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Business trends

New levels of pet pampering in Japan-- from diapers to MRIs

Animal insurance now covers hedgehogs, flying squirrels and tortoises

Frances Memorial Tokyo, a chapel specializing in pet funerals, holds a demonstration service in Hachioji, western Tokyo.

TOKYO -- When it comes to pampering pets, few people top the Japanese. The market for pet products and services is growing robustly in Japan, even as the number of pets falls. And as households grow smaller, pet owners are more inclined to treat their animal companions as full members of the family.

Many would not think twice about spending hundreds of thousands of yen for Fido or Fluffy to have an MRI scan or go under the knife. But it is not just pooches that get doted on -- pet insurance policies now cover everything from rodents to reptiles.

Over the eight years through March 2016, the pet products market in Japan grew by nearly 10% to 1.47 trillion yen ($13 billion), according to Yano Research Institute in Tokyo. Many companies see still more room for growth and are offering a wider range of goods and services ranging from food, to clothing to insurance.

Another source of growth is the wider range of animals that people keep as pets these days, including reptiles and insects.

"You look so pretty"

Sanitary products manufacturer Unicharm is now also a big maker of pet products, selling food, diapers and toilet training sheets for dogs and cats. For the first nine months of 2017, pet products accounted for around 10% of the company's sales. Unicharm sees strong prospects for pet products, such as kitty litter items.

Ciao Churu, a brand of cat treats from Inaba Petfood, is a hit with cat lovers. One doting owner squeezes the meaty puree out of a tube watches her cat lap it up. "Look at me. You look so pretty," coos the Tokyo woman in her 20s as she snaps photos of her cat. She enjoys getting "likes" for her photos on Instagram, which show her cat in various poses -- sleeping, wearing different outfits.

Lion, best known for its human health and beauty products, is applying its expertise in manufacturing toothbrushes to make similar products for pets. Overindulged dogs and cats are increasingly suffering from the sorts of maladies. Plaque, for example, is not only bad for the teeth; left unchecked, it can lead to more serious health problems. Lion sells a range of dental care products, including dental cleaning sheets and toothbrushes, for pets.

Lifelong friends

Daisuke Tanida, former chairman of medical equipment maker Tanita, last year set up a new company, Fanimal, to provide medical food and equipment geared toward pets.

Health care for pets is growing more sophisticated. Hospitals operated by the Japan Animal Referral Medical Center are equipped with many of the same types of high-tech gear found in good hospitals for people, including MRI machines and CT scanners. The animal patients at the center are sent to various specialized departments, depending on their symptoms.

Despite steep fees of 300,000 yen to 400,000 yen for a course of treatment including examinations, surgery and inpatient care, a growing number of owners want their animals to receive treatment similar to what they themselves would receive in similar circumstances, according to the center.

In 2018, the hospital operator will open its branch, in Tokyo, and another in Osaka in 2019.

To reduce the financial burden of caring for a beloved pet, insurers are offering new products. Pet insurance specialist Anicom Holdings in 2016 expanded its product line to cover eight animals, including hedgehogs, flying squirrels and tortoises. "Contracts for hedgehogs and hamsters are selling better than we thought," says the insurer. The pet insurance market is growing 20% a year in Japan. 

And when the time comes for people to say goodbye to their animal companions, services are available to help them through their grief.

"Let's say farewell to John. We all loved him," intones a minister at a chapel in western Tokyo. Frances Memorial Tokyo is the first chapel in Japan specializing in funeral arrangements for pets.

A package including memorial service and cremation costs around 104,800 yen for a small dog or a cat -- not a trivial sum. But, said Koki Nakamukae, vice president of chapel operator Kokolone, "We make every effort to fulfill the wishes of pet owners, say, regarding flowers and how they want the ceremony to be conducted." 

Some memorials include guests: not only family members but friends and their pets, who all celebrate the life of the deceased in their own way.

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