Story and photographs by Tom Boatman
Published in TGA Eye
When she needs a dog-sitter in a pinch, Tokyo resident Takako Shimizu often enlists the services of the homeless men who inhabit Shibuya's Yoyogi Park. She has no problem leaving her ¥400,000 pedigreed retriever in the care of someone with no address. In fact, she's found that many homeless offer freelance pet-care services as a way to scrape by.
You might say Japan has come full circle in its relationship with pets. Just after World War II, your average Japanese would have laughed at the idea of spending money to walk or groom a dog or cat, especially since they could barely feed the human members of their family. The few who had pets, fed them table scraps and leftovers. When the pets got sick, they died.
My, how times have changed. After a gentle pet boom in the 1980s, Japan today is one of the world's largest pet markets, second only to the U.S. in the amount spent on the care and feeding of animals. Government surveys estimate that half of Japanese households have a pet. In 1999, two million reptiles alone were legally imported to Japan.
The Japan Pet Food Association reports that there are an estimated 10.4 million dogs and 8.5 million registered cats in this country, and the number of dogs is growing by a rate of 2.4% per annum. However, actual numbers are surely much higher, as pet laws are widely flouted and rarely enforced.
Self-employed, graphic designer Etsuko Oide is representative of the current boom. Seeking companionship during long nights spent working at the computer, she bought her cats from a pet store about six years ago. "They sit on the desk or on top of the monitor, while I'm working," she says. "They are very good company."
At a Setagaya ward pet store, Oide paid ¥230,000 for Sebastian, a Norwegian forest cat, and ¥180,000 for Morris, a Persian. She spends about ¥10,000 a month on food and kitty litter. When she travels, which usually includes two long trips to Europe each year, she hires a pet-sitting service to come by and take care of her cats.
"I used a pet hotel once and it was horrible. They kept cats in a box. When I got them back, they were scared, dirty and smelly," recalls Oide. Pet hotels and boarding services usually run from ¥3,000 to ¥6,000 per night, per pet.
On the other hand, Oide gives high marks to CATWAN Petservice . For a flat rate of ¥3,200 per visit, they will visit your house and provide 60 minutes of care (50 minutes during Golden Week, summer holidays and yearend), regardless of how many pets you have. Families that include both dogs and cats are also eligible.
Oide especially likes CATWAN's daily reports, which include photos and details of her cats' appetites and bodily functions. The reports can even be sent via e-mail, so owners are able to keep track of their pets while abroad.
According to CATWAN president and founder Chizuko Tsuyama, the basic CATWAN menu includes serving meals, changing the pet's water and cleaning the litter box. They will even pick up your mail and water your plants. For a slight surcharge, they will clean ears, clip nails or brush the animal.
Pet owners can request CATWAN services on-line ( www.catwan.com ) or by telephone (3776-8835). To ensure excellent, worry-free service, Tsuyama conducts a preliminary interview with the pet's owner before taking on a new client. She wants to learn about the pet's likes and dislikes, and what was the most dangerous or traumatic experience in its life.
When Barbara Manning first arrived in Japan from the U.S. 10 years ago, it was with her cats Teak and Sidney. The pet laws were quite lax back then. She needed a rabies certificate that was no more than 90-days old and a recent health certificate from a doctor.
Dogs entering the country have always been subject to quarantine, but there wasn't a quarantine period instituted for cats until 2000. A great source of information for bringing dogs to Japan is the Japan Kennel Club ( www.jkc.or.jp/index_e.html ). Cats are another story.
"They police NHK much more severely than they do animals," says Manning, who claims that no official has ever come by to inquire about her four cats. While dogs are required by law to get a periodic rabies vaccination, cats are not.
Ten years ago, the pet care market wasn't as developed, but today Manning says that all the top U.S. pet food brands are sold in Japan, including KalKan , Friskies , and even specialized brands such as Hill's Science Diet . She buys her kitty litter at the drug store for ¥680 for a 5kg sack, which is much cheaper than at a pet store.
When one of Manning's cats, Mother, had to have all her teeth pulled due to illness, she had to spend 16 days in an animal hospital. It cost Manning about ¥200,000, but she was very pleased with the care Mother got at Angell Memorial Animal Hospital International in Hiroo. Angell takes its name from an affiliation with MSPCA Angel Memorial in Boston, Massachusetts, one of the foremost veterinary hospitals in the world and the first to be run by a humane organization, the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Gen Kato, D.V.M., is the director of Angell in Hiroo and the owner of three of Japan's 23 Daktari Animal Hospitals, including branches in Meguro and Suginami wards. He's been practicing veterinary medicine in Japan for more than 35 years and is a fellow of the Veterinary College of Colorado State University. According to Kato, Angell provides 24/7-petcare every day of the year, which is hard to come by among most human hospitals in this town. His staff of a dozen doctors and technicians, who speak English, perform a wide range of procedures, including cardiovascular surgery, brain surgery, any kind of oncology. Grooming and boarding services are also available at Angell.
Dr. Kato, who has translated more than 40 veterinary books into Japanese, says that 35% of Angell's clients are foreigners. And the most unusual pet he has ever treated? A python. "Technically, we will treat any kind of animal," he says. "Although for larger, wild animals like tigers, lions or elephants, we prefer to make house calls."
According to Dr. Kato, people often bring in pets that require an expensive operation, then decide it's not worth the money or trouble. Angell will perform the operation and then adopt the animal or find a home for it. Kato stresses that euthanasia should always be the last resort, and only when it's the best choice for both the pet and owner. "We are really taking care of the human-animal bond," says Dr. Kato.
What happens when it's time to say good-bye to your beloved pet? For most Tokyo residents, burying Fido in the garden is not an option. At the Tama Inu Neko Rei'en in Fuchu, you can have your cat or dog cremated and their ashes placed in a common grave with some of Kanto's most famous animals. Founded in 1921, as an extension of the Jikei'in Temple, Tama Inu Neko Rei'en has bid farewell to some pretty special pets. These include pets of Japan's imperial family, film star/director Beat Takeshi, baseball legend Shigeo Nagashima, enka diva Miyako Harumi and actor Yujiro Ishihara, late brother of outspoken Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara.
Longtime Tokyo resident Bob Poulson took his family dog, Mickey, who died of old age, to Jikei'in. He opted for the basic plan, which costs ¥20,000 and ensures that some of your pet's ashes will be scattered in a common grave with all the other pets (the rest will be spread in a nearby bamboo field). If you pay a little more (¥30,000 to ¥50,000) you can have your pet's ashes kept in an urn on the site for two years. And if you want to shoot the moon, you can give your pet a proper burial complete with a monumental stone or statue.
Tama Inu Neko Rei'en even has a service in which they will combine a master's ashes with his or her pet's, provided the person has no remaining family or relatives.