Japan's aging population and the higher cost of keeping dogs has likely contributed to the sliding number of pet canines in the country, with cats overtaking them this year for the first time since an annual survey began in 1994, according to industry experts.
"The biggest reason behind the fall in the number of pet dogs is probably declining birthrate and graying population," said Tomoko Ishida, a 52-year-old public relations officer at major pet company Aeonpet Co.
She says more elderly people are giving up on dogs and keeping cats instead due to the perception that dogs require greater care as owners need to take them out for walks every day and are legally obliged to get them vaccinated.
A survey by the Japan Pet Food Association released last week showed that the estimated number of pet cats stood at 9,526,000 in 2017, remaining almost unchanged in recent years, while the number of dogs fell to 8,920,000, down for the third consecutive year.
According to the association, the average cost of keeping a dog for its entire lifetime is estimated at about 1.6 million yen ($14,000) while that of a cat about 1.08 million yen. The gap possibly affected people's choices.
Toshiharu Ishiguro, the 69-year-old head of the Gifu Veterinary Medical Association, said, "More baby boomers who used to keep dogs are giving up welcoming new dogs" fearing they may not be able to take care of them until their death as a dog's average life expectancy now exceeds 14 years.
Also behind the trend is a surge in the prices of pet dogs. Regulations tightened under a revised animal protection law have triggered a fall in the number of breeders, which has dented pet dog supply.
"Dogs sold in pet shops now cost hundreds of thousands of yen. Financially struggling young people cannot keep dogs," Ishiguro said.
While more than 70 percent of pet dogs are purchased at shops and other places, many owners start keeping cats for free by receiving them as gifts or taking in strays.
But cat owners are not free from concerns either. According to the Environment Ministry, some 46,000 cats were killed in fiscal 2016 through March 2017 by public health authorities, compared with about 10,000 dogs. Although the figure includes stray cats, many are former pet cats believed to have been abandoned.
Ryoko Tomomori, the 40-year-old chief of Mignon Plan Inc., an organization protecting neglected pets and matching them with new owners, said, "Cats need exercise. They are not an animal that only requires food," contrary to a common belief that they are easy going and can be left unattended.
She said the organization receives increasing complaints from owners who are not familiar with common cat habits such as crying in early mornings.
"Now keeping cats indoors has become common and people welcome them as a family member. I want owners to fully understand their habits before keeping them as pets," she said.