Beijing has never been emptier, quieter and bleaker, Li Yunfei thought, as he set out on the eve of Chinese New Year to play with other people’s pets.
With a previously unknown SARS-like virus gathering steam in China, it was a good time to call in sick. But instead, Li rode the subway 30 minutes across the city, then a bike along deserted streets for 10 more, to see Egg and Ette, an Alaskan Malamute puppy and an Exotic Shorthair cat. As the owner of two cats himself, Li knew how anxious his clients would be if the two were left unattended.
Although 25-year-old Li—who registered as a pet-sitter to make extra cash during the holidays—is too young to remember SARS, endless news reports about the emerging coronavirus epidemic forced him to take extra precautions.
“I wear a mask all the time, wash my hands, and put on disposable shoe covers as soon as I get inside the house,” he said. “I am scared of the coronavirus too.”
Now, as the economic impact of the illness—which began last December in Wuhan and has since claimed over 1300 lives—makes itself felt, countless small businesses and startups are worried too, including Youchong Zaijia, the platform Li uses for pet-sitting.
Youchong Zaijia was founded by entrepreneur Yuan Ye and two friends last year on the back of the current pet industry boom, fueled by the expansion of China’s middle class. With ambitions to become the Meituan for pets (Meituan is China’s largest on-demand delivery platform) the platform connects pet owners with nearby part-time caretakers, who feed, walk, or tend to their cats and dogs.
“The National Day holiday and the Chinese New Year holiday are busy seasons for our services, as most orders are for these holidays,” Yuan said.
For Youchong Zaijia, the outbreak and the subsequent travel restrictions meant many of their users forfeiting travel plans, leading to nearly a quarter of the platform’s orders being cancelled.
“The cancellations are mostly from users whose hometowns are Wuhan or other cities in Hubei. They’ve decided not to go home,” Yuan said.
The outbreak has also created logistical difficulties for pet-sitters as lockdowns affect residential compounds. “Sometimes our pet-sitters have to wait for more than one hour at the reception before they can get in,” he said.
As China’s middle class expands rapidly, so does the the population of pet dogs and cats. In 2018, the tally was 91.5 million. These companion animals, sharing the same roofs with their humans, are increasingly seen in China as members of the family—a sea change from from just a few decades ago when hardly anyone kept pets due to cultural and economic reasons.
With this, the market for related services and products has also boomed. The industry reached RMB 170.8 billion (roughly USD 24.8 billion) in 2018, according to a report published by online pet owner community Goumin.com last year. Consulting firm Frost & Sullivan reported that Chinese pet owners, on average, spent nearly RMB 4000 per pet in 2018.
Most of the pet-sitters on Youchong Zaijia’s platform, which has served hundreds of clients since its launch in September, are pet owners themselves, said Yuan. These are people who love animals and have experience taking care of pets, he added.
The logic behind the company is simple: Young and affluent pet owners want to make sure their beloved pets are being taken care of when they are away travelling or going on business trips, and they don’t mind paying for that assurance.
Should the outbreak continue, it could pose a serious threat to Youchong Zaijia’s budding business as more potential users shelve their travel plans. “In the short term, it will affect our service and business,” he said.
Meanwhile, Yuan and his partners are considering a service just for the outbreak. It would see pet-sitters taking dogs and cats to pet clinics and animal spas, which might help some owners, worried about virus transmission, avoid contact with other people.
In the long run, Yuan is optimistic about the outlook of his startup. “People have been stuck at home for too long. When they can finally go traveling again, many will go.”