SINGAPORE: Panda Chow Chows has been up and running for only about a month, but the new business is already drawing both admiration and criticism online.
A Facebook post by owner Meng Jiang's husband, Mr Anton Kreil, last Friday (Jan 29) was widely shared with pictures of the three Chow Chows dyed and groomed to look like pandas. The business centres around photoshoots with the canines at the couple's home.
By Thursday morning, the post had more than 400 comments, with most either gushing about how "adorable" or "cute" the dyed dogs were or condemning the practice as "disgusting" and "cruel".
Ms Meng said the couple's interest in Chow Chows dyed to look like pandas was piqued by pictures of other similarly dyed dogs online.
They had three dogs – TouDou, Yumi and DouDou – which the couple bought when they migrated to Singapore from London in October last year.
The couple first decided to try dyeing one dog, Yumi, after realising that the puppies had "started to look really like pandas" as they grew, according to Ms Meng.
"Yumi loved it and TouDou and DouDou were really jealous of her, so we tried it with them and they all had a new level of energy after it was done," she said.
She has been taking the dogs out for walks on the street, and the reaction to them has been "insane", she told Channel NewsAsia.
"Out on the streets people go crazy for them. On Orchard Road last week, I think about 500 people must have taken photos of them or together with them in the space of three hours ... When we were shopping near ION we literally had groups of 40 to 50 people following us down the street."
Ms Meng and her three dogs swarmed by passersby at Orchard Road on Jan 30, 2016. (Photo: Meng Jiang/Facebook)
This public attention was also the catalyst for the business idea, Ms Meng said.
"Scores of people always kept coming over, wanting to take pictures with them. So I thought why don’t we let people come over to our home and do shoots with the dogs? Why don’t we go to people's homes and do shoots with the dogs?"
'UNNATURAL, UNNECESSARY': SPCA
Ms Meng is not the first to use dye on pets in Singapore – at least three local salons offer pet-dyeing services.
Groomer and owner of The Lovely Pets at Serangoon North Lusiana Tjahyono told Channel NewsAsia her salon sees about one to two requests a month for pet dyeing services, and this picks up slightly during the Chinese New Year period to about five clients in the month.
The salon uses Opawz, a Canadian brand, which makes a non-toxic solution that fades a few months after application, she added.
In accordance to the product usage instructions, The Lovely Pets avoids the eye and mouth areas of the animals. Ms Tjahyono said this was "common sense" given the sensitivity of these areas.
"Just like with human dye, it may get into the eyes of the dogs when you rinse it off," she said, adding that her salon had not received any requests for comprehensive dye-jobs such as the ones the panda Chow Chows went through, and most clients only asked for small patches such as the ears or tails of their dogs to be coloured.
Acting Executive Director at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) Dr Jaipal Singh Gill, however, said the NGO is "strongly against" the practice of dyeing dogs' fur, and would advise pet owners to refrain from altering their pet's appearance in this way because it is "unnatural and unnecessary".
"Animals have natural coats and should be appreciated for what they are, rather than trying to alter them artificially," he said.
"There are also potential side effects with no benefits to the animals, it can be physically harmful and subject the animal to stress in the process."
But Ms Meng said the dye product used for her business, which she declined to name, is a "100 per cent organic and natural colourant" that is readily available off the shelf in Singapore and can be bought at dog grooming salons here.
"The colour ingredients consist of purified water and Cosmetic, Toiletry & Fragrance Association of Singapore (CTFAS) approved natural colourant dyes ... So yes, it is approved by local authorities."
Aside from Singapore authorities, the founder said the dye had also been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States.
She added that her groomer was "meticulous in the application" of the dye, and that a patch test was done before every application.
For the photoshoots, Ms Meng said, families go to the couple's home and sit with the dogs for photos, and if it is a location shoot, the dogs are taken for a four-hour walk.
"There is nothing immoral or cruel about our photo experiences with the dogs ... They are dogs and the fact is they actually really enjoy it!"
DYE PETS WITH CAUTION: AVA, VETS
In response to media queries, the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) said that in general, the use of safe, non-toxic food dyes is "unlikely" to cause harm to the dogs, adding that a test patch should be applied to test for an allergic reaction.
The authority said it is looking into the case to "ensure that animal welfare is not compromised."
Animal experts Channel NewsAsia spoke to said while there was always the possibility of adverse reactions, it was not considered cruelty as long as caution was taken to ensure the pets did not suffer discomfort or pain.
Dr Frederic Chua of Allpets Asia said all dyes could potentially cause skin issues, and some dogs were more sensitive than others.
Comparing them to eye shadow, he said all dyes would irritate the sensitive tissues of the eye so the chances of issues arising would depend on the skill of the groomer. In addition, Chow Chows are bred for temperate climates and would often suffer from recurring skin problems in the tropics, he said.
However, he pointed out that when it came to domestic pets, many are already bred to appear "abnormal and unnatural", such as short-nosed dogs which suffer from respiratory problems, or breeds on the market that have a higher incidence of congenital heart defects.
"Dogs have been domesticated for the purpose of serving Man, be it service dogs for the blind or deaf, racing dogs for entertainment, or in this case, dogs made to look transiently or permanently adorable to their owners."
"In my view, unless it causes clinical or behavioural changes, the ethical focus should be on treating the dog promptly if problems do arise," Dr Chua added.
Dr Kenneth Tong from the AAVC Animal & Avian Veterinary Clinic shared a similar view. "Pet owners dyeing their dogs is more of a personal choice. Vets do not advocate dyeing, neither do we condone such."
He added that if the dogs being dyed showed no obvious signs of stress or distress, were handled comfortably during the procedure, and the product used is non-toxic and non-irritating, there would be minimal risk to the dog and he would not consider it cruelty.
Dr Tong said about 2 per cent of the dogs he had seen over the years had their paws, ears, or tails dyed and to date, none of these had developed skin, eye or gastrointestinal symptoms as a result.
He qualified, however, that the long-term health effects of dog dyes have not been heavily researched and established yet, and that dyeing procedures for dogs should be left to trained professionals.
Caution should also be taken when dyeing around sensitive regions such as the eyes, muzzle, nose and genitalia, as these areas of the body are "most easily irritated and abraded by the harsh chemicals if any", Dr Tong advised.
CRITICS ARE 'KEYBOARD CRUSADERS, HYPOCRITES': OWNER
Asked what she had to say to online critics, Ms Meng called them "keyboard crusaders attempting to take some sort of moral high ground".
The worst objection, according to her, was that it was wrong to treat her dogs like commodities.
"Is this the same immorality that parents who turn their children into child models and actors display? If you watch the TV you indirectly already support child actors through your viewing figures (ratings) and TV advertising revenue," she said.
"Let's get some proportionality here: Being cruel to a dog is locking it up all day so it gets no exercise, starving a dog to death, not cleaning up after it and letting it live in its own filth; being cruel to a dog is beating it, not dyeing your dog with 100 per cent organic product."
Her Chow Chows, she said, live in a 3,500 sq ft home in Sentosa, enjoy 20°C air-conditioning, are taken for walks twice a day and are fed the "best pet foods and supplements available on the market".
"If after reading all of this, you can still not bring your 'moral crusade' to a logical argument and conclusion, then when you see us walking the dogs around Singapore, don’t be a hypocrite and come over to take personal photos with them and try to stroke them and play with our dogs. Hypocrites are not welcome to do so."