TOKYO In her spare time, 46-year-old Japanese eye surgeon Toshiko Horikoshi can be seen pushing a pram around elegant department stores as she shops for designer clothes.
Stop to coo over the pram, however, and you won't be greeted by a baby's smile. You'll face two small snouts.
Ginger, a teacup poodle, and Tinkerbell, a lively Chihuahua-Pomeranian mix, accompany Horikoshi everywhere she goes. Since the two get exhausted quickly and most department stores don't admit dogs on a leash, she often chauffeurs them around in a pram.
"He's mummy's boy," Horikoshi says, pointing to Ginger, who wears a frilly little T-shirt. "They're like babies."
For Horikoshi, sharing her life with dogs instead of babies is an active choice. She divorced her husband who had asked her to follow Japanese tradition and become a stay-at-home mum; she wanted to pursue her career. Her current partner has to accept that her dogs and her work are at the centre of her life.
A specialist in cataracts, Horikoshi is now at the top of her profession and likes to spend her money on travel, her black Porsche and her dogs. Her friends share her choice.
"My friends -- married, one poodle, no child. Married, two Chihuahuas, no child. Married, one Chihuahua, no child," she counts off her fingers.
With its low birth-rate and rapidly ageing population, Japan is considered a saturated market by many.
But Horikoshi's case shows that fewer births, coupled with an economic recovery and the emergence of women as independent earners and spenders, also create new needs.
"I don't want a family, I want to continue to work hard. I don't need help, I don't need a husband. I have a lot of free time, I can do everything by myself," said Horikoshi, who has her own practice and performs 15 eye operations in an afternoon, leaving most mornings free for shopping.
"But sometimes I feel lonely, and now when I come back to my apartment, I can see two dogs."
Dogs now outnumber children aged 10 and under in Japan -- there were 13.1 million dogs in 2006. As the number of humans shrink, the dog population is growing, research firm Euromonitor says, and so is the market for dog-related products.
Fifi & Romeo, a Los Angeles-based boutique that started the celebrity dog fashion trend, expanded into Japan about five years ago through a licensing deal with a local company. There are 11 Fifi & Romeo boutiques in Japan, more than in the United States, and the brand has attracted a cult following.
"Japan is the 'cute' capital of the world," said Hollywood costume designer Yana Syrkin, who founded Fifi & Romeo.
"I've never seen consumption the way it is in Japan," she told Reuters by telephone from Los Angeles.
Horikoshi's friends hold dog parties in dog cafes, dress their dogs in silk-and-cashmere dog sweaters, and take them to hot spring resorts and spas offering dog massages and aromatherapy.
"Dog parents" often have more spare cash for frills and fads than people with children. After all, they don't have to pay college fees or a mortgage for a big, family-friendly house.
Japan is also acting as a pet fashion trend-setter. Where but in Tokyo would you find a toy poodle in a bumble-bee costume peeking out of a stroller? Or a dog-themed boy-band whose members sport furry hats with dog ears and cradle live pooches?
Harriet Sternstein, an American who owns the Mon Bon Chien boutique in Paris, says while French people like to pamper their dogs, she can't yet imagine them putting their pets into prams.
But she believes that in terms of accessories, where Japan leads, the rest of the world will follow.
"Paris is 10 years behind the United States and at least 10-15 years behind Japan," she told Reuters at her shop in Paris.
ALL-NIGHT PET SHOPS
While owners, trend spotters and pet care companies rejoice over the small dog craze, not everyone is happy.
In Japan, the dogs themselves often suffer.
Many are born with deformities due to overbreeding.
Puppy mills churn out one litter after another from the same mother until their fertile lives end and they are abandoned or killed. Most dogs sold in Japan come from such puppy mills.
"Kawaii! (Cute!)" exclaim two young women as they gaze longingly at dozens of puppies in a pet shop, tapping on the glass cages to stir the dogs into action.
It is midnight, and the pet shop in Tokyo's sleazy Roppongi entertainment district is teeming with tipsy party-goers.
A few of the puppies are trying to sleep under the glare of neon striplights. A tiny pug that could fit into the palm of a hand, its eyes the size of 10-cent-coins, stumbles around its cage, disoriented. A Pekinese tears its rug apart in frustration.
The shop is grim, but its offerings are luxurious: Chihuahuas cost upwards of 250,000 yen ($2,105).
It stays open until 5 am, catering to the revellers who stumble out of Roppongi's karaoke parlors and hostess bars.
It is one of the many shops that provoke the ire of animal welfare activists such as Briar Simpson, a New Zealander who works for Animal Refuge Kansai, Japan's largest animal shelter.
She says some of the dogs in all-night pet shops are used in elaborate con schemes: a hostess will ask her wealthy, drunken lover to buy her a little dog; the next day, she will bring the dog back to the shop in exchange for cash. The shop keeps a cut.
Simpson has noticed a rise in pure breeds that are rescued by her organization, some of which were abandoned by inexperienced owners who don't realize that even a small dog needs care.
"They think if it's small and fluffy, it's not a dog," she sighs.
Horikoshi, whose teacup poodle sleeps in her bed, does have experience as a dog owner: her parents had two large dogs when she was small. But those dogs were not even allowed in the house.
(Additional reporting by Anna Willard in Paris)