Peter Cornish investigates the rise of the pet industry, and the evolution of caring for pets in Vietnam. Photos by Vinh Dao.

Vietnam’s pet industry is still very much in its infancy. The first license for a pet retail shop was issued little more than 10 years ago. As attitudes towards animals change, the desire to own a pet is driving tremendous growth and the industry is booming, albeit in a fragmented and unregulated way. One of the key drivers of this growth is the increasing trend of pet humanisation, one which is having global impact on pet care and ownership, particularly in Vietnam. People are no longer seeing their cats and dogs as simply animals that serve a function, such as protection or pest control, but are increasingly treating their pets as members of the family.

Pets As Friends

Wayne Capriotti, an expert on the country’s pet industry and founder of Vietnam’s first pet-centric magazine, Me Thu Cung, explains the phenomena to me. “In the last five years, the quantity and quality of pet ownership in Vietnam has increased dramatically, driven by a pet industry social phenomenon first observed in developed countries called ‘pet humanization.’”

Industry experts point to several factors that have contributed to the booming growth and changing attitudes, not least the economic and cultural changes that Vietnam has experienced in the last decade. With the emergence of the largest middle class in Asia, second only to China, the amount of disposable income available to many has increased, and spending habits have changed accordingly.

“Greater amounts of disposable income from an emerging middle class is spent on pets, therefore raising the status of a pet from a pragmatic position within the household into becoming a family member”, Wayne tells me.

Changes in social dynamics are also impactful on the rise in pet ownership. With increased urbanisation of the country, people are marrying later and divorce rates are up. Different work and living conditions are negatively impacting on stress levels, and loneliness is affecting the younger generations who often struggle to find time for a social life.

All this has driven the rise in preference for pet companionship, and a willingness to spend more on the care of these new family members. Regarding pets as part of the family, forming relationships with them, and seeing them as an important part of daily, social interaction, Vietnamese pet owners are searching for better products and services for their pets.

“Since the first pet shop in Saigon opened in 2006, there has been a rapid growth in the number of stores offering pet related products, with now close to 100 in the city”, Wayne explains. As Vietnamese consumers become more aware of the health concerns related to food, they are tending to search for products with recognised brands, frequently international. This is the same for pets as well as their own consumption.

The availability of locally produced pet food brands is still limited, and most production happening in Vietnam is for the local, lower-end of the market rather than for export. Popular international brands with authorised Vietnamese distribution channels include Royal Canin, Pedigree, Mars Pet Care and Whiskas. These can be found readily in pet stores and supermarkets around the city, although availability of choice remains limited.

“Customers are favouring international brands”, Wayne continues. “This is in part due to increased popularity of Western products among the Vietnamese, especially the younger, Millennial generation which is leading the boom in pet ownership. There is a visible preference for premium products, and these tend not to be produced locally.”

The trend for premium is also seen in the type of pets that people are opting for, especially dogs. Often motivated by the desire to display status, larger pedigree breeds, such as Alsatians, Rottweilers and Labradors, along with Huskies and Malamutes, have become popular among wealthier owners who can fork out thousands of dollars for an imported pedigree dog.

Females Leading, Social Groups Booming

With limited living space and recent bans on dog ownership in many apartment blocks around the city, toy and miniature breeds, including Poodles and Chihuahuas, are being favoured by owners, especially among the young, female population of the city.

This demographic, females under 35 years old, is leading the pet ownership boom. Overall it is the Vietnamese female segment, up to 55 years of age and who typically control the family budgets and spending, that are at the forefront of the rising trends.

Social media groups are springing up that cater for new pet owners, offering a valued platform where they can ask questions, share photos of their animals and sometimes offer pets for sale. There has also been a rise in the number of dog shows now being held around the city.

These shows are giving people the opportunity to meet up offline, show their pets off, network, learn about new trends and products and perhaps arrange for two dogs to have a romantic tryst at some point in the future.

Making more frequent appearances at these shows are dog breeds native to Vietnam. Little known outside the country, the three main breeds, the Phu Quoc Ridgeback, the H’mong and the Bac Ha, are seeing a rise in popularity among people keen to own dogs that have played an integral role in Vietnamese culture and society for hundreds of years. Courageous hunters and loyal companions, these dogs can trace their origins far back in Vietnam’s indigenous cultures.

With growth in pet ownership comes an increased awareness of animal rights. The animal rights community is growing rapidly and the first Vietnam Animal Welfare Conference was held in downtown Saigon in 2014. Activists and advocates are finding new platforms where they can voice their cause and are becoming increasingly vocal in the messages they spread – one of general care and compassion, not just anti dog and cat meat trade.

Although the new generation of pet lovers is acting as a driving force in raising awareness of animal cruelty, there are still many issues that need addressing in the responsible ownership of cats and dogs. Despite many owners genuinely wanting to love and care for their animal, a lack of education and understanding is preventing this. Changes are happening, but Vietnam is still a long way from being a pet-friendly country.

Being a responsible pet owner covers many areas, not just for the benefit of the pet, but for the community in which they live. Ensuring that your animal is healthy is a key part of this. If your pet is unhealthy, not only does the animal suffer, but the people around it can be affected too.

Saigon Pet-Extraordinaire

Good vets are hard to find in Vietnam. Asia Life met up with Dr Nguyen Van Nghia of Saigon Pet Clinic to ask his thoughts about the booming pet industry and the issues he faces as the city’s leading veterinarian.

“The industry is changing and changing quickly. Vietnamese are caring more for animals which is a good thing. They have higher salaries and living conditions are better.  They have more money to spend on animals,” Dr. Nghia explains. Despite these changes there are still many concerns facing those involved in animal care.

“Getting a pet has become fashionable but many of the popular pets are not suitable for Vietnam. I see a lot of Huskies and Chow Chow, Prairie Dogs and Red Eared Turtles that are not suitable for here. I also see squirrels and eagles and falcons. People breed them but they don’t know how to do this properly, or care for them. Many people get pets without thinking. Young people in particular. They need to think carefully before taking this responsibility. Animals are not toys.” he tells me.

One unfortunate by-product of the burgeoning demand for pets is an increase in unregulated and uncontrolled breeders, many of whom are just looking to make a fast buck. Backyard dog breeders are springing up at an alarming rate and many are turning to social media to sell their animals. Dr Nghia warns of some of the potential problems this is creating.

“When you breed animals, you must know what you are doing. There can be many congenital problems. You must think about vaccinations. In Vietnam, many people want to breed animals because they think it is a quick way to make money. But nobody wants to control who can breed and it is very tough to find a breeder that is responsible and cares for their animals. There are many problems with inbreeding. The Phu Quoc dogs have genetic problems because of this.”

“If you want a pet, this is great. There are many abandoned animals that need good, loving homes. Adopt, don’t buy. But you need to think this is a pet, not a toy. Ask yourself, will this animal be suitable for the family children, for the weather, to live in an apartment or a house with a garden.”

“If you don’t care about the breed then adopt. I always recommend this. Go to an organisation like Animal Rescue & Care (A.R.C). They screen all their animals, deworm them, vaccinate and neuter so the animals are not spreading any defects. If you don’t want to do this then get a dog from a friend, or at least get a dog from where you know the mother and father of the animal.”

Finding an animal in need of a loving home is not difficult in Saigon. The few animal rescue centres are overflowing and face a constant influx of new rescues. But before people decide to give an animal a new home, Dr. Nghia offers some essential advice.

“When you decide to get a pet it’s a good idea to talk to your vet first, especially if you want to get a cat or a dog. Like a child, they will need full vaccinations to prevent fatal diseases, including rabies. This must be done when the animal is at least 3 months old because the vaccine contains the virus which may attack the nerves.”

“You need to think carefully about food for your animal. There are many different foods from all over the world in Vietnam but I recommend you talk to your vet to ensure you have the right food for your pet, especially dogs. Food choice depends on the breed, whether you have a large dog or a small dog. It’s important to avoid digestive problems. Be careful with cheap raw meat. Meat inspection for humans is a problem, for animals it can be even worse.”

One of the questions that cat and dog owners face is whether to neuter or not. This is a particularly sensitive issue in Vietnam where culturally many owners prefer not to. Dr. Nghia explained the pros and cons behind this decision.

“There are lots of advantages to neutering your cat or dog and we recommend it to owners. It will help prevent bad behaviour in your animal, such as marking territory and escaping or running away. It can also help avoid reproductive disorders and infections, especially sexual diseases. On the other hand, animals naturally need hormones to develop so it’s important not to do it too early. At the clinic, we explain this to all owners.”

Pet Maintenance

Many dog owners in the city are facing the threat of eviction as more apartment buildings clamp down on permitting dogs in their facilities. While this is proving a problem for many, unruly animals can be a threat to the community they live in and there is a need for owners to think about how their pets’ behaviour can impact on the lives of those around them.

“Training is essential for your dog” Dr. Nghia stresses. “In Vietnam, we have a saying ‘like father like son, like owner like dog’. Teach your dog with love and care and the dog will be OK, but you cannot expect a puppy younger than 6 months to be a good dog. Like a human baby, it will chew and pee. Many new owners don’t realise this and it can be a problem for the animal as well as them.”

“Many locals think that dogs exercise themselves, but this is not true. Even if you have a bad day, the dog still needs exercise and can misbehave. If you don’t have enough love and discipline to look after an animal, you shouldn’t have one. It’s also important you think about the local community. Many apartment buildings now forbid dogs and other pets. You should think about the noise you pet makes, and always clean up any mess that it leaves.”

“Since 2010, A.R.C has rescued more than 1000 animals, that’s a lot and most of them were stray or abused” Dr. Nghia shares as we finish our conversation.

“The many volunteers at A.R.C do tremendous work and I would like to thank them and the many fosterers, adopters and people who donate to help us.  But I would also like to ask people considering getting a pet to think carefully before they do. Please be responsible. It’s a lot less work and hardship for those involved in taking care of abandoned animals.”

Read more about Dr Nghia