SHANGHAI - With fast flicks, the vet inserts a dozen acupuncture needles up and down Little Bear's belly and back. The bichon frise is held still with a cone around his neck to keep him from licking them.
Little Bear's owner Zhu Jianmin brought him for acupuncture after hearing it might help the Shanghai dog lose weight. At 15 kilogrammes (33 pounds), he is 50 percent heavier than the average for his breed.
"Sometimes I'll be working on business documents until 4.00 am and he stays with me, eating snacks. But he isn't satisfied with bread. He prefers cheese cake or cream puffs," Zhu, 50, a medical instrument company boss, said proudly.
Little Bear is part of a new class of pampered pooches who are enjoying privileges previously unknown to man's best friend, thanks to rapidly rising income levels in the world's second-largest economy.
China's pet population is growing fast. There were about 58 million pet dogs in 20 major cities at the end of 2009 and the figure is rising about 30 percent each year, according to a survey by Beijing-based magazine Dog Fans.
Pet owners in China, some of who are "spoiling their dogs too much", spend an estimated $2 billion a year on their animals, said Per Lyngemark, founder of Shanghai-based Petizens.com, a Facebook-like site dedicated to furry friends.
He expects the launch of a Chinese-language version of the site in April to bring at least 50,000 new users to the website by the end of this year. It currently has 60,000 users around the world.
Growth in China's pet products industry is outpacing that in the rest of the world, he said.
"In America, it's going up one percent a year. In China, it's going up 10 to 20 percent a year. It's really booming here," Lyngemark said.
At Simba Pet Photography Studio in central Shanghai, the star of the photo shoot is a Yorkshire terrier named Only -- not the dog's owner, a 21-year-old student who gave her name only as Nina.
Owners come to Simba, and other studios like it, to immortalise the love they have for their dogs in whimsical portraits.
China's one-child policy, formally implemented in 1980, has also helped elevate the household status of pets.
As the younger generation wait longer to marry and put careers ahead of having children, parents of only children are increasingly lavishing attention on furry companions as a stand-in for the grandchildren they do not have.
At an upscale pet store in the city centre, a 54-year-old woman, who only gave her surname Shen, waved enthusiastically through a window to Kenny, a white poodle, restlessly enduring a one-hour shampoo, style and spa treatment.
"My 25-year-old daughter bought him last year. But since she has to work, I walk Kenny twice a day and bring him here every 10 days," Shen said.
"My husband drives us all the way here because this place looks cleaner and more deluxe than those near my home, although it is more expensive," she said, waving to the dog.
"He has a human nature. I used to look down at those who had a dog but since I've been living with him every day, the attachment has grown gradually and now I can't do without him," said Shen, adding they spend at least $100 a month on the dog.
Authorities have also caught on to the boom.
Shanghai was home to 60,000 pet dogs a decade ago, according to state media reports. Officials now estimate the city has 740,000 pet dogs.
As dog ownership becomes more common, the city has proposed slashing the annual 2,000-yuan ($290) registration fee to a one-off 300 yuan to encourage owners to register -- and vaccinate -- the estimated 600,000 dogs currently not on the books.
To keep the pup population in check, the government has also proposed a one-dog policy limiting families to one canine per household.
But the rules are likely to be hard to enforce, particularly for those who cannot resist the puppies in pet-store windows.
Angel Wu, a 21-year-old university student, paid more than 3,000 yuan to buy a four-month-old chihuahua even though she already had a cocker spaniel because the new dog was "so cute that I couldn't help buying it".
"I can dress it up with all kinds of fashionable clothes", she said, holding the dog, which coughed inside a tiny pink winter coat.
Image: johey24 / via Flickr