Ever since I was a kid, I remember wanting a dog. When I was young there was no way to afford one or even giving it a good life. As I was growing up I kept moving around the world and almost never stayed in one place long enough to convince myself that I would be able to properly take care of a pet.
After years of moving around, I finally settleded in Japan and my 3rd or 4th year in I was pretty much certain that I would want to stay for as long as possible. I settled in a large old Japanese-style house in the countryside, with a nice garden and it finally was time to get me a beautiful dog.
I already knew I wanted to adopt. As much as I love this country, its relationship with pets is pretty scary. In 2017 almost 8,500 dogs and 35,000 cats were put down after most of them had been abandoned. Unlike many other countries, once an animal is taken by the system, they have a few days, and often just a few hours before they are euthanized, unless saved by a shelter or a private.
If you think these numbers are high, you should know that they have been in constant decline in the past 10 years and more. In 2007, the pets that were euthanized were a heart breaking 300,000.
Some groups and authorities blame it on the fact that a lot of owners do not neuter their pets and while that may be part of the issue, it does not explain why so many animals in Japan are abandoned after just a few months after being taken in.
The fact of the matter is that Japanese people, by and large, treat pets like this cute thing that they really want, but many (like in most countries) might not think of the amount of time, money, effort, and space one needs to sacrifice to take care of a new furry family member.
Of course many people are happy to trade their time and comfort and get back much more than anyone could imagine. I never really understood what “unconditional love” really meant until I got my dogs.
On the other hand many people might find that to be too much to handle and decide to abandon their animals. These dogs and cats are usually left in city-run establishment, and are, for all intents and purposes condemned to die within hours. Occasionally the abandoned pets make it to a shelter where they are usually kept and taken care of until they find another family, or indefinitely.
These shelters are growing in number but the process of adoption is really complex, and this is where my personal experience started.
I used to live in Kyoto at that time. I thought that finding a place where I could adopt a pet wouldn’t be too hard, based on what I knew from other countries I used to live in, like Italy or the U.S.A.
If you ever decide to adopt a dog or cat while in Japan, you’ll be surprised to see that the shelters that offer pets for adoption are very few and all in very remote areas. Knowing that I would move to Tokyo soon, I decided to also look in and around the largest metropolis in the world. I used to say that there is nothing that can’t be found in Tokyo. Now I had do amend my belief with “except for dog shelters and adoption centers.”
There are virtually no agencies for adoption in Tokyo.
When I realized, much to my surprise, that the Tokyo road was a dead end, I decided to fall back onto the shelter that at that time was the largest in Kansai. It was a near 3-hour commute from my home, but I thought that I would be able to find a dog and that I would be able to bring him home soon and move to Tokyo along with it. Boy was I wrong.
The shelter had a lot of dogs. They would allow you to see them and if you wanted, to walk them briefly. At this point they would get your personal information, address, they would ask for pictures of the house, your job, your plans for the future, and more.
Initially I was happy to see such a thorough screening, although I did believe it was a little too much.
Later on I would learn that it’s a pretty common practice when adopting a pet.
Knowing that I would move soon, they initially didn’t even want to consider me a potential owner. They said that after I chose a dog, I would have to visit them multiple times and walk them and become friends with them. As hard as that was for me because of the distance, once again, I was happy to oblige. I went there 1-3 times a week for a month. I took days off work, neglected virtually any other social engagement, despite that month being the last days I could meet my Kansai friends before moving. I did it because I wanted to help at least one dog. In fact I wanted to get 3 of them, but I was told that I would not be able to because “they didn’t like each other.”
At that point I wanted to take home a 9y/o Rottweiler named Titan , A gorgeous German Shepard (Goal, aged six), and John a vivacious 6 years old Pitbull.
Spoiler alert, I was not able to take any of them.
I kept going to meet the dogs, but eventually gave up on trying to get all of them or even two of them because I realized that I would have not been able to convince the shelter that not only did I have the space for all of these dogs, but I was also convinced that them “disliking” one another was due to years of isolation and caging, and while hard, that behavior could be changed.
After a lot of thinking I decided to adopt Goal. There was no specific reason for it. Maybe a feeling. All those dogs had gotten used to me, they were happy to see me, and I used to give them toys and “presents” to play with (read destroy). I thought that taking Goal home was a given at this point.
This is when they told me that Goal had some serious stomach issue that required surgery. I didn’t flinch. I knew that this could have happened with an adopted dog (or any dog really), so I said no problem. But then, day after they, the shelter would inform me of a new issue that the dog supposedly had. I still wanted to take him in. Finally they informed me that they would have to “remove fat from Goal in order to help another dog.” At this point I got suspicious and decided to talk to well… everyone there. Doctors wouldn’t talk to me, the workers were very vague. I started feeling that they didn’t want to give ME the dog.
I never really could understand why and maybe I did do something wrong, but eventually I called them and told them that their behavior and their way of hiding things and springing them on me one by one as if to try and dissuade me, convinced me that I couldn’t adopt that dog, not because of the dog, but because of them.
I was shocked to hear the attendant crying on the other end of the line. She realized that the reason why I was backing out was because of how many obstacles that had created for me. I was about to leave the prefecture and still was nowhere closer to being able to adopt one of their dogs than I was at the very beginning of the process.
It broke my heart but I left Goal behind and I do hope he found a good family. I moved to Tokyo and settled in my house, got a car, and resumed my search. I visited at least half a dozen shelters.
I offered proof of income, address, I let them run background checks, call my working places.
Sometimes I was turned down because I was a foreigner (“what if you decide to go back to your country?” “well it’s unlikely but even if do, I would take my pet with me”); other times it was because while I did have a large outdoor open-space I didn’t have a fence that would enclose it all; Other times I was denied a dog because I was not a previous owner of the same breed.
While I understand that a certain level of screening is necessary and welcomed, but I also thought that the main goal of a shelter was to give their foster puppies to loving families who could afford to give the pets a decent life.
I was compliant, I demonstrated I had so much space that horses could roam freely both inside and outside my house, I showed documents proving my income and savings, and even had people vouch for me. Still it was almost impossible.
I was about to give up since it felt that the process was way more complicated than it should have been.
I then stumbled upon an app where privates give their pets for adoption. Just like I avoided saying the names of the shelters I visited, I won’t mention the app, but if you were to google “pet adoption (app) in Japan” (especially if you do in Japanese), you will likely find a few apps and websites, among some articles, including the ones that I've used.
After a few days of browsing, contacting people, being beaten by faster adopters, I was impossibly lucky (or maybe I really deserved it) and found a newly abandoned 3 month-old Rottweiler who was being given away because he allegedly had some genetical health issues. I contacted the third party that was giving him away. These people were not an agency. We signed a few papers and I took Zeus home.
A few months later, wanting a companion for my dog to play with, I tried again to adopt, but I was not able to get any of the dogs I had tried to get. Now, the issues with the adoption centers were even more, since most would not even consider giving one of their dogs to someone who already had a dog (silly me for thinking that it would have actually helped).
I tried for 2 months, day in day out, and finally gave in. My goal was to give Zeus a friend to play with at home and in my garden, possibly soon. Helping abandoned pets in Japan is impossibly hard, so I decided to buy one, not because I thought it was the right thing to do, but because it was the best thing to do for my current dog.
Spoiler alert #2, this time I was right.
If you decide to buy a pet, you"ll notice that there are a number of pet shops all over the territory. I would argue that you will see more pet shops on average than most other countries.
Selling and buying pets is obviously a business, but here in Japan it has even more traction because of the kawaii effect, where people pay out of their nose to purchase a pet, they definitely have not given enough thought about.
The prices in pet shops are exorbitant, and there are also taxes to consider (not shown in the price), not to mention a number of other fees that the store springs on you when you have decided what pet you want.
I didn’t feel safe buying from a store, although there is a pro-tip I can give you. Stores are not allowed to give their pets to shelters or kennels, so, if an animal stays with them for too long, the price tag decreases proportionately to the amount of time they have been in the shop.
I instead decided to go to the source. Since I was buying a dog and not adopting, I opted for choosing one of the same breed as Zeus. I looked for Rottweiler breeders and I found a few, and eventually discovered a very cheep female puppy (on average a breeder will sell dogs at half or less the price a store does). She was the last of her litter, I believe because she seemed to be very tiny compared to her siblings. Well I fell in love, drove 2 hours to the breeder, did the paperwork, and brought Rhea home when she was 2 months old.
At the time of this entry, Zeus is 55 kg (121 lb), almost 2 years old, and Rhea is one year and a half, 37 kg (81.4 lb). They are both healthy and fit.
When you decide to get a pet in Japan, please try to adopt. There are a lot of animals in need and you might be luckier than I was, as long as you do go through all the hoops. It’s annoying, frustrating, time and money consuming, but I’m sure it will be worth doing it in the end.
If you want to be more proactive, prepare some pictures of your house and outdoor area, if possible, and be ready to either communicate in Japanese or have someone who might do it for you.
If you have any question about the process, the places, or some more tips, please contact us.