It's a dog's life in Japan

Considering the affluence of the nation's aging population, it's natural to expect a boom in pricey health food and such services as "aqua-fitness" with personal trainers and massage therapy.

But for dogs?

According to pet food manufacturers, nearly one out of every two pet pooches living in Japan is over 7 years old--a "senior citizen" in dog years.

With the birthrate dropping in the human world, pets have less competition for doting extravagance.

They are enjoying pampered lives with loving masters who have plenty of time and money.

As the four-legged members of families age, they become susceptible to obesity as well as lifestyle ailments that also affect humans.

That means a huge market for pet wellness from swimming exercises to medical evaluation and care.

El Perro, in Tokyo's Ota Ward, is an exclusive canine club where dogs swim in a 3-meter indoor pool and run a treadmill in a separate water tank.

Dogs wear a life jacket with a heart rate monitor.

A trainer is on hand to offer encouragement, and dogs paddle away, to coos of, "That's a good doggie."

A 50-minute course, complete with a post-workout massage in a jacuzzi, starts from 6,800 yen.

"The water exercise not only works for weight loss but also helps relieve stress," said Koshoku Matsuyama, the club manager. "Just like people, the mind rules the body."

Health-consciousness is bringing changes to other facets of pet-related business.

For example, pet food went through an epicurean phase during the late 1980s bubble period, touting gourmet ingredients, such as shrimp and crab.

Now manufacturers are emphasizing health-promoting food at premium prices.

Kao Corp. is marketing a new dog food that it claims helps fight middle-age spread. The company is using the know-how gained through its health-oriented Econa cooking oil.

The dog food goes on sale this month through mail order.

At 1,554 yen per kilogram, it is three times more expensive than regular food.

Along with a healthy diet, oral care is as important for pooches as it is for people to prevent periodontal disease.

In February, Lion Corp. began selling, through a subsidiary, pet gum targeting extra-small dogs.

"Extra-small dogs have tiny jaws and tend to have crooked teeth," a company official said. "Gum is the ideal way to remove dental plaque."

Like Kao, Lion applied its expertise in developing products for humans. Both companies are counting on pet goods to boost profitability since they are facing price competition in conventional household products.

While there is no accurate census, an estimate by the Pet Food Manufacturers Association puts the pet population at 12.45 million dogs and 11.63 million cats.

The figures represent increases of 37 percent and 62 percent, respectively, during the past decade.

The association also estimates that the percentage of dogs older than 7 rose to 42.6 percent in fiscal 2004, up 4.7 points from four years earlier.

Cats showed a 7.7-point increase to 34.6 percent during the same period.

By comparison, the percentage of Japanese over 65 years old was 19.5 percent in 2004.

The Yoga animal hospital in Tokyo's Setagaya Ward receives about 40 patients a day. Half concern lifestyle-related complications.

Many owners say pets are dragging a leg or slowing down. Eiji Shimizu, head of the hospital, attributes most cases to arthritis or cardiac problems.

Pfizer Japan Inc. tripled its pet medication sales personnel to 40 this year to expand sales by liaising with veterinarians more closely.

"A number of large dogs, which became popular during the bubble period, are going into their senior years," said Motoyoshi Nogawa, who is in charge of the companion animal business. "The field of fighting lifestyle diseases is going to expand."

Merial Ltd., a major U.S. manufacturer of pet medication, is developing a cancer-fighting drug.

Pet insurance is also becoming popular. At Anicom, top dog in the animal insurance business, the most popular health coverage pays up to 50 percent of medical fees for ailments, including cancer and injury.

The company's policyholders have almost doubled every year since it started business in 2000. Now, there are about 175,000 policyholders.

The recent popularity of smaller dogs is expected to reduce the industry's income from medication because it is usually administered according to weight.

However, the industry expects overall growth.

"The number of condominiums that allow pets is increasing, and we will be seeing more and more senior citizens, who will become loving pet owners," an industry official said.(IHT/Asahi: November 11,2005)


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