When 24-year-old Li Yuhang finishes a long shift at the IT firm where he works, he knows something warm and fluffy is waiting at home – his Siamese cat, Ruby.
‘Smoking cats’: young Chinese are discovering their love for pets
The programmer likes to “smoke cat” – a term Chinese millennials use to describe their addictive obsession with petting, playing with, snuggling or simply enjoying the smell of their pets.
Li, who lives in a shared apartment in Shenzhen, a city often described as China’s Silicon Valley, bought the cat last year and named it Ruby after the “beautiful” programming language.
“It would be lonely living in this city by myself,” Li says. “Ruby is like my daughter.”
Having grown up in a China where pets were considered a luxury, young people are increasingly seeking companionship from animals as they navigate the stresses of urban life.
Given their long working hours and cramped housing, they find cats a perfect match.
The independent nature of cats is one of the reasons why Shanghai resident Shen Xiaojie, 23, became a “cat smoker.”
For her, “cat smoking” means coming home after a hard day, hearing welcoming meows, holding her fluffy cat in her arms and burying her face in its long white fur.
The cat, named Kimi, carries the fragrance of the shower gel used to wash it, a smell that reminds her of pillows and bed sheets.
Shen says Kimi makes her life meaningful. “I realized I had been wasting time in the past. Now I’m devoting my time to the cat, and it ends up loving me more.”
In China’s poorer years, people largely regarded dogs and cats as herders, guards or mouse catchers – or even as a source of food. The Communist authorities used to ban pet ownership in many places as a bourgeois pastime.
But following the rapid economic growth of recent decades, pet ownership is booming.
There is no official data on the number of pet cats, but market watchers have noted a fast-expanding kitten economy.
The volume of cat food sold is set to rise at an average of 28% annually, reaching 346,000 tons by 2022, according to market researchers Euromonitor.
There are concerns that not all owners can take good care of their animals. Mary Peng, founder of the International Center for Veterinary Services in Beijing, said Chinese millennials grew up at a time when few of their neighbors and friends could afford pets.
“If you grow up as a child in the United States, you just get this education from society,” Peng said. “We don’t have this yet.”
While enjoying the fun parts, “cat smokers” like Shen and Li are also learning how to take care of their animals.
When he first bought Ruby, Li used to return home on his breaks to cook it chicken breast because it refused to eat cold food. He also learned that if the kitten needed the toilet in the middle of the night, he would have to get up to help Ruby find it.
But Peng said Li’s generation is beginning to experience the companionship and love of pets.
“This country is really having a huge love affair with animals,” she says.
Cat videos and photos are every bit as popular on Chinese social media as they are in other parts of the world. Many fans are known as “cloud cat smokers” – because they can only appreciate the cuteness of kittens via the internet.
But even they can enjoy some real-life “cat smoking” thanks to the growing number of cat cafés.
Xi Shuting, 28, runs three such businesses in Beijing, hosting more than 100 cats for diners to play with.
Many customers are students or young professionals, who are not able to keep cats of their own.
The cafes are so popular that people form long queues on weekends to enjoy snacks such as sushi shaped like cats’ ears, or tea with paw-shaped milk foam.
Xi plans expand to other cities next year.
“Chinese people used to think the only job for cats was to catch mice,” the entrepreneur says. “Now they know cats also offer companionship and comfort.”
It’s a lesson China’s youth are taking to heart.