IN CHINA, 1988 will be the year of the dragon. But to stamp collectors in Canada, it'll be the year of the dog and to those in the United States, the year of the cat.

That's because Canada and the United States will be issuing sets of commemorative stamps honoring popular pets.

The United States will be the first to put its pets in the postal windows with a set of four 22-cent cat commemoratives to be released in New York on February 5. The stamp designs, disclosed this week, follow the block-of-four format that the United States used in 1984 when it issued four commemoratives featuring eight of the most popular dog breeds.

Designed by John Dawson of Hailey, Idaho, each of the cat stamps will feature two of the eight most popular breeds of the nation's 57.8 million cats, a population that the Postal Service noted is almost eight million higher than the nation's dog population.

The cats selected for the stamps are the Siamese and Exotic Shorthair, Abyssinian and Himalayan, the Maine Coon and Burmese, Persian and American Shorthair.

The cat stamps represent a technological advance over previous stamps, printed for the Postal Service by the American Bank Note Co. in Richmond. The designs were screened by computer and processed using a 300-line-per-inch screen compared to the 200- to 220-line-per-inch screen used in previous stamps printed by the company. That and a double-coated, "high bright" paper should maximize the sharpness of the designs, the Postal Service said.

Even the backs of the stamps will be different, using a dry dextrine gum that has virtually no gloss. That will make the backs appear duller but it also should produce a stamp with less tendency to curl, according to postal officials. The used of water-based adhesives is what makes unused stamps curl.

The Canadian dog stamps, to be issued August 26, are just four of 15 animal stamps that Canada plans to issue this year. Most will be part of a regular series that features Canadian wildlife. U.S. residents will probably be seeing a lot of lynx, the wild cat that is featured on the 43-cent stamp that carries first-class letters to the United States.

The lynx debuts Monday, along with a killer whale on a 57-cent stamp, and a Wapiti, an elk species, on a 74-cent stamp.

Later this year Canada will offer a 1-cent flying squirrel, a 2-cent porcupine, a 3-cent muskrat, a 5-cent hare, a 6-cent red fox, a 10-cent skunk and a 25-cent beaver -- enough wildlife stamps to make the Vienna-based National Wildlife Federation jealous.

The dogs being honored by Canada this summer have a distinctively Canadian flair: a Canadian Eskimo Dog, a Newfoundland, a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever and a Tahltan Bear Dog. The county is also planning a set of four butterfly stamps for July 4.

All of this interest in wildlife isn't by accident. Polls have consistently shown that animal subjects are among the most popular topics for stamps, and the public, as well as collectors, never seems to tire of them.

Collectors seeking first-day cancellations of the U.S. cat stamps must have their requests postmarked by March 6. Individuals who purchase their own stamps should send the envelopes with stamps affixed to: Customer-Affixed Envelopes, Cat Stamps, Postmaster, New York, NY 10199-9991. The Postal Service will affix either single cat stamps, picked at random, or blocks of four stamps for up to 50 envelopes per collectors. The address is: Cat Stamps, Postmaster, New York, NY 10199-9992.

The United Nations is beginning 1988 with a vegetarian special -- a set of six stamps to promote the campaign "For A World Without Hunger" of the UN's International Fund for Agricultural Development.

None of the UN stamps promote meat products to feed the world's hungry. Unlike the UN, the U.S. postal service has often bowed to the nation's powerful agricultural interests by portraying poultry, beef and cattle on stamps.

The UN stamps will be issued January 29 and are for use at UN facilities in New York, Geneva and Vienna. The stamps to be used at the UN Headquarters are a 22-cent fishing stamp and a 33-cent commemorative on soil cultivation.

The Geneva stamps, printed in French, are a .35 Swiss franc that features dairy products and a 1.4 Swiss franc that stresses fruits. The stamps for Vienna feature a 4-schilling stamp that promotes grain production and a 6-schilling stamp that features vegetable production.

Bill McAllister is a member of The Washington Post's national staff.