January 2007 >
Japanese Pet Owners Turn to Acupuncture
Japanese Pet Owners Turn to Acupuncture
By Hiroko Tabuchi
Andy has sprouted white whiskers, suffers from lower back pain and no longer
bounds up the stairs like he used to. Still, the 11-year-old Siberian husky
isn't lying idle: every week he meets his personal trainer for a run on an
underwater treadmill, does laps in a doggy pool to strengthen his hind legs and
unwinds with a hot spa and massage session.
The boom in pet ownership in Japan has led to a new phenomenon: legions of
elderly animals that doting masters pamper with fortified food and vitamins,
aromatherapy and even acupuncture.
"I want to do everything I can for Andy. He's part of the family," said Aya
Ashiya, 50, of Tokyo as she ran around the swimming pool with a squeeze toy,
cheering the husky on during a recent session at the dog aqua fitness gym El
"We've been together for so long, and we've really learned to communicate,"
Ashiya said. "I just want him to stay healthy for as long as possible."
Though figures are scarce, a study published last year showed that longevity for
cats in Japan almost doubled between 1991 and 2003, from 5.1 years to 9.9 years.
Dog longevity surged from 8.6 years to 11.9 years.
Researchers attribute the jump to better health care, more vaccinations, a more
balanced diet and a new trend of pets being allowed to live in homes - once
unthinkable in a country of tatami-mat houses.
But longer lives have led to ailments seldom seen before in pets in Japan, such
as cancer, diabetes, heart disease and dementia, said Hideki Hayashidani, an
assistant professor at the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology, who
carried out the longevity study.
"Japanese attitudes toward pets have changed radically. Owners dote over them
like children," Hayashidani said. "That means fewer pups and kittens die from
infections, while cancer and heart disease cases have hit the roof ... And
owners will pay anything to keep their pets alive longer."
Japan's doting owners have helped push pet spending to new highs. The pet
industry here topped $8.6 billion in 2005. That's only a quarter of expenditures
in the United States, but for Japan represents a 40 percent increase since 1994.
In a sign of the nation's growing obsession with animal companions, industry
figures show Japanese families now own over 23 million pet dogs and cats,
exceeding the number of Japanese children under 15, which hit a new low of 17.46
million in 2006.
Kyuta, an 8-year-old long-haired Chihuahua, started biweekly acupuncture
sessions at the Kamakura Genki Animal Hospital after severe back pain struck
At a recent session, the dog gave yelped as a veterinarian inserted 13 needles
into his quivering back and hind legs, but soon settled down in his owner's
"Kyuta loves coming here. His tail goes right up when he gets on the examination
table," said Emi Matsuya, 43, a Tokyo hairdresser.
The pair travel two hours each way by train for the acupuncture sessions, which
cost $47, Matsuya said, and the Chihuahua eats homemade meals of meat and
vegetables now that he is getting older.
"Dogs crave attention - that's what makes them happy. And happy dogs live
longer," said hospital director Takashi Ishino, who also offers massage and
Japan's aging dogs also benefit from specially designed care items such as
doggie diapers, harnesses that support aging pooches on walks and pet strollers.
Elderly cats have their own products, including climbing towers with extra
And owners can take a break from their pets by getting a nursing care
specialist. Keiko Himi, who runs the pet-sitting service "Nyan to Wonderful"
northeast of Tokyo, says an increasing number of owners ask her to care for
aging pets while they run errands or work.
"Caring for old pets is a big burden for the owner, physically and emotionally,"
Himi said. "In one case, I went to help a family every day through their dog's
Death doesn't end the pampering. A spate of companies offers everything from pet
cemeteries, funerals and memorials to counseling for grieving owners. Tokyo's
Japan Pet Ceremony Co. runs a 24-hour funeral hot line; the Machida Izumi Joen
cemetery offers the ultimate in owner-pet companionship: a shared grave.
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