Rise in cashed-up Aussies who want to clone their pets
Cashed-up Aussie pet owners are increasingly turning to overseas firms to ensure they are never without a familiar animal companion.
But these advanced laboratories are not just breeding cats and dogs - they're cloning them.
One US firm says it has seen an influx of Australians "banking" their pets' DNA to ensure they can order a double of Rex or Fluffy in future, and demand in other countries has already created a year-long wait list for cat clones.
But bioethicists warn these "genetically identical" pets may not share the same personalities as their predecessors, and there's an even greater toll to pay outside the thousand-dollar fees.
While it sounds like science fiction, animal cloning has been around for more than a decade. The first cat clone, aptly named Copy Cat, was born in 2001, and the first dog, Snuppy, arrived in 2005.
Pet cloning is now commercially available countries including South Korea, China, the United Kingdom and the United States, where firms command about $72,000 to clone a dog or $50,000 to clone a cat.
Despite the high fees, Melain Rodriguez, client service manager at Texas-based cloning firm ViaGen, said the company had no shortage of takers, and saw a huge spike in orders after Barbra Streisand revealed she had twice used the service to clone her Coton de Tulear dog, Samantha.
Ms Rodriguez said the company was currently cloning 50 pets per year, with the process taking about six months after it received DNA samples from the host animal.
"The numbers are still small compared to the number of pets out there but it's growing every year," she said. "We've seen a huge amount of growth in just the four years we've been cloning pets."
She said a growing number of Australians were using ViaGen to store their pets' DNA samples, essentially "banking" the potential to clone their pet at a later date, and perhaps a cheaper price.
DNA collection, storage and transportation costs about $3000, and tissue samples must be taken while the pet is alive or very shortly after death.
"Pet cloning may never be something that's very common because of its price - I don't think it's ever going to cost $1000 - but it will become more affordable," she said.
"Some people hear that price and say, 'that's way too much, but you have to think about what that price might be in five or 10 years from now. We hope there will be a new technique that will make it even less invasive."
Brisbane business owner Francesca Webster has already preserved the DNA of her beloved Scampy, an adorable, 13-year-old dog.
She said she investigated cloning the family dog as while "some people want new cars, new kitchens, and new houses, I just wanted Scampy".
But the Brazilian Beauty chief executive said current overseas cloning options had turned her off the practice for now, and she planned to wait until pet cloning became available locally.
"I realised I would have to wait a year for the puppy to come over from South Korea," Ms Webster said.
"I didn't think it was fair to commit to having a puppy and then let it spend the first year of its life in quarantine."
Cloned pets are typically flown to their owners almost four months after their birth but Australian quarantine practices can add a further six months.
University of Technology Sydney genomics professor Claire Wade said this long waiting period could impact the personality of the cloned animal in ways the owner did not expect.
"What people don't realise is the animal they'll get won't be exactly the same," she said. "The animal they owned and loved was the product of its upbringing as well as its genetics and you won't exactly replicate that environment again. It's like saying an identical twin is the same as another."
Ms Wade said there were also "hairy side issues" to consider, such as using other cats and dogs as surrogates and to extract eggs, and that cloned pets may not live as long as their counterparts.
"It has been shown that cloned animals have shorter lifespans," she said. "Small amounts of damage make the animals age faster."
An RSPCA spokesman recommended pet lovers consider adopting a needy animal from one of its shelters instead, where all animals had been behaviourally and medically assessed.
"Kitten season is in full swing and as our shelters come close to full capacity, they will never be as full as your heart when you look into the eyes of your new furry family member," he said.