."

Much of the industry's future hinges on the outcome of AVS' review. Stricter regulations, while without a doubt beneficial for animal welfare and consumers, will raise compliance costs for businesses and could shrink supply, inflating prices further. On the other hand, AVS has been floating the idea of licensing home breeders - if implemented, this will bring more pets into the legitimate trade and allow for lower prices.

** Names have been changed, as the sources spoke on condition of anonymity