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Paws for thought: Is Hong Kong a dog-friendly city?

Written by
Sally Gao

Dog ownership is booming in Hong Kong – but with small apartments and few parks to walk your pooch, is our city really a pet friendly space?

From proud huskies to sombre-eyed pugs to pampered bichon frises, there are more dogs than ever on the narrow streets of Hong Kong. However, our city’s laws severely limit the ways dogs can access public spaces, which inflicts a physical and mental toll on Hong Kong’s burgeoning canine population. Except for guide dogs, pets are banned from the city’s public buses and the MTR, as well as the vast majority of public parks. As a result, dog owners often keep their pets cooped up in their flat, denying their dog’s need for exercise and stimulation.

“On a physical level, [lack of exercise] can lead to obesity and all the health consequences of being overweight, of which there are many – joint disease, heart disease, diabetes,” says Dr Adam West, a senior veterinary surgeon at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “On a psychological level,” he continues, “the need to expend energy can find form in bad behavior. The dogs can be hyperactive and aggressive.”

Some of the driving forces behind the recent increase in local rates of dog ownership are speculated to include increasing disposable incomes, a consistently low fertility rate and an aging population. In lieu of babies, Hongkongers appear to be opting, instead, to shower their attention on four-legged companions such as cats and dogs. According to census data, the number of canines owned by households between 2005 and 2010 rose from 197,700 to 247,500, an increase of some 25 percent. Subsequently, in 2015, the Hong Kong Trade Development Council reported a boom in pet products and dog grooming services.

Sadly, Hong Kong’s urban planners and legislators have failed to keep step with these trends. The largest and most accessible inner-city parks, such as Victoria Park, Kowloon Park and Hong Kong Park, remain off-limits to dogs. Owners looking to exercise their pooches must use one of Hong Kong’s 39 ‘pet gardens’ or travel to far-flung country parks, leaving few options for owners who lack easy access to dog-friendly areas.

The consequences aren’t trivial. Overweight dogs often suffer from diabetes, high blood pressure, heat intolerance and breathing difficulties, and are at risk of heart failure and painful joint diseases such as arthritis and hip dysplasia. In addition, bored and frustrated dogs are more prone to barking, chewing furniture, toileting indoors and being aggressive towards their owners and strangers. In a vicious cycle, owners often resort to handing out excessive food and treats to manage the bad behavior, compounding the obesity problem. In the saddest cases, owners who can’t cope end up abandoning their pups. In Hong Kong, dogs that end up in government shelters instead of with organisations like SPCA or Hong Kong Dog Rescue (HKDR) have a high chance of being put down if they are not quickly rehomed. Between September 2014 and August 2015, the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department euthanised 1,649 stray and abandoned dogs.

Dogs’ exercise needs vary according to breed, of course. While Hong Kong’s most popular breeds are small dogs, like miniature schnauzers and chihuahuas, larger dogs – those bred to work, hunt or herd – are also increasing in popularity. Unfortunately, such breeds are the least suited to living in cramped apartments and are most likely to suffer from being constantly boxed up indoors. Dr West pinpoints huskies as a prime example. “The husky was bred to work extremely hard in extremely cold weather,” he states. “It’s a fairly popular breed in Hong Kong and it’s a beautiful-looking dog, but they need a lot of exercise and it’s not always easy to do that.” Even the smallest dogs should be receiving some degree of exercise. The website of the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA), a veterinary charity based in the United Kingdom, recommends 20 minutes of daily exercise for small breeds and between 80 and 100 minutes for medium to large breeds such as golden retrievers and huskies.

Kamric To, the founder of a local dog transport service, 99bus, recognised the need to get Hong Kong’s dogs outdoors back in 2011. “At the time, I had a lot of difficulty travelling with my dog, Sasa, around Hong Kong,” To says. “I saw there was a need for me and other Hongkongers to travel around with their pets.” On weekends, 99bus carries up to 60 people and their four-legged companions to a designated pet leisure spot or country park, charging between $79 and $99 per seat for a round trip to destinations such as Sai Kung, Victoria Peak Garden and the Nam Sang Wai wetlands in the New Territories. Pups benefit from such trips not just because they provide an opportunity to romp in an open space, but also because – like humans – dogs benefit from and enjoy social interaction and novel experiences.

In response to whether he thinks the MTR should allow dogs, To is willing to keep an open mind but feels wary of public resistance to the idea. “I think peoples’ attitudes is one of the reasons they don’t allow pets on public transport or in public places,” he says. “What we’re doing is trying to get pets outside and let people be closer [to them], and I hope those people who don’t like pets can change their attitudes.”

Indeed, despite the rising levels of dog ownership, Hongkongers remain divided in their attitudes towards the city’s increasing number of canine citizens. A 2006 survey conducted by the Sham Shui Po District Council found that, of 208 respondents living in the vicinity of Chui Yiu Road, 66 percent were against the idea of opening a pet-friendly park in the area, citing hygiene issues, barking, traffic and the possibility of ‘community conflicts’ as their main concerns.

In contrast, a set of surveys conducted by the SPCA in 2008 and 2011 of visitors to the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade and Wan Chai Temporary Promenade showed an overwhelming majority of respondents (98 percent in Wanchai and 85 percent in Tsim Sha Tsui) approved of ‘increasing pet accessibility in public recreational facilities’. All of which indicates that perhaps Hongkongers are fine with dog-friendly spaces just so long as these areas aren’t located within their immediate neighborhoods.

In terms of the future, however, the grass is looking greener, literally. The forthcoming West Kowloon Cultural District, a 23-hectare public space currently under construction near the ICC, has been designated a dog-friendly area, with the exception of a few spaces reserved for outdoor art exhibitions. This is thanks in no small part to efforts by the SPCA, which has been lobbying politicians, town planners and architecture firms for years to help increase access to the city’s recreational facilities for pets.

One of the SPCA’s main concerns is with overturning the current paradigm that separates ‘pet parks’ from other public parks. “We actually prefer not to call these areas ‘pet parks’ because we believe that parks are for the public and that a dog owner is just another legitimate park user,” says Dr Fiona Woodhouse, the SPCA’s deputy director of welfare. “We don’t want people to think they can’t go to a so-called ‘dog park’.”

From a design perspective, it’s not particularly difficult to integrate dog-friendly spaces into existing or future parks. “All you have to do is have clearly defined rules and regulations,” Dr Woodhouse tells us. “You might need to have related facilities, like bag stands for picking up waste and dog waste bins and things like that. And in some areas you might want to have off-leash areas which are fenced off for safety… but mostly, people with dogs are very happy to walk their dog on a leash.” When all’s said and done, why shouldn’t we share our public spaces with dogs? Surely, man’s best friend deserves no less.

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