Urban Jungle

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 14 September, 2007, 12:00am

This week: Pet shops: education rather than confrontation

As a registered veterinary surgeon in Hong Kong, I am able to prescribe medication to treat various ailments for animals. Almost all of my adult life has been a learning process of diagnosis and application of treatment to animals. It began as an interest in science that blossomed into a degree in veterinary science. Since graduation, it has been a continual process of further education. And so I find it preposterous that some pet shop owners and their employees are 'diagnosing' diseases, prescribing antibiotics and sometimes administering vaccinations, and even giving medicinal injections. This problem has been highlighted recently in the media, but I have been living with it for some time.

It is quite typical for a client of mine to present a pet because of an ear infection. The owner often owns up to buying an antibiotic topical ear product from a pet shop that has resulted in a multi-resistant bacterium. There are actually some antibiotic ear products that commonly work in Australia that I don't prescribe in Hong Kong because most infections are resistant here. The resistant infection is then perpetuated and spread by poor hygiene practices at the pet shop. The problem is compounded partly from the ease with which antibiotics and restricted medicines can be obtained from pharmacies or other sources.

Pet shops often get a client to bring a pet back repeatedly for 'ear cleaning' because of an infection. The same bottle of ear-cleaning solution that came into contact with the infected ear is used again and again in other, healthy dogs' ears. The multi-resistant bacterium is spread to many other dogs.

I am often presented with a dog that has never had any antibiotics, but has a multi-resistant bacterium causing difficulties treating an ear infection. Ear infections are a major culprit of antibiotic resistance because the problem is compounded by the pet owner not using the prescribed antibiotic for the length of time necessary for successful treatment.

Another area where antibiotic resistance is commonly seen is in the treatment of upper respiratory tract infections. These occur often in the congested environment of the typical pet shop. It is a major cost for a pet shop to bring puppies or kittens to a vet, so some pet shops obtain treatment illegally.

Having worked for many years with welfare organisations, I found that they often use adversarial tactics in their policing of illegal pet shop practices. I have found that a confrontational method only makes communication between veterinary authorities and the pet shop break down. During my time in private practice I have tried another tack. I try to educate pet shops that I come across, rather than just tell them they shouldn't exist because they have poor practices. Concerning the example above, I have advised pet shops to sell a new bottle of ear cleaner to each client. The shop thereby minimises cross-infection between animals, makes a few dollars and indirectly informs the client that he or she is dealing with a responsible business: a win-win situation.

There is also a solution to the respiratory infection problems that pet shops face. Instead of trying to treat the problem when it occurs, which is inevitably expensive, it is much better to practise prevention. It surprises me how many pet shops do not have isolation facilities for sick animals. I don't mean another cage across the room, but a real isolation area, where ventilation is good and air flow is one-way out of the shop to prevent airborne diseases.

Staff should don protective, disposable aprons and gloves before touching these animals and dip their shoes in a disinfecting solution when leaving. The isolation area should be cleaned with a suitable hospital-grade disinfectant daily and between occupations.

Another simple way to minimise sick animals in the shop is to have a quarantine or treatment facility off site.

These simple tips are very easy to put into practice, and I think the average pet lover would appreciate them. They would also be a good marketing tool for the average pet shop.

When I speak to clients about their decision-making process when obtaining a new pet, the cleanliness of the shop is always high on their list. So why don't pet shops institute good hygiene policies to promote business? I think it's a sure winner for the pet shop, the client and, most importantly, for the innocent animals.

Pet shops are a fact of life and I admit that there is a role for their continued existence. There wouldn't be supply if there wasn't public demand. Shops are also one of the first and most important points of contact on pet information. So it is time for pet shops to take in a few new ideas, ones that have the potential to also increase profits.