by Annabelle Liang
Singapore, March 1, 2013 (AFP) - The guests lean over the side of the boat to catch the morning breeze as their catamaran eases off from a jetty in Singapore. A typical cruise, except for the fact that the passengers are dogs.
"Actually, this is their third cruise," said Andy Pe, 43, the doting owner of two Black Labrador Retrievers, a Yellow Labrador, a Golden Retriever and two mongrels. "They enjoy the sea breeze and water so much."
From boat cruises and spas to their own obituary section in the leading newspaper, pets are pampered in a big way in Singapore, a city-state with one of Asia's highest standards of living.
Boat owner Joe Howe, 48, started the Pet Cruise company last July.
His 26-foot (7.8-metre) motor catamaran, which comes with a swimming deck, has a fully-stocked cleaning station and life jackets for dogs.
On weekends, a basic cruise lasting two hours costs Sg$40 ($32) per guest -- human or pet -- or Sg$400 to book the entire boat.
Howe, a retired broker who now leads an average of two cruises every week, has even had people bring pet tortoises on board.
"Young couples are having pets before they have children, it's a stand-in, and at times even a replacement (for kids)," Howe said.
Owners concur. "They are very much like my kids because I'm single and I have some time on my hands," said Pe as the vessel made its way to Seletar island, where his dogs went for a splash in the sea.
According to official data, there were 57,000 registered dogs in 2012 in Singapore. A densely populated island of 5.3 million people, the majority of its inhabitants live in high-rise apartment blocks with little room for dogs to run.
There are more than 250 licensed pet shops in the city-state, many of them operating in shopping malls, offering everything from hamsters priced at Sg$10 to pure breed dogs costing thousands.
Marcus Khoo, the executive director of Petopia, a shop which offers dog grooming services as well as board and lodging, said owners are willing to pay a premium for their pets' well-being.
The shop's modern interior has a wall of doggy collars and glass panels through which owners keep an eye on pets undergoing various treatments.
"People now understand that quality canine lifestyle is not just a roof over their heads and food," Khoo told AFP.
These services offering the best in canine comfort don't come cheap.
A 20-minute microbubble bath treatment for an odour-free coat can cost anywhere between Sg$64 to Sg$119, depending on the breed and size of the dog.
Dog yoga -- or Doga -- is also catching on in Singapore after becoming popular in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
"Pets are left at home for hours, so Doga is a way for owners and dogs to bond," said Rosalind Ow, 42, the owner of Super Cuddles Clubhouse, which started offering Doga classes last August.
Luxury options extend to the departed. Owners can publish tributes to their deceased pets in the classified ads section of the city-state's leading daily The Straits Times on Sundays.
At the suburban Pets Cremation Center, niches can be rented at a columbarium after the funeral services.
"Most owners treat their pets as part of their family. (A pet's passing) is a very sensitive issue. When that happens, a pet that usually sleeps with them is suddenly gone from their lives," said the firm's owner Patrick Lim, 60.
A simple cremation for a dog costs anywhere from Sg$150 to Sg$500, depending on its size.
Owners can opt for express cremation -- extra charges apply, of course -- and then pay Sg$300 to place an urn in the columbarium for one year, after which the rent falls to Sg$180 annually.
That excludes a yearly "maintenance fee" of Sg$180 for the upkeep of the premises.
But there is a darker side to the growing fondness for pets in Singapore -- some of the animals end up being dumped after the novelty wears off and the reality of long-term caring sets in.
Abandoned dogs and cats, even guinea pigs, await adoption in steel enclosures at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), which takes in up to 600 unwanted or abandoned animals each month.
"A lot of people wouldn't bat an eyelid on spending several thousand dollars on a dog. The litmus test is whether the dog stays with them for the rest of its life or not," said the SPCA's executive director Corinne Fong.
"Society at large is not quite there yet," she added.