Santa Paws

Reading Time: 7 minutesOne very special Christmas morning a few years ago, Kelly Thompson’s two girls were opening their presents when they heard a dog barking outside in their Discovery Bay garden. Kelly opened the curtains to show the girls that there, happily playing on their grass, was their gorgeous new golden retriever, Lexy, complete with a red bow around her neck. The girls, who were nearly two and nearly five at the time, still remember this as their best Christmas ever.


How much is that doggy in the window?

But although Lexy was a Christmas present, she certainly wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment decision. Kelly explains, “We’d been thinking about getting a dog for about six months. I was brought up with dogs, and so was my husband. We wanted to make our expat life as much of a normal life as possible, and for us having a normal life is having a dog. We talked a lot about what having a dog would be like, and decided to go for it.

“We put a lot of thought into what sort of dog we wanted, and I spent ages visiting a dog rescue centre – there are so many dogs out there that need homes. Eventually, in early December, we found Lexy – she was one and a half. That was perfect for us, as we knew we didn’t want a puppy, and we didn’t want an old dog. I then went to the centre every day for two weeks – I’d take her for walks, feed her and get to know her. On Christmas Eve, I brought Lexy home when the children were in bed. I remember sleeping on the sofa so I could take care of her at night. Just before the children woke up, I put Lexy in the garden so she could be a surprise. I knew we had a very quiet Christmas planned – just the four of us at home – so I knew it would be a good opportunity to devote lots of time to getting Lexy settled into the family. Three years on, Lexy is still definitely the best present my children have ever had.”

Lexy is undoubtedly one of the lucky ones. Not all Christmas canines fare so well. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) in the UK reports that three dogs are abandoned every hour over the festive period there, and dog rescue centres around the world often see the results of a cute, cuddly Christmas impulse buy when the growing dog is abandoned a few months later. Last year, one unlucky Labrador puppy didn’t even make it to Christmas lunch before being taken to an animal shelter. To try to curb the Christmas trade, many dog rescue centres and responsible breeders no longer allow dogs to be re-homed at Christmas.

According to Dr Jane Gray, deputy director (veterinary services) and chief veterinary surgeon of the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) in Hong Kong, there are many issues to consider before bringing a dog into your home. “Impulse buying is the worst possible thing you can do when you are getting a pet. That is exactly what pet shops want you to do. You might see a really cute puppy and want to take care of it. If it isn’t being kept in very nice conditions, you might think you are rescuing it. But it’s a supply and demand thing. If you buy that puppy, another one will be bred to replace it, and you will be propping up this horrific trade.”

The business of supplying pet shops with puppies can be a murky one. Some puppies could have come from disreputable suppliers who overbreed and in-breed their pedigrees to maximise their profit – and as there is a small gene pool in Hong Kong, lots of these puppies can end up with inherited illnesses and behaviour problems. Other puppies could have been smuggled into Hong Kong from China. Many of the dogs and puppies may have been bred, kept and transported in inhumane and unhygienic conditions. Some puppies will have been separated from their mothers much too young. As bad as this may seem, Dr Gray says that things can get worse. “At least there are regulations covering pet shops, although inadequate. One step down from this is buying on the internet, where there are no controls at all. That really is the worst possible way to obtain a puppy.”


Sick as a dog?

But, if even the thought of the appalling conditions doesn’t put you off that irresistible pet-shop puppy-dog’s eyes, consider the practicalities. A huge proportion of puppies bought from pet shops become sick very soon. The results of a shocking survey by the SPCA on sick puppies from pet shops revealed that 72 per cent became sick within a week of purchase, and 10 per cent of them were actually sick on the day of purchase. The death rate for these puppies is at least 30 per cent. That little fluffy gift could turn into a very traumatic and expensive experience.


Hong Kong mum Sarah knows all about this. She says, “I was in a pet shop with a friend who needed cat supplies when I saw a gorgeous miniature long-haired dachshund. It was tiny – you could almost fit it in the palm of your hand. It looked happy and healthy, and I fell in love with it. I took it home. By the third day it was very ill. It had diarrhoea, wasn’t eating, wasn’t drinking, and didn’t want to play. I took it to the vet – he kept shaking his head, saying that such a young puppy shouldn’t be in that condition. He said the puppy had a virus and needed to be on an IV drip all night, and this vet didn’t offer 24-hour emergency care. He wrote a list of recommended treatments, and I took the puppy back to the shop – I was sobbing on the MTR as the puppy was so lifeless I thought it was already dead. The pet shop gave me my money back and reassured me their vet would treat the puppy. I cried all night, and rang the pet shop the next morning. They said the puppy was fine. I went back to the shop a few days later, but it was different staff and they claimed to have no knowledge of the puppy – they said it might have been sold. I went back another time, but still there was no sign of it. I still don’t know what happened to it. The whole thing was heart-breaking.”

Paws for thought

If you think that your family’s future might have a dog-shaped hole to fill, what are the main things to consider before stocking up Bonio biscuits?

Dr Gray says, “First, you have to think why you want a puppy. You wouldn’t have a child without thinking why. A dog is almost as big a commitment – some dogs can be around for 12 to even 20 years, sometimes as long as a child might be at home, and the dog stays dependant, like a toddler. It’s a long time – are you really prepared to take that on? And what if you move home or move country, or if you change jobs, or if your relationship breaks down? Could you commit to taking care of a dog whatever your circumstances might be?”

Time is also an important factor. Some dogs need a long walk three times a day. That’s a lot of hours to conjure up if you are already hard-pressed to find a minute to spare. This is where Kelly Thompson sees some advantages to having a dog in Hong Kong. She says, “I don’t work here, so I am always around to spend time with Lexy and take her for walks. And if I can’t make it, I have a helper who can stand in – Lexy is never left alone for hours on end as a dog might be back home in the States, with both adults working all day, children at school, and no helper.”

 Pooch practicality

With very few of us Hong Kongers being blessed with huge homes and gargantuan gardens, space is also a tricky issue. Dr Gray says you need to give some thought to the size of dog you want and whether you have enough room for it. If you live in a 400 square foot apartment, perhaps a Great Dane isn’t the wisest choice. Kelly says, “I had always believed that to have a dog you should have a house. I didn’t think they belonged in flats, so I had to think about whether it would be right to bring a dog into our flat. It was a massive decision. But it has all worked out. We are lucky because we have some outside space, and that makes things a lot easier.”


Other practical considerations include whether your building and landlord allow pets, and if you have the spare cash to finance one. Dr Gray adds, “It’s not just the cost of the food. There are also vets’ bills, grooming costs, boarding costs if you go away. And as the animal gets older, the vets’ bills can mount up.”

Another thing to think about is the breed of dog you want. Dr Gray says, “Hong Kong’s hot and humid climate means it’s not the place for long- or thick-coated breeds. Long-haired pets also need regular grooming, often a daily event, which can be time-consuming. Some short-nosed breeds, such as Pekinese and pugs, can develop breathing difficulties. In my opinion, the best breed of all is the local Hong Kong mongrel (tong gau); they come in many shapes and sizes, and are very healthy, hardy, loving and loyal, without all the in-breeding issues which afflict many of Hong Kong’s pedigrees.”

Adopt, don’t shop

If, after careful consideration, you still feel a dog is right for your family, Dr Gray urges everyone to “Adopt, don’t shop”. Hundreds of dogs end up in animal shelters every year, sometimes for the flimsiest of reasons – some owners give their dog up because they don’t like the colour, or it has become too big. One owner no longer wanted their dog because it didn’t match the carpet, another because the dog was getting too old and they’d prefer a younger one, another because the dog’s two eyes were different colours and it “looked evil”. Many dogs are simply unwanted gifts. If you adopt a dog from a well-run rescue centre, you can be sure that it is clean, healthy, has been kept in comfortable conditions, and is up-to-date with its vaccinations.

Dr Gray says, “There are numerous shelters throughout Hong Kong brimming with gorgeous dogs just crying out for a new and happy home. Rather than fuelling the supply and demand of pet shops, please consider adoption – it’s a really positive way to save a life.’

The old slogan “A dog is for life, not just for Christmas”, penned by the Dogs Trust in the UK over 30 years ago, is still as apt today as it was all those years ago. Being a dog owner is a huge responsibility, and one that should never be taken lightly. But if you’re still determined to find a canine cutie in Santa’s sack, just make sure you are prepared for every year to become the Year of the Dog.

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Rachel Kenney
Rachel was born on a stormy night in Bristol in the south west of England, and grew into a quirky child who used to clean the bottoms of her shoes and hold her breath until she fainted. Aged three, she said she wanted to be a cow when she grew up (which, hopefully, did not come true!), but later settled for a career in journalism and has since worked for a variety of publications. Rachel loves travelling (which is strange, considering her extreme fear of flying) and has managed to pack a two-and-a-half year backpacking stint, nearly five years of expat living in Hong Kong, and as many holidays as practicable into her life so far. Married with two children, Rachel spends her spare time drinking too many lattes and planning her next escape.

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