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Doggy MRIs to Doggy Perfume

South Koreans Want to Spoil, Not Broil, Their Pooches

May 16, 2003


SEOUL, South Korea -- "Dog lover" has taken on a new meaning in South Korea. Yes, there are Koreans who dine on dogs. But they are outnumbered by the Koreans who detest the dog-eaters.

These dog-lovers take their pets to dog cafes, lavish them with expensive medical care and adorn them with sweaters, yellow vinyl booties or fancy grooming, such as dyed pink ears.

As the manager of an upscale pet store in the trendiest neighborhood in Seoul, Kim Min-woo has his finger on the pulse of canine fashions.

South Korea is experiencing a surge in pet mania, and the question is not only what looks good on your dog.

More important, it is: Which dog looks good with you? Like human fashions, the "it" dog changes every year, and it's Kim's job to know what's in.

"Last year it was the cocker spaniel," he said. "This year maybe it's the white-haired Scottish terrier. As long as they're white."

The growth of the $1.2 billion pet industry has been explosive in South Korea. The number of pet-related businesses -- from clinics and breeders to makers of pet food and accessories -- has jumped from 30 in 2000 to 3,000 now, according Kang Seong-hoon of the Korea Kennel Club.

"The Korean economy is not doing so well, so almost every area of business is going down, except for the pet industry," said Kim.

Twelve percent of households in South Korea, a country of 48 million people, have pets, according to the Korea Kennel Club. The number of pet dogs -- about 3 million last year -- is expected to triple in three years. South Korea is definitely dog country: 90 percent of house pets are dogs and just 5 percent are cats.

At the 6,000 or so dog meat restaurants in South Korea, it's a different story. An estimated 1 million dogs are killed every year to make dog meat sausages, dog meat dumplings or grilled dog meat. You can even buy a whole dog and have it boiled with herbs to make a broth believed to be highly nutritious.

Dog meat eaters, who are in the minority in Korea, tend to defend their tradition as vigorously as animal lovers -- both foreign and Korean -- condemn it. They value dog meat for its supposed health effects, especially for men, but animal rights groups have protested the cruel means used to kill some of the dogs.

As for Korean pet owners, the only kind of mistreatment they can be accused of is spoiling their dogs rotten.

Enthusiasm for pets dogs grew as South Koreans became more prosperous in the last decade and learned more about Western customs through the Internet and travel. Young families get pets because their children beg for them. Single people are marrying later and opting for animal companionship. Older couples find them more responsive than their adult children.

Seventy percent of pet dogs are smaller breeds, such as terriers, partly because Koreans tend to live in smaller apartments.

Kim's shop, Puppizen, is located in Abgujeong, the most fashionable district in Seoul with designer clothing stores, jazz clubs and the best plastic surgery center in town.

Puppizen sells sardine treats, dog cushions and clothing. But the shop has sold out of the $375 Burberry doggie carrying bags, with the distinctive black, red, tan and white tartan pattern, imported from England.

"This is a posh area, and people want to show off," said Kim, the floor manager.

For flaunting it, there's nothing like having a rare breed, not a run-of-the-mill toy poodle or Maltese, which are common in Seoul. An imported two-month-old pure-bred Scottish terrier can cost more than $4,000.

The number of dogs imported into Korea through official channels jumped from 20,000 in 2001 to 57,000 in 2002, according to the National Veterinary Research and Quarantine Service.

After the initial cost, dog upkeep isn't cheap either. Kim says many owners have their dogs shampooed every week and groomed every two, which can run up to $100 a month.

The well-cared for dog can then be dressed in a leopard skin hat and matching scarf, sold at pet shops in downtown Seoul, be sprayed with dog perfume and bedecked with dog jewelry. The moment can be captured at any of several pet photography studios.

To keep them in top shape, veterinarian Kim Kwang-jae runs the Dr. Pet Medical Center, a four-story clinic with three exam rooms, a surgical room and an ICU with 24-hour care. It also claims to be the only place in Korea offering MRIs for pets, at a cost of $250 a scan.

"We have the best service," Kim told a visitor, "as good as a children's hospital."

The truly pampered pooch can stay in the $85 a night VIP room, which has floor-to-ceiling windows, piped-in music and a TV set. A closed-circuit TV camera allows owners to log onto a Web site to monitor their pet.

If Fido just wants to relax, bring him to any of more than 15 dog cafes around town, all of them less than two years old, and sip a cappuccino while he gnaws on some beef jerky.

For the unfortunate dog-lover whose circumstances do not permit actual dog ownership, vicarious pleasure can be had at Petit Petti, a cheery cafe with a garden, whose owner keeps a dozen dogs of all shapes and sizes on the premises. The dogs laze about but don't mind being coddled or fed by customers.

Park Ji-soo, a college student, has come to the cafe because her parents won't allow a pet in the house. She searched the Internet for dog cafes and visited several.

"This one is the best. It has the most kinds of dogs," she said as a golden retriever eyed a plate of snacks in front of her. But then adds, "It's so weird. Right next to here is a dog meat house."

Her friend Hyung Yun-kyung, also a student, said her boyfriend finds dog meat delicious, but she would never touch it.

"We love dogs," she said. "How can we eat dog meat?"

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