The career path for veterinary surgeons is just as serious as the way ahead for medical practitioners. "Vets" also deal with life and death. However, unlike doctors, they need to care for animals as well as people . . . the owners of working animals or pets. As a result, vets have to be natural helpers with a strong desire to serve others.
"It's not just a job, but a vocation," according to Dr Jane Gray, senior veterinary surgeon for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) in Hong Kong. She thinks it requires a long-term commitment to become a veterinary surgeon. "One has to be a sturdy person to handle the unpleasant situations that may arise from illness, accident or cruelty to animals,'' she says, adding that, "intelligence is not enough to deal with such a stressful life. It involves something deep in your heart."
Because of her interest in animal welfare and science, Dr Gray chose to become a vet instead of studying to be a medical doctor. Naturally, she thinks the work of veterinary surgeons involves greater variety in dealing with different animals, from ordinary pets to exotic creatures such as chinchillas or even giant pandas.
When we make animals happy, their owners will be happy too
Obtaining her degree in veterinary science in the United Kingdom, Dr Gray started her career in a mixed practice. After working in her homeland for two years, she decided to move to Asia, being attracted by the different culture and environment in the region. She first worked for a year in a small animal practice with occasional zoo work in Singapore. Then in 1991, she travelled through Asia to Hong Kong, serving as a locum in the then Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, forerunner of the SPCA. Apart from a short break in 1998 when she worked in Australia and New Zealand, Dr Gray has been with the society ever since and says she has no plans to leave.
Dr Gray thinks that the satisfaction of working as a veterinary surgeon is that you help improve animals' lives and this ultimately benefits people as well. "When we make animals happy, their owners will be happy too."
A major responsibility of veterinary surgeons is to provide consultation and treatment, including hospital care and surgery. However, there are additional duties for veterinary surgeons serving in a welfare organisation, the main one of which is to take care of unwanted animals.
The work of welfare veterinary surgeons is especially stressful. It gives rise to strong feelings when dealing with stray cats and dogs, says Dr Gray. "As a result, we share the workload instead of appointing a person solely responsible for welfare work."
Life for vets who work at the SPCA can be arduous. They need to work long, irregular hours, overnight and weekends, and be capable of handling any emergency case that comes their way. Therefore, they have to be calm, logical and able to work under pressure. On the other hand, they must be patient and caring, able to understand the anxiety and emotion of animal owners. Although the main task of the veterinary surgeon is to deal with animals, he or she must also get along with people, including clients and other members of the veterinary team.
To become a veterinary surgeon, it is necessary to possess a related university degree. However, no local university offers such a programme. The lack of veterinary training resources has been a major challenge to the development of the profession in Hong Kong. "We need to invite overseas specialists to deal with some special cases and to provide training," says Dr Gray. She is also the president of Hong Kong Veterinary Association. The Internet, on the other hand, has helped vets self-study and continuous learning, she adds.
While overseas veterinary surgeons may register in Hong Kong, they must apply for a certificate that will allow them to provide veterinary services in the HKSAR. They also need to adapt to the different culture, for example, in dealing with Cantonese-speaking clients, so the SPCA vets, if not local language speakers, use translators. Besides the language problem, they have to learn about tropical diseases unique to Hong Kong or Asia.
Currently there are more than 300 registered veterinary surgeons in Hong Kong, soaring from around 30 in 1991. However, the supply is levelling out, says Dr Gray, although the life of the average veterinary surgeon is still extremely busy.
For newcomers, Dr Gray suggests they maximise their exposure. For example they could work in a mixed practice dealing with many different types of animal. This could help to enrich their experience and shape their future career path. There are various opportunities for veterinary surgeons to work at different veterinary fields in Hong Kong. They could work in a private clinic, consider joining the public sector such as the government's Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, or facilities such as Ocean Park. It is also possible for vets to work for pet food or drug companies.
The profession of veterinary surgeon is underdeveloped in the mainland. Beijing, and possibly Shanghai, are at the moment the only places in the entire country that register veterinary surgeons. The standard of veterinary training also varies, says Dr Gray, who has taken part in training and organising lectures in Beijing and Shanghai for local Chinese vets.
On the other hand, there could be huge opportunities in the as-yet unexplored mainland market for those who aim to run a veterinary business in private practice. The reason is that since the emergence of a relatively rich middle-class, more and more mainlanders are acquiring pets upon which they would lavish professional care and attention if it were available.