NEW DELHI: Oreo marked her birthday this year with a pool party in a posh New Delhi neighbourhood. Nothing unusual - except that the two-year-old is a dog.
The Dalmatian celebrated with a cake of flour, cheese and chicken tikkas, garnished with a rib-shaped biscuit on top and spent the day splashing in a swimming pool and chasing her 20 canine friends at a sprawling dog resort.
“It was like I was having my daughter's birthday party,” said Priyamvada Sharma, Oreo's owner, who also has a 2-year-old female Labrador. “We had every possible type of biscuit and bone any pet shop would have.”
Oreo is one of a growing number of pampered pooches in India lavished with indulgent care - and a growing range of products - as the ranks of the middle-class increase and pet owners spare nothing for their furred darlings.
Sharma's pets have been brought up in luxury. They have a full-time maid and are regulars at grooming parlours and swimming pools. While some years ago the concept of branded pet food was unheard of in India, and dogs were often fed table scraps, the market is now flooded with pet dietary and health products.
There are also pet salons, upscale vet clinics, pet couture, pet nannies, dog walkers, reiki therapists, grooming specialists, dog-friendly hotels and air-conditioned kennels mushrooming across big cities.
Quite a contrast to when Maura Sabin, from the United States, first came to live in India with her two cats and was far from impressed by India's vet services. “Twenty years ago...they knew horses and they knew dogs and that is all they knew,” she said.
DOGS IN THE MAJORITY
A Euromonitor research report estimates that India's pet industry is expected to grow 22 percent this year and reach 4.5 billion rupees (around $81 million), in a nation where the per capita income is $1,256. Dogs account for 80 percent of all pets in India, with cats and fish also popular.
Preeti Kumar quit her job as a teacher to start a pet grooming salon with her husband in 2007, one of the first in New Delhi. She now runs seven salons in the city offering services such as aroma therapy baths, herbal massage and hair colouring.
People buy certain breeds because it is a status symbol, she said.
“There are people who do buy a breed like St. Bernard which is actually not meant for Delhi weather because it is a huge, hairy pet,” said the 37-year-old Kumar, who owns 13 dogs including boxers, poodles, pugs, and also imported exotic breeds such as the Bedlington terrier and Cairn terrier.
“One of the most popular breeds because of the Vodafone ad is the pug,” she added, referring to an ad that made the breed a darling of the middle-class.
Many abandon or neglect these dogs once their fascination wears off, but the idea that pets could be family members is gaining wider acceptance - and prompting major cash outlays.
“I wanted to buy a small car, but I had to buy a bigger car because of my dog,” said Natasha Adlakha, a freelance writer who has a golden retriever called Google and spends around $400, or 20 percent of her monthly salary, on the dog.
While a decade ago, it was common for dogs to sleep outside the house or in the garage, now some owners keep their air-conditioner on 24 hours a day just for their pets. Sharma also got a wrought-iron bed, with a velvet mattress, for her dog.
Even religious rules are being bent for the sake of the dogs' well-being. Sharma cannot cook or eat chicken in her house, but these restrictions do not apply to her “girls.” Her maid prepares a stew for them with seasonal vegetables, turmeric and expensive dog food every morning.
The breakdown of the traditional joint family structure in India also appears to have contributed to the changing attitude towards pets. Young urban Indians are earning more and marrying late, with pets often becoming their replacement children.
The 25-year-old Sharma said that anybody who wants to marry her must take on her pets as well.
“If I were to get married, I would only get married to someone who would love my dogs as much I love my dogs and they will come with me.”