BEIJING – BEIJING (AP) — Walking into Ruowen Pet Spa is like entering a doggie Halloween costume contest. There's turtle-dog, zebra-dog, spiderman-dog, tiger-dog and even panda-dog.
Raphael the toy poodle runs around in his playpen like any other dog — except his snow white coat has been dyed neon green and is partially shaved with a protruding shell on top to resemble a turtle. He seems oblivious to his unique look but enjoys the attention of onlookers.
Raphael, named after a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles character, is one of half a dozen dyed dogs on display at the spa in downtown Beijing, which caters to wealthy Chinese who are fueling a booming pet craze in China.
"If you can dream it, we can make it come true," said Sun Ruowen, who owns the spa and has worked in the pet industry for 10 years.
Sun charges anywhere from $7 to dye one ear to $300 for permanent dyeing and trimming of larger dogs — with most dye jobs lasting six months before the hair grows out.
Once banned by the Communist Party as bourgeois, pet ownership is booming in China, spawning a slew of cat and dog pampering businesses — where pets are treated to pedicures, rose petal bubble baths and massages.
This year, the Year of the Tiger in China, has brought an interest in the dyeing trend — with tigers being the most-sought-after look. From golden retrievers to Pekingese, pets are not just being dyed basic colors but are being transformed to look like other animals, says Sun.
"Dyeing pets is popular in many developed countries like Japan and Korea, but China is quickly catching on," said Sun, who recently participated in the first national pet dyeing competition in Beijing. She attributes the phenomenon to a "head-turning effect."
"People already love to show off their pets and draw attention, so a panda-dog walking down the street is bound to turn heads."
Dog owners say the attention their canines receive has improved their mental well-being. Kung Fu, a 10-month-old Old English sheepdog, can barely make it down the street without swarms gathering to admire his thick coat dyed to look like a panda, says owner Queenie Yang.
"Kung Fu loves the attention, and his self confidence has shot up since lots of pretty girls come up to pet him," said Yang, a 31-year-old housewife from Beijing.
Yang's husband decided to dye Kung Fu's hair after seeing an advertisement from the spa and since Kung Fu's features were already similar to that of a panda.
From the back, the 80-pound dog, with his black button tail and tan fur, could be mistaken for a panda — with fur around his eyes that have been dyed black to a create a droopy and almost comical expression.
He sits impatiently on a metal table in Ruowen's spa, waiting for another bleach job of his gray hair, which is now a tan color. His front and hind leg sections have been dyed black, hair trimmed short and patches of hair on his head dyed black and fastened with elastics to look like panda ears.
One veterinarian warned that owners should be careful of damaging a dog's mental and physical well-being before considering dyeing their pets.
"Owners should seek pet spas that use natural coloring which won't damage the dog's hair or irritate the skin," said Tian Haiyan, who works at the Beijing Guanshang Animal hospital. "Mentally, some dogs that aren't used to being in the spotlight so may react negatively to the sudden attention."
While some critics say the new trend is inhumane as the dogs are sometimes forced to undergo hours of unnecessary dyeing, Sun says her products are all natural and it's nothing more than an innocent dress-up session.
"It's a confidence booster for dogs and owners," said Sun. "We're here to offer them new ways to pamper and dress up their pets."