Big dogs suffer as Hong Kong status symbols

August 14, 2014: 10:46 PM ET
big dog hk
HONG KONG (CNNMoney)

Forget jewels, watches and fast cars. In Hong Kong, giant dogs are must-have status symbols.

Large dogs -- Siberian Huskies, German Shepherds, Vizslas and Tibetan Mastiffs -- are highly coveted and considered symbols of prosperity in the Chinese territory.

"People who have say, a St. Bernard -- you can see these people strutting around, so proud they have this dog," said Sally Andersen, founder of Hong Kong Dog Rescue.

"It's like buying a designer label; it's a status thing," she said. "It makes them feel good in the same way that men like to drive Ferraris and Maseratis."

Huskies -- a common sight in the city -- can easily sell for more than $1,000, while the price for an exotic Tibetan Mastiff can top $1 million.

These dogs are more than just furry slobber-machines. Having a big dog signals the owner is wealthy enough to afford an equally giant home.

Going big isn't cheap: Luxury apartments in Hong Kong are roughly twice as expensive as in New York City. And the average sale price on a standard 400 square foot apartment in the city is $650,000.

"When we first got Huskies, not many people had them in Hong Kong," said resident Nicole Tam. "People think if I have a big dog, I must have a nice living place."

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Yet animal rights activists are worried about the big dog trend. They say some animals are not suited for Hong Kong's hot weather and density, and unscrupulous breeders are concerned only with profit.

Critics also say the logic behind "big dog, big house, big money" can be misleading. In reality, a large dog might be housed in a very small apartment -- an arrangement that can lead to problems.

Tam, a massage therapist, shares her family's 700 square foot apartment with her two Huskies. She would upgrade to a larger place if she could. "Ideally, I do want to have a house with a garden," she said.

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Experts say that in Hong Kong -- where dog meat used to be considered a delicacy -- owning a pet dog is still a relatively new idea, gaining popularity only in the past two decades.

New owners are sometimes overwhelmed once a cute puppy grows to full size, and are forced to give them up, said Sheila McClelland, founder of the Lifelong Animal Protection Charity.

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McClelland's group frequently rescues large breeds including Huskies and Golden Retrievers. She recently found a Pyrenean Mountain Dog -- a breed that can weigh up to 160 pounds -- wandering the city's streets.

High demand means many breeders try to produce dogs rapidly on the cheap in poor conditions. An estimated 10,000 dogs are destroyed in the territory each year, according to the Hong Kong Dog Rescue.

Yet dogs continue to be seen as status symbols, and owners spend lavishly at dog salons, spas and wardrobe shops. Local services include dog yoga, carbonated spring hot baths and acupuncture.

"There are many people who regard dogs as commodities, but I think it's becoming less acceptable," McClelland said. "Having them must be for life, and not just for status."

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