In Chinese astrology, this is the Year of the Dog, but it's not an auspicious time for man's best friend.
The outlook for canines in China's capital city became considerably bleaker last week when city authorities announced strict limits on dog ownership -- each household is now allowed only one dog, which cannot be taller than 14 inches.
To make sure the public was aware of the restrictions, the state-controlled media in Beijing made the announcement, and the police posted similar notices prominently in most neighborhoods around the capital.
Under the regulations, those caught with more than one dog or with an oversize dog face a fine of $600 to $1,250, and police can take away the extra dogs and the dogs that are too big.
Beijing has a population of about 15 million people and more than 1 million dogs. About half of the dog population in the capital is unregistered, according to state media.
During the 1960s and 1970s, at the time of the radical Cultural Revolution, having dogs as pets was banned as a "bourgeois habit." Dogs as pets became popular again in the mid-1990s among the urban middle and upper classes as they prospered from China's economic boom.
The renewed emphasis on limiting the dog population comes from official concern over the sharp increase in rabies cases nationwide. The Chinese health ministry recorded 2,254 rabies infections in the first nine months of 2006, a rise of 27 percent over the same period last year.
State media reported that rabies has become the biggest killer among infectious diseases in China, even outranking AIDS and hepatitis B, for five straight months.
Most of the prohibitions on dogs have been on the books since 2003 but were not strictly enforced. This time Beijing police have made it clear that they are serious by swooping down on selected residential areas, inspecting pet dogs and removing dogs that were covered by the restrictions, actions that sent a considerable number of the city's dog owners into a panic.
Some hit the Internet chat rooms and posted horror stories about how their beloved puppies were taken away by the police, while others wrote about their fears of a mass slaughter of their canine pets. A mood of anger and resistance started to spread among the dog-owning community.
Last weekend, hundreds of dog owners mustered enough courage to gather near the city zoo and express their anger over the new restrictions. They held up stuffed dogs and carried signs reading "Stop the Indiscriminate Killing!" even as cordons of policemen surrounded them.
Those who owned more than one dog, as well as those who owned larger dogs -- like golden retrievers, German shepherds, Dobermans or collies, dreamed up ways to move their pets to outside the city limits or hide them from the authorities.
A number of dog lovers sought to send their dogs to their friends and relatives in other cities. One person even posted a weblog that offered a kennel in the suburbs where dog owners could keep their pets safe from the police.
Overseas reaction was also strong. The Humane Society of the United States criticized the Chinese approach for failing to address the underlying reason for the country's rabies crisis. "We believe it's a policy that is misplaced in that the focus should be on rabies vaccination rather than a limitation on the number of dogs in a household," said Wayne Pacelle, the organization's president and chief executive officer.