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BEIJING (Reuters Life!) - Hailing from the Himalayan plateau, the lion-like Tibetan mastiff has become China's latest expensive indulgence.
The shaggy, 82 kg (180 lb) dog, known for its loyal but fierce disposition, has become the latest accessory for the country's legions of wealthy who are snapping up prime real estate, diamonds and luxury cars as the rest of the world slowly recovers from the fallout of the global economic crisis.
You Wenfa, owner of a mastiff breeding farm on the outskirts of Beijing, saw potential profits from the enormous hounds and purchased his first dog in the early 1990s.
You currently has over 40 dogs and goes back to Tibet every year to seek prospective additions to his stock.
He also provides breeding services and charges up to 100,000 yuan ($14,650) for a session with one of his pedigrees.
"This is like a car. You drive a German Mercedes or BMW and I drive a Chinese Xiali or mini van. Everybody has their own choices," he told Reuters.
"These dogs at the moment are a kind of choice for status and wealth," said You, whose pure breed mastiffs can fetch up to 300,000 yuan each.
Tibetan mastiffs hit the headlines last year when a buyer in China's western Shaanxi province paid 4 million yuan for a mastiff cumbersomely named Yangtze River Number Two.
Yangtze however lost its top-dog status in April this year as the award-winning mastiff Red Lion was snapped up for more than $1 million, according to the official Xinhua news agency.
The Chengdu-based mastiff was sold for a hefty 10 million yuan, Xinhua added.
While the mastiffs have cornered the top-end of China's dog market, pet-owning, once banned by the Communist Party, is becoming much more popular among the country's affluent middle to upper classes, many of whom are products of the country's strict one-child policy and who are happy to indulge their pets.
"When you have a dog now you have to give them dog food, take them to the doctor for check-ups and do other things that require the investment of financial resources," said 25-year-old Scottish-collie owner Li Su, as she put her dog through a grooming session costing more than $30.
"For normal families these are not small expenses. So it can be considered a sign of wealth."
Grooming salons, pet shops and veterinary clinics have sprung up around Beijing with people spending significant amounts on the purchase and upkeep of an animal that is a symbol of their affluence, as well as a pet, according to Mary Peng, Co-Founder of International Center for Veterinary Services.
"It is both. It is a sign of wealth and it is also a sign of love, and the human animal bond is getting stronger and stronger in our country," Peng said.
"Five years ago when, pets started becoming very popular especially dogs, there were a lot of pure-bred dogs that were being purchased. And many pet owners did see that as a sort of a symbol of their economic wherewithal to be able to say that I spent five thousand, ten thousand, or more on a dog."
Chinese cities remain subject to strict canine laws and pricey fees and fines for keeping dogs and restrictions on the ownership of large dogs within city centers.
Authorities have blamed illegal dog-keeping on a spate of rabies outbreaks across China last year, prompting a mass cull that drew condemnation from international animal rights groups.
Despite this, pet ownership, like China's economic growth, continues to expand, Peng added, with an 8 percent rise in the number of furry and feathered animals taken home every year.
Editing by Miral Fahmy