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Pet pampering hits new highs in Japan

From diapers to MRIs, owners are more willing than ever to splash out

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, 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. And it is not just cats and dogs that get doted on -- pet insurance policies now cover everything from rodents to reptiles.

Over the eight years through March 2016, the market for pet products and services in Japan grew nearly 10% to 1.47 trillion yen ($13.2 billion), according to Yano Research Institute in Tokyo. Many companies see still more room for growth and are expanding their lineups of goods and services.

Sanitary products manufacturer Unicharm is now also a big maker of pet products, selling food and diapers for dogs and cats. Pet products accounted for around 10% of the company's profit in the first nine months of 2017, and Unicharm sees strong prospects for the future.

Ciao Churu, a brand of cat treats from Inaba Petfood, is a hit with cat lovers, including one doting owner in Tokyo. "Look at me. You look so pretty," the woman cooed as her pet lapped up the meaty puree. The woman, who is in her 20s, said she enjoys posting photos of her cat in various poses -- sometimes wearing outfits -- on Instagram.

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 same sorts of lifestyle diseases as their owners. Plaque, for example, is not only bad for the teeth; left unchecked, it can lead to more serious health problems. Lion's range of dental care products for pets includes teeth-cleaning sheets and toothbrushes.

FRIENDS TO THE END Health care for pets is growing more sophisticated. Daisuke Tanida, former chairman of health care equipment maker Tanita, set up a new company in 2016 called Fanimal to provide food and equipment for pets.

Hospitals operated by the Japan Animal Referral Medical Center boast many of the same types of high-tech gear found in well-equipped hospitals for people, such as MRI machines and CT scanners. And just like at a human hospital, the animal patients at the center are sent to various specialized departments, depending on their symptoms.

The fees can be steep, with a course of treatment including examinations, surgery and inpatient care costing around 300,000 yen to 400,000 yen. But a growing number of owners want their animals to receive the same kind of treatment they themselves would be given in similar circumstances, according to the center.

The hospital operator plans to open a branch in Tokyo this year and one in Osaka in 2019.

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

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, operated by Kokolone, is the first chapel in Japan specializing in pet funerals.

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

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