China’s one-child policy has a lesser-known canine counterpart, a one-dog policy for residents in large cities like Beijing. But there are also regulations on the size and breed of dogs allowed, and in recent days Beijing police have been hunting down "illegal" dogs in a campaign that’s terrifying pet owners.

In the past two weeks, authorities have carried out nighttime raids on homes and confiscated legally registered dogs as people walked them down city streets.

"People are in a complete panic," Mary Peng, chief executive of Beijing’s International Center for Veterinary Services, told The New York Times. "My phone has not stopped ringing."

So-called aggressive breeds and canines that stand taller than 13.7 inches have been banned in the capital city since 2003, and the list of "large and vicious" dogs includes retrievers, Labradors and collies.

Officials say the law is a public health measure to protect citizens from rabies — more people die of rabies in China than anywhere else in the world except India. The disease killed 13 people in Beijing last year.

Citizens are required to register their one dog, which costs $160 the first year and $80 annually after that, and carry a plastic permit with the dog’s photo, name and sex. But many pet owners thought the government’s size restrictions had lapsed after the pets were legally licensed years ago.

Now that the law is suddenly being enforced, dog lovers who can afford it are smuggling their pooches outside city limits, while those who can’t are keeping their pets indoors. One woman told The New York Times that she wakes up at 2 a.m. to take her black Labrador for brief walks. Another woman is too afraid to let her husky venture outside her apartment, so the dog relieves himself on the balcony.

Dog owners have posted heartbreaking stories of police encounters, including one by a woman who said police kicked a golden retriever to death in front of its owner. Last week a video of an officer confiscating a small white dog went viral.

While the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau issued a statement that it’s simply enforcing a longstanding ban, some Chinese dog catchers have admitted that they’re now operating under quotas.

In addition to seizure of the animal, pet owners are fined $800, and once confiscated, the dog can’t be retrieved. Animal rights advocates say many of the seized animals will likely end up in the hands of dog meat traders. (Last week, residents of Yulin ate about 10,000 dogs at their annual summer solstice dog meat festival. Most were served in a traditional hotpot with lychees and grain liquor.)

Animal advocates have been working for years to educate the government that big dogs aren’t necessarily vicious. They’ve also been encouraging authorities to focus on administering rabies vaccines, requiring dog owners to leash their pets, and mandating spaying and neutering.

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