India's gone to the dogs

India's economic miracle has bred a booming canine industry that will do anything for your pet – even find it a mate.
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The Independent Online

In her profile picture posted on an internet match-making site, Princess sits on the sofa, her legs stretched in front of her and her eyes puppy-like and distinctly doleful. Below, the Delhi resident reveals, in a manner that many looking for online love might think is a little forward, that she is ready "for mating". But then Princess is a two-year-old cocker spaniel.

In India, famed as the home of arranged marriages, animal match-making sites are just one aspect of the surging interest in all things doggy.

While many of India's 800 million poor may live their lives alongside howling feral mutts, among its growing middle-class there is an appetite for "exotic" foreign breeds such as the St Bernard and the Pomerian – utterly unsuited to the sweltering summers of the sub-continent – that matches the desire for Mont Blanc pens and Conserve footwear.

Every morning, in the more upmarket neighborhoods of cities such as Mumbai and Delhi, you will see these classy canines getting their regular walk, more often than not from a domestic servant rather than their actual owner. "There was a time when only [Indian royalty] had pedigree dogs. They were the only ones able to afford them," said Mukul Vaid, a senior judge with the Kennel Club of India. "Now it has all changed. More and more people are travelling, there is the TV culture. As the middle-class has been coming up and having more money, people are buying new cars and dogs as a status symbol. This is why you see so many pedigree breeds."

Across the country, innovative businesses are trying to cater to this new market. Grooming services and specialised veterinary practicess are booming, while in some of the biggest cities there are even tailor-made "tiffin" services that deliver meals for pooches with particularly refined palates.

A year ago, Robina Gupta and her friend Ishita Sukhadwala set up their website Dog Mate Online after their efforts to find a mate for a relative's dog failed. Females, it appears, are in short supply as buyers prefer male dogs. This is a societal preference that extends to humans, with sons being treasured more than daughters in some parts of India, and campaigners urgently trying to reduce the number of female foetuses that are aborted in the country each year. "We had gone to Pune to visit family and they wanted to find a mate for their dog, Rocky, a six-year-old Doberman," Ms Gupta, a documentary film-maker from Mumbai, explained. "We said we'd look online as we were sure there'd be something on the internet, but we were wrong." So they set up their own website over a weekend. Now, it attracts thousands of visitors from India and from overseas looking for suitable mating partners for their dogs.

Wine, a three-year male Daschund from Mumbai, is another pooch looking for the perfect mate. As anyone who has spent any time internet dating knows, personal ads are not always 100 per cent truthful, but Wine is said to have no medical problems and to be as "health as a horse". "He has not temper problems," the ad continues, although he is "protective of his owners".

In Gurgaon, Delhi's high-tech satellite city, Geetika Nigam decided to set up a match-making site to work in tandem with her newly-launched dog-grooming business. Ms Nigam's company was the first of its kind in the region, and today, three years on, the business is continuing to expand. Nowadays, Ms Nigam even sends groomers to a person's house, saving them the trouble of bring their pet to the shop. "It's a very new industry. People are travelling abroad more, either for work on pleasure and there is more exposure," she said of the growth in both dog ownership and pet pampering. Of the surge of interest in foreign breeds, she added: "Delhi has always been a flashy city and people want to flash one thing or another. Dogs are just another aspect."

The idea for her Puppy Love website came when she realised that in a one-million strong city like Gurgaon, full of upmarket apartment blocks and gated colonies that are home to a new generation of urban professionals, people did not interact with each other as they once did. Dog owners were fearful of letting their animals come into contact with other dogs, or even people, out of a fear they might bite someone or spread disease. Her website, she says, allows people to build up trust slowly. It now has up to 8,000 users, and like Dog Mate Online, it is entirely free to use.

Friends Abishek Kapoor and Himanshu Bhasin, who live in the eastern suburbs of Delhi, also spotted a canine-shaped gap in the market. Taking inspiration from the "tiffin-wallahs" who deliver home-cooked meals to a person's place of work, the entrepreneurs decided to offer a similar service for dogs. Currently they have around 300 customers, who can choose vegetarian or non-vegetarian meals to be delivered to their dogs twice a day.

"We were looking for a business idea and we came up with this," said Mr Kapoor, whose company Scooby Corporations, charges customers between 1600 to 3500 rupees (£22 to £48) a month for the service. They claim to offer Arabian and Italian-style meals, as well as Indian which has lentils and chapattis on the menu. Although they knew that the business idea had worked in the US, Mr Kapoor said that when they started out in India, people laughed at their proposal. The pair started small. looking on the internet for dog food recipes and then cooking the meals themselves in Mr Kapoor's kitchen. "We have had a good response," he said. "We've worked very hard."

Among those who have signed-up to the service is Kalindi Kunj, a designer and interior decorator, whose dogs wear her specially-created outfits. "Who's going to think of making a variety of meals for them," she recently told the Hindustan Times. "The servants feed the dogs, so one never knows what they give them to eat. At least here I know what my dogs are eating."

Deepali Khanna is another satisfied customer, feeding her black Labrador, Mikey, and also several strays near her home from the tiffin delivery. "They keep changing the menu so Mikey and the other stray dogs are eating well," she said.

Another dog-owner who knows all about the need for good nutrition is Vikram Singh, a 25-year-old who sells body-building supplements. Earlier this summer he spent the equivalent of £430 to buy two St Bernard puppies. Twice a day Mr Singh, who lives in south Delhi, mixes dried, specialist dog food with either yoghurt or traditional cottage cheese to feed his dogs, Rusty and Rash.

Twice a day, his pride and joy get taken to the nearby park for a walk. During the hot summer months of June and July, when temperatures can reach 45C, he kept the dogs in a room with its own air-conditioner – a luxury that even his family did not have.

Mr Singh insists that he did not buy the dogs as a status symbol but says he was won over once the seller showed them to him. At the same he admits that did not want to have the kind of cross-bred Indian dog that his family owned when he was a child. "I like pedigree dogs," he said, rubbing his playful St Bernard. "I like the way they look."

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