Just off Street 294, a woman in a red dress sashays along the pavement, clutching a leash tightly attached to the collar of a fleecy, white Samoy.
The dog pulls and tugs on its jewel-encrusted collar and the woman struggles to maintain her balance. A cluster of motodop drivers hovering on the corner of the street snicker.
The Samoy spends most of its time cooped up in the owner’s third floor apartment, they say.
“It is too hot in Cambodia for a fluffy dog like that,” says driver Sok Thy.
Japan and South Korea are well-known for their fixation on fashionable pets but now a similar craze for “designer pets” has sprung up in the Kingdom, according to local veterinarians and animal rescue workers.
Nicky Scales, co-founder of Phnom Penh Animal Welfare Society (PPAWS), who rescue, de-sex and rehome the city’s stray and unwanted dogs and cats, says she has noticed a spike in the amount of more affluent Khmer people and expats walking the streets with “designer” pooches and stylish breeds such as Huskies, Labradors, Great Danes and Rottweilers.
The majority of pets are trundled over from Bangkok’s heaving Chatuchak market, she said. The popular market is known for its racks of caged puppies and other exotic, often endangered creatures.
“There’s certainly been a wave in popularity of designer dogs, they’re like accessories to many. I lived near a man with 10 dogs and two of those were Huskies from Thailand with terrible skin conditions, he was having them treated but they just weren’t suited to the climate here.
“I don’t understand why you need a pedigree dog if you’re not showing your dog in competitions,” she says.
There has been a proliferation of pet shops along Phnom Penh’s Street 63. With their colourful birds, ponds filled with fluorescent fish and tiny tortoises, unusual marsupials and caged balls of barking fluff, the pet stores see locals flock to them each day, but the industry remains predominantly unregulated, Scales says.
At one of the more popular shops near Central Market, a suited man rolls out of his Lexus and inspects a cage filled with “baby flying possums”, on the market for $100 a pop. He dons a pair of gloves and picks up one of the animals, checking its genitals.
“I need a boy for breeding, my friends are fascinated by them. I don’t really know what they are or where they are from though, I just like them,” he says.
The shop owner’s daughter says that a cage of the animals is usually cleared every week, with the dogs arriving from Chatuchak on a weekly basis. Inside the shops, a Husky, at least a few months old, lies lethargic but cramped in a wire cage.
He has access to water, but the owner admits he is confined to the cage once the shop shuts its doors and is not really exercised.
“He runs so fast so we cannot take him for a walk. These dogs are very popular in Cambodia although quite new,” she says.
She says they sell at least a couple of dogs each week, with Pomeranians going for about $600 and Huskies at about $800. Stacked cages of Labradors peer out of cages. The dogs have not been vaccinated or de-wormed, according to the owner.
Phnom Penh veterinarian Marie Chartier says that the majority of animals bought from the city’s pet stores are infected with diseases such as Distemper virus and Parvovirus, which humans cannot catch but which are often fatal for the animals.
“There is a risk with Rabies, but it’s not so common in the centre of Phnom Penh and with puppies. Most of these animals are from Thailand, are not vaccinated and are have parasites, fleas, ticks, mites and worms,” she said. “They really are bred in squalid conditions – small, unclean cages, no vaccinations or worming.”
Scales believes more Cambodians should consider animal adoption when looking for a pet, and that the government should legislate the pet shop industry.
“The government should look at ways to regulate the pet industry and pet shops, it would raise revenue for the government and improve conditions for animals.”
She said with a recent surge in interest in animal welfare, now was the ideal time for the government to pounce on introducing tougher legislation of the industry.
To contact the reporter on this story: Claire Knox at [email protected]