A tangible buzz courses through the Hua Xi cancer hospice when the newest "doctors" make their rounds. Faces of patients light up with broad grins, and chatter and laughter fill the halls.
What this group lacks in medical training, they make up for with their bedside manner.
Meet China's "Dr. Dogs." These three - a golden retriever, a shih-tzu, and a Chinese toy mix - are just some of the more than 300 "canine consultants" from Animals Asia Foundation (AAF), an animal-welfare charity based in Hong Kong. They're practicing "animal therapy" - the theory that pet companionship can improve a patient's mental well-being which, in turn, promotes healing.
In a country where dogs are more likely to end up on a dinner plate than in a living room - much less a hospital - AAF is helping raise awareness of the plight of pooches everywhere, and bringing comfort and healing in the process.
"I just love life," says Yu Shu Jun, a patient here. "Whenever I see dogs, or any living creature, it makes me so happy."
While animal therapy is common in the United States and Europe, it's a relatively new phenomenon here. Dr. Dogs, which rescues dozens of stray dogs from animal markets and helps pet owners train their pups to participate, is one of the first of its kind in China and the largest animal- therapy program here.
"Dr. Dogs has brought a lot of health and happiness to the patients," says Jiang Jian Jun, a physician. He says the dogs brighten the hospital's atmosphere.
Dr. Dogs is a 14-year-old endeavor already operating in five other Asian countries. Last November it began working inside mainland China. AAF was already operating in Chengdu, where it has a base for its primary mission: rescuing Asiatic black bears kept captive for their bile. The program made a smaller foray in Beijing and is eyeing other Chinese cities even as its operations across Asia grow and thrive.
Organizers put out word to local health-care organizations that they had dogs available to cheer up patients. To their surprise, the director of the Chengdu hospice, who studied in Britain and knew the benefits of animal therapy, welcomed them.
"I never imagined we'd be allowed to come into the hospital here," says Toby Zhang, a native of western China who runs the program in Chengdu. "It's very strange."
This is the sixth time the dogs have visited the hospice, and with each round the patients and staff grow more excited about the visits.
There was apprehension at first, especially among the nurses, says Rainbow Zhu, another AAF staffer. Now the nurses gather around the dogs, as eager as the patients to see them and play.
The dogs move from room to room, pausing at the bedsides of those who want to see them for 10 or 15 minutes, sometimes sitting on a patient's chest to visit. Dr. Dollar, the golden retriever, shakes hands on command. The animals are required to pass a strict test before entering the medical corps. Primarily, they can't have any tendency toward biting.
AAF plans to expand the program across China and has made inroads in an orphanage in Chengdu. But this remains a tough task in a country where dogs have been part of the cuisine for 2,000 years. The foundation estimates that up to 8 million dogs are eaten every year in China. Most large restaurants offer a dog dish or two, and nationwide, dog meat is as easy to find in any big restaurant as a hamburger is in the United States. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the number of dogs eaten annually in China.]
Ironically, as wealth grows, China's appetite for dog meat is gaining at the same time as pet ownership increases, says Jill Robinson, the Briton who started AAF. The foundation began dog therapy as part of its campaign to educate Chinese people about the benefits of dogs and cats as companions, calling the endeavor "Friends, not Food."
While overall ownership numbers are hard to come by, state-run media report the number is rising steadily as cities relax high licensing fees and ownership rules. In the capital, Beijing, pet owners have more than 1 million dogs and there are probably at least that many in Shanghai, according to government statistics.
"Culture is no longer an excuse for cruelty," says Ms. Robinson. "The fact is that we are now joined by thousands and thousands of people in China who feel this way."
Dr. Jiang has no doubt the furry doctors are doing well by their patients.
"For a lot of people, a hospice is a stressful place," said Jiang. "The dogs create a happier atmosphere."