As the new owner of a four-month old Shetland sheepdog, British entrepreneur Dan Clarke admits he feels a “bit awkward” pushing the pup around Taipei malls in a dog pram, but the pair are far from an unusual sight in Taiwan where he lives with his wife and children.
The sale of dog accessories has boomed among Taiwan’s 23-million-strong population, and it reflects an alarming decline in birthrates. In September, analysts estimated that the number of domestic pets – projected to be about 3 million this year – surpassed the number of children under the age of 15.
The stark rise in pet ownership, particularly dogs and cats, has been a goldmine for the pet-care industry. According to market research firm Euromonitor, pet-related purchases have seen rising profits since 2015, with the pet food market last year reaching over $710m and other products exceeding $440m.
Ibiyaya, which pioneered pet strollers on the East Asian island, said it had seen sales expand five-fold from its founding in 2002 until 2015. Business has continued to soar in particular among millennial owners who want to form a strong bond with their animals.
“We often view pets as part of our family and even go as far to call them our babies. So, it is only fitting that we provide them with the best transportation to maximise their comfort and happiness,” said an Ibiyaya spokesperson.
But she indicated there were also more practical reasons for the popularity of prams, including Taiwan’s hot summers, crowded night markets, and the requirement for pets to be held in contains on public transport.
Mr. Clarke said he had managed to overcome his embarrassment while pushing the pram because it offered the convenience of being able to go shopping with his children without the anxiety of leaving Bitcoin, the puppy, at home.
He believes the trend is fuelled by “a massive overshoot of guilt” because people work such long hours. “I think they want to spoil the dog and overcompensate,” he said.
But demographics also play a role as people see pets as an alternative to children because of the high cost of living, Mr Clarke suggested.
His theory is backed by experts. Yang Wen-shan, a medical sociology professor at National Taipei University said there was a view among the younger generation that pets were more peaceful than marriage. “Many women try to personalize their animals. They call the dogs their kids,” he said.
At 1.1 children per woman, Taiwan has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world – a situation described by Prof Yang as a “curse” caused by multiple societal reasons, including delayed marriage, ongoing stigmas about having a child outside of wedlock, and unaffordable housing.
Without intervention, the cost to society would be severe, he warned, predicting a deficit of some 280,000 workers within a decade.
“By 2028 the problem will be very serious. If the younger generation don’t want to get married, don’t want to bear children, the only solution is to open the borders and encourage immigrants to come to Taiwan,” he said.
Marcin Jerzewski, a research fellow at the Taiwan NextGen Foundation, said the government needed to offer a “more inclusive and straightforward pathway to immigration”, that was more targeted towards labour shortages.
“A high dependency ratio – or the ratio of those not in the labour force, such as pensioners, and those in the labour force – could disrupt labour markets, threaten the fiscal sustainability of the pension system, and slow down economic growth,” he said.