○ Pets may suffer more from smog as the amount of air they inhale with each breath is relatively large
○ Many owners have tried methods like taking their pets to the gym and feeding pricey TCM ingredients to pets to enhance their resistance to air pollution
○ But some say food and medicines that are believed to be good for humans may be ineffective on animals
A Beijing resident walks her dog during a smoggy day in Beijing on February 23, 2014. Photo: CFP
Tuotuo, a French bulldog and online celebrity, wears a smog-proof mask. Photo: Courtesy of Tuotuo's owner
This past winter will not be fondly remembered by Tuotuo, who spent a week in a Beijing hospital suffering from pneumonia.
The doctor said that her weak immune system and the season's spirit-crushing pollution caused her illness, and told her "mother" not to open the windows or let her outside when the city is choked by smog.
Pampered Tuotuo is a French bulldog who has become a social media star ever since her owner started posting videos on Sina Weibo of her, her canine companion and their pooch pal.
"It [Tuotuo's sickness] made me realize that an air purifier is necessary, especially for bulldogs who have short noses," the owner, who goes by the Weibo username of "Tuotuo is a French bulldog," told the Global Times.
The smog has become an unpleasant seasonal guest in China, with several bouts of air pollution settling in to stay for days over the season.
This winter more than 20 cities issued red smog alerts - the highest level in China's four-tier pollution warning system.
Visibility plummeted to less than 50 meters in the capital when the local government brought the red alert into effect. The authorities told primary and middle schools to suspend their classes and advised the city's residents to avoid outdoor activities if possible.
While humans might find these restrictions annoying, they are even more frustrating for dogs.
"My dogs won't pee in the house and I have to walk them even on polluted days," said Tuotuo's owner.
According to statistics issued by the Beijing Kennel Club, which is affiliated to the Beijing Public Security Bureau, there were more than 1.5 million registered pet dogs living in the capital as of June 2016 and an even greater number of pet cats.
The heavy smog that shrouds Beijing now and then has become another headache for these pet owners.
A resident walks a dog in Hangzhou, East China's Zhejiang Province, on a smoggy day. Photo: CFP
A dog wears a mask in Jinan, Shandong Province. Photo: IC
Hit the gym
Ye Laoduo (pseudonym), who owns a husky and has more than 100,000 followers on Weibo, told blogweekly.com.cn that he received over 200 comments from netizens across the country after posting complaints about the air pollution.
When many cities were shrouded in smog this winter, Ye received messages asking him how to protect pets from the pollution.
Pet owners swarmed onto social media, including zhihu.com, a popular Chinese question-and-answer website, or websites on animal health, asking questions or exchanging their strategies.
Ye himself was also trying to figure out the best way to keep his fuzzy friend safe.
In an effort to sooth his dog Meishir who had been stuck indoors for two days and become agitated, Ye brought him to a gym early in the morning at late at night when it wasn't busy, so Meishir could run on the treadmill twice a day.
Ye watched Mershir running for more than half an hour on the treadmill with his eyes looking straight ahead. "I knew that he did not like that tedious running," Ye said. But this was what the best he could do for the bored dog.
Putting anti-pollution face masks on their pets is another measure dog owners can take during smoggy times. But most dogs apparently dislike wearing these masks.
Mershir hates wearing them and he shakes his head, bites at them or drags them off, according to Ye.
Whenever nature calls and Meishir has to relieve himself, Ye hastily takes him out for less than 10 minutes and wipes his body and eyes carefully with damp towels afterwards.
Some dog owners reached by the Global Times who put face masks on their dogs echoed Ye's remarks and also expressed concern over whether the masks are effective.
The Global Times reporter found some online shops on China's largest e-commerce platform, Taobao, selling face masks "designed" for dogs and their prices ranged from 30 to 200 yuan ($4.3-$29).
One shop assistant told the Global Times that they have two kinds of face masks - one is disposable and designed for small dogs like the bulldog; and the other is made of nylon and can be used for long periods.
"Owners can train their dogs to wear them by awarding them with some snacks and the face masks should be removed as soon as possible if dogs have problems breathing," said the shop assistant.
"There are no filtered face masks specifically for dogs and some of them cannot wear face masks designed for humans," Zhang Xu, a veterinarian and owner of a pet clinic in Hangzhou, East China's Zhejiang Province, told the Global Times. He suggested that owners should try to limit outdoor activities if possible.
Ye has even taken his dog to Chengde, a city in northeast Hebei Province which many Beijing residents visit to escape the smog in December.
While Tuotuo's owner, who chose to stay in Beijing, took her three bulldogs to an underground garage whenever smog struck in the city.
Heavy air pollution can cause coughs and respiratory tract infections in dogs and cats, Zhang said, adding that there are no statistics showing a heightened risk of lung cancer among pets due to their relatively short lifespan and reduced exposure to air pollution compared to humans.
However, dogs and cats are more sensitive to the smog than humans are since the amount of air they inhale with each breath is about 10 to 15 milliliters per kilogram of body weight while humans take in around 5 to 10 milliliters per kilogram, said Zhao Tianxu from a Beijing-based pet hospital. He treated more pets for coughs and other respiratory diseases last winter than in previous years.
Aside from wearing masks and reducing outdoor activities, some owners have tried to boost their pets' immune systems to better protect their companions.
Small pollution particles that are inhaled into animals' lungs are fought against by the body's immune system.
Wang Hong, the owner of two dogs and a pet nutritionist, makes soup with fritillaria cirrhosa flowers for her dogs and feeds them soup made from the tremella fungi every day.
These supposedly medicinal soups cost Wang several thousand yuan but she thinks that these pricey concoctions are not sufficient to protect dogs that she treats like her own children. Wang bought a villa in the north of Beijing and moved in with her two dogs to flee the smoggy downtown in winter.
Fritillaria cirrhosa and tremella are believed to enhance the functions of the lung and help expel toxins in Traditional Chinese Medicine.
Tuotuo's owner also said that she also adds nutrients to her dogs' food to enhance their health. However, an owner from a Beijing-based dog breeding center surnamed Yang told the Global Times that foods or ingredients that are believed to be good for humans may not work on for dogs.
"Dogs have a different digestive system and pears (also believed to help the respiratory system) or tremella would have no effect on them. And owners should also know that some foods may be harmful for dogs," said Yang. He noted that he can do nothing to protect the dogs besides locking them inside when air pollution hits. "We humans known little about protecting ourselves, let alone dogs."
Wang says living in a villa far away from the polluted city downtown gives her and her dogs more time to enjoy the precious clean air.
But it did not mean they were immune to all air pollution. When the whole city was totally besieged by smog - a new bout of smog came on February 15 when the PM 2.5 index hit 288 - Wang had to keep the two dogs inside and wait for a cold front blow into town to dispel the smog.