A dog’s life

Avtar Singh | Updated on September 28, 2018

Pooch perk: Beijing is a lot more welcoming to dogs than you might think   -  REUTERS/CHINA STRINGER NETWORK

Far from the pet-averse place it’s said to be, Beijing in fact has a thriving canine culture, which reveals itself in times of need

Our dog nearly died this past summer. Which is to say, he had a life-threatening condition, which could have led to us having that awful chat — “what is best for him”, “how can we make him comfortable”, and the truly dreadful “he’s already had a good innings”.

Instead of which, I’m happy to report that my dog’s innings continues. I’m still the proud human to Beijing’s finest singing dog. He isn’t beautiful, he certainly isn’t clever, but he’s ours. And his life was saved in large part because we live where we do.


Our dog will soon be 12. He is, for a dog of his size, well beyond middle-age. I can see why, when he was first diagnosed, the first vet brought up the inadvisability of the very invasive procedure we ultimately decided was the way forward. But the calm manner of the surgeon who advised and then carried out the procedure reassured us. And it all happened with the sort of happy serendipity that Beijing specialises in.

Our local English-speaking vets — we live in an expat-heavy neighbourhood — referred us to an animal MRI facility in a suburb that is manifestly not an expat hive. They, and we, worried whether anyone would speak English there.

As it turned out, the man who administered the MRI spoke excellent English (we found out later that he trained in the US), diagnosed the issue, and calmly laid out our options. What he recommended was surgery. Which, being a veterinary neurosurgeon — what? — he would carry out himself. Our dog’s post-surgery care would include acupuncture, carried out on the premises by specialists.

As we spoke, we saw dogs and cats outside getting pricked and zapped — the needles carry a small charge to promote responsiveness in their extremities. We saw the nurses crooning over them. One in particular, a little dog called Chocolate, with ribbons in her hair, was obviously a long-standing favourite.

It took us all of 24 hours to make our decision.


Our dog is a Mumbaikar by birth. He was brought to Delhi as hand baggage while a puppy, and was transported to China as a senior citizen through the sort of jugaadu loophole that Indians love. The city we flew into is part of China’s quarantine regime, but didn’t — at that time — possess a quarantine facility. He walked straight out with us and onto a domestic plane.

Leaving him behind was unthinkable when we decided to make the move from India. What remained to see was how to manage it. As you’d expect from my two countries, the road was riddled with misinformation.

It started from the standard Indian slam that the Chinese eat dogs, hence my pooch’s life was in danger. (Which is to say that since we Indians eat goat, no Chinese bakri is safe from me.)

There were more substantive issues. Is China really a “dog culture”? Aside from canine-inflected cuisine, the interweb presents dark tales of culls of strays. As we dug deeper, we learnt more. Dogs of a certain size are forbidden to live within a specified radius of the city centre of Beijing (though there are signs that this is not being strictly enforced any more). Dogs also need to be registered with the police, presumably in case they misbehave and attack someone. It was all a bit worrying.

We soon discovered that the suburb we finally moved to is a magnet for dog owners. Which translates to lots of vets, pooch friendships, and smile-y acquaintances with people you see out every day with their four-legged families. A dog is a passport to acceptance and not something you need to smuggle into a park against the express wishes of the RWA (residents’ welfare association). And registering our dog with the local police was a breeze.

Again, there are echoes of home. There are more poop mines on the roads and parks than is comfortable, with many Chinese happy to let other people clean up behind their dogs. Pets aren’t always leashed, even when you know that the dog in question has a questionable temperament.  Also, some of my dog’s warmest admirers continue to be people who can’t have their own pets for various reasons (“my spouse is allergic!”).

What it all adds up to is that our boy settled even before we did.




In hindsight, it shouldn’t have been a surprise. Beijing must be one of the few cities in the world to have actually given its name to an entire breed. The Peke and its cousins are everywhere in the city itself, as much a part of its fabric as amateur opera, old men playing checkers, and “square dancing”. In short, dogs are welcome, and it has a canine culture.

But that was all right when he was well. You really only discover the truth of a place when you’re in extremis.

That’s when Beijing revealed itself, from the friends who volunteered to drive us to vets and translate for us, to the people we only know through him who stopped us and asked where he was. He’s still getting his acupuncture, and the nurses still fawn over him when he walks in. All of which serves to reassure me that we made the right decision. For us as much as for him.

Avtar Singh is the author of Necropolis. He lives in Beijing;


Published on September 28, 2018

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