SINGAPORE — Every few hours while overseas, Mrs Chan would look at her home’s internet surveillance camera to check on her beloved “furkid” Coco Bean — only to find the brown bundle of fur waiting by the main door.
It was a hard sight to bear, and she could not stop thinking about her pet toy poodle, which had been adopted when it was barely a year old, waiting for her by the front door for days till Mrs Chan is back.
So, Mrs Chan, who is in her 50s, paid between S$500 and S$800 to settle the necessary paperwork and health checkups to bring her now eight-year-old pet along with her on long holiday trips.
“It’s not easy to travel with Coco as there’s a lot of paperwork when bringing a pet overseas. Due to certain restrictions, we can only travel to certain places and take certain flights which are pet-friendly,” explained Mrs Chan, who declined to give her full name or occupation.
One of her main considerations before bringing Coco Bean on her travels was whether she could endure a long flight without feeling anxious or stressed out while confined to her carrier for an extended period of time.
“We were also mindful of Coco’s behavior on board the flight, making sure that she wouldn’t bark or create any disturbance for other passengers. Fortunately, Coco is well-behaved and most passengers didn’t realise she was onboard the plane,” said Mrs Chan.
From searching for an airline that allows Coco Bean to travel in the cabin, to planning an entire trip around her beloved pet, the woman told TODAY that the hassle is all worth it to bring her “furkid” along. Most European airlines are pet-friendly as pet travel is common in the continent, she said.
Mrs Chan — who has amassed more than 5,500 followers on Instagram page @little.coco.beans featuring the poodle’s numerous trips across Europe, outfits and freshly cooked meals — is part of a growing number of pet owners going above and beyond for their beloved animals.
“They may not be able to communicate in the same language as us, but they find their way to show their love for you.
“Every day is less monotonous, and full of laughter and joy when they’re around. When you come home and see your pets coming up to you, you forget about the day’s stressors,” Ms Quek said, who is married and does not have any human children.
Like a doting father, 54-year-old retiree Khalirzal Mohd Said smiled as he jokingly complained about how his nine cats wake him up each morning. It starts with nudges, then licks, then having them crawl around him. If that fails, a bite quickly wakes the man up from his slumber.
Mr Khalizal has been surrounded by animals his whole life, and even had a stint as a hornbill trainer at Jurong Bird Park in the 1990s.
Of his nine cats — all of which have been either adopted, rescued or gifted — exotic Persian cat Bumblebee is the most well-known; it is the face of his social media account Myloverlycats.
Mr Khalirzal’s walks along East Coast Park and swims in the ocean — with his cats in tow — were a peculiar sight for many at the start. But since March 2021, other cat owners join him every Saturday for some fresh air at the park, where Mr Khalirzal dispenses advice for other cat owners.
His bond with his cats stem from the way they have impacted him and helped him become a calmer person. Bumblebee, in particular, has helped make him less angry and more patient with just its presence whenever he is stressed, said Mr Khalirzal.
His cats’ personalities and apparent understanding of his words also affirm Mr Khalizal’s perception that they are his children.
“They understand and tell me in their own way,” he said of his “furkids”.
“They make me feel happy, and I hope others will bond with their cats, and not abandon them after I give them advice.”
As for 37-year-old Nicole Kow, her six-year-old pups spurred her to start a pet accessories business on the side while working in the marketing department of her family’s design and building firm Nic & Wes Builders.
She founded Paws of Kow in the hope of capturing the personality of her two dogs — Tobi and Coco — in the items they wear with comfort.
“Coco (was) not comfortable wearing clothes and some accessories… So, I went to learn from scratch and experimented with different (light-weight materials) to make something comfortable,” she said, adding that her two dogs also suffer from different food allergies.
Like other pet owners who spoke to TODAY, Ms Kow pays special attention to her pets’ diets. Each meal is steamed fresh, and she switches between different types of meat and vegetables to give her fur babies a balanced diet.
“You can’t help but want to give your best to your children who are always there for you,” she said.
As for Ms Kow, a custom carriage from Denmark is the biggest luxury for her two “furkids”. Her father, who dotingly calls the dogs his “grandpups”, uses the carriage to cycle the dogs around on joyrides.
She has also spent about S$200 on Rex Specs, which protects her dogs’ eyes from the wind, dust and sun as they go on a drive to the park.
For Mrs Chan, Coco Bean’s owner, the roughly S$800 on paperwork and airline fee for their Europe holiday is just the tip of the iceberg, since she does not keep track of the additional costs that come with planning pet-friendly activities, and additional charges for pets in their accommodation.
She does get queries from other “pawrents” hoping to bring their furkids along on their world travels. But Mrs Chan tells TODAY she emphasises the importance of prioritising pets’ health, ensuring their suitability to travel and need to be responsible.
“You can’t just bring your pet overseas on a whim,” she said, adding it is also important to ensure pets are well trained before bringing them on holidays.
But beyond the holidays, there are the outfits for Coco Bean, and the home-made annual birthday cake. And like other pet owners, Mrs Chan also sends the toy poodle for annual health examinations to ensure that Coco Bean is in the pink of health.
But should the animals be in poor health, the price tag in getting them back on their paws could be quite princely for their owners. For Ms Quek, medical expenses for her French bulldog amounted to more than S$17,000.
She had adopted the dog from a shelter in 2020 just weeks after an operation to treat it from water collecting in its brain. It also inherited multiple issues associated with the dog’s breed and would struggle to eat and breathe.
“We paid over S$17,000 to fix her nose and her throat, and then for the specialist check-ups.”
When asked why she did it, Ms Quek said that she had to give her dog a fighting chance to survive.
“Just like a child. Would you just put them to sleep because they are sick? With animals, it’s the same, you should not give up.”
Pointing out that unlike humans, pets do not have welfare or government support for medical bills, Ms Quek reiterated the importance of thinking twice before adopting a pet.
“They’re your family members, you can’t just give up and drop them when they are sick.”
PREVENTIVE CARE, ENRICHMENT CLASSES GROWING IN DEMAND
The perception that pets are family and benefits their human owner’s well-being has led to the growth of a wellness industry for pets here.
In a 2021 study about pets, Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health Singapore found that 63 per cent of the 1,018 pet owners surveyed believe their pets can understand them, and 89 per cent felt their pets had a positive impact on their mental health.
Ms Celestine Low, a research associate at Euromonitor International, said that premium and ultra-premium pet brands are seeing increasing demand, especially in the health sector and e-commerce space.
Fellow research associate at Euromonitor International Kirstie Chiang added that some areas that have seen growth include freeze-dried food for dogs, and frozen raw food for dogs and cats — driven by demand for health options for pets.
This desire for better healthcare has shaped veterinarian services in Singapore. RehabVet, for one, was established in 2019 to provide rehabilitation services for animals, with a focus on mobility issues.
Since 2020, demand for rehabilitation services has grown by 400 per cent at RehabVet, said Dr Sara Lam, a veterinarian at the clinic. It receives 30 to 50 inquiries a month and has treated over 1,500 animals since 2019.
For a greater peace of mind, some owners are turning to DNA tests to ensure that their pets do not have any underlying medical conditions.
One company, EasyDNA, has been providing DNA testing for dogs to help owners determine their pets’ breed, parentage and risk of diseases.
About 40 pet owners buy these kits in Singapore each year, said Ms Sharifah Khairiyah Syed Mohamad, director of Singapore and Malaysia at EasyDNA.
She added that the benefits from having comprehensive information to care for their dogs in a targeted manner have led to increased interest from pet owners to do these tests.
As pet owners humanise their pets, some services long targeted at humans have also been extended to pets, such as pet insurance.
Ms Annie Chua, head of personal lines at Income Insurance said that its Happy Tails Pet Insurance has seen more than 150 per cent growth between 2021 and 2022.
The insurance plan, distributed by Income Insurance and Aon, allows owners to cover themselves from unexpected medical treatment for their pet dogs and cats. Some specified congenital and hereditary conditions and medical treatments like chemotherapy can be covered as well.
“We see a high number of enquiries from pet owners who are concerned about insurance that covers hereditary and congenital medical conditions of their pets,” said Ms Chua.
Health issues aside, some pet owners are treating their pet dogs like toddlers, by sending them to doggy daycare.
While the concept of daycare for pets is not new, The Snuggery director Elayne Kwok told TODAY that she has seen a 20 per cent increase in demand for her services this year, compared to 2019.
Pawrents who can not bear to leave their pets alone at home, or know they need to provide their energetic pets with activities throughout the day spend between S$500 and S$800 a month to send them to the human equivalent of a kindergarten about twice each week.
“We are (like) teachers to kids in a school as we communicate clearly with our clients about their pets,” she said, adding that they typically send multiple updates via WhatsApp daily.
The Snuggery allows pet owners to customise what the day might look like for their pets — such as going on outdoor walks, having one-on-one time with a trainer doing IQ games, simple agility exercises or basic obedience training.
While uncommon, some “pawrents” are also seeking legal help to ensure their pets are cared for if their pets outlive them.
Mr Tan Shen Kiat of Kith & Kin Law Corporation said the firm has seen growing interest in estate planning among pet owners, and has completed two such plans involving pet care last year.
Mr Tan told TODAY that the firm has also been engaged to search for a suitable trustee to be a good caretaker for the pets of a client, and apply the funds towards the pets’ care, which he described as a very “bespoke” service.
Should the pet die before its owner, giving the animal a private send-off has also been slowly gaining ground in recent years.
Mandai Pet Sanctuary, for example, handles on average 2,200 cremations yearly.
Having provided such services for more than 30 years, the company has seen a shift among owners towards providing more luxurious closures and private cremations for their pets’ last journey.
The company told TODAY that it hosts three service halls so such private services can be done concurrently, allowing owners to seek closure.
Private cremations and cremation with ashes collected by owners make up 20 per cent and 38 per cent of cremation services provided by Mandai Pet Sanctuary. A majority still opt for communal cremation, where the ashes are scattered in a communal burial ground.
The ability to offer a proper goodbye to their pets allows owners like Ms Quek to find closure for their grief.
“In the past, there’s no proper send-off or closure… I always wondered how I could send off my precious family member like that,” she said.
“Now, at least you can do a proper cremation, there’re procedures laid out and your pets are sent off with more dignity. It provides more comfort.”
Some pet owners are also opting for more environmentally friendly ways to send their pets off. While the procedure might be longer — taking up to 24 hours — aqua cremation has attracted the interest of some pet owners in Singapore.
“Cremation can be uncomfortable for some because it involves f ire and heat,” noted Mr Yang Loo, co-founder of The Green Mortician. Since launching its services in March this year, the company has aqua cremated 50 pets.
The process, which involves using a mixture of 95 per cent water and about 5 per cent alkaline solution, speeds up the decomposition process. Within hours, the company can retrieve the bones and other foreign materials from the pet, and then grind the bones into ashes.
CHALLENGES IN CARING FOR PETS
When Ms Liang lost her pet in 2021, she recalled heading to work that same day feeling “just terrible”.
Working on the trading floor in full view of others amid the hustle and bustle, she recalled crying while her colleagues laughed.
“They told me ‘it’s just a dog’,” she said, adding that some were snickering as she tried to work while grieving.
But pet owners today said that things have changed, and more around them understand the pain of losing a pet can be similar to that of losing a close family member.
In acknowledgement of such pain, some companies and countries around the world have implemented compassionate leave for employees who lose their pets.
For example, Colombia has a law that grants employees in the South American country two days’ paid leave if their pets die.
Mr Chris Lee, former general manager for Hong Kong at human resource firm Ethos BeathChapman, noted that while it is not common yet, more firms worldwide are moving towards granting compassionate leave for their employees’ pets.
“There is a very real shift in how people view their pets, so it’s not a huge surprise that people will now expect the same compassionate leave,” said Mr Lee, who is also the co-founder of pet food brand Buddy Bites.
He noted that companies which implement pet leave could attract employees and increase retention rates as it “demonstrates compassion in the companies’ values”.
However, such leave is not governed by legislation, and hence companies will find it “vital to carefully define eligibility through a comprehensive internal policy”.
Mr Lee added that human resource departments must ensure that such policies are well explained. Rather than being focused on whether such policies are fair to those without pets, Mr Lee suggested educating people on how owners see their pets as more than just animals.