More pet owners understand the need to care for their animals
The urgent need for trained veterinary nurses is being driven by an extraordinary evolution in people's attitudes to animals that has, in the space of a decade, transformed Hong Kong into a city of pet lovers.
At the time of the handover, there were only 50 to 60 small animal veterinarians in Hong Kong. Now there are an estimated 500 as more and more people keep cats, dogs and other mostly small animals as pets.
The factors driving the boom are both social and economic. 'If you look at the birth rate, people today are keeping pets more than having babies,' said Thomas Wong Kwok-shing, dean of Polytechnic University's faculty of health and social sciences. 'The way veterinary clinics have proliferated is almost unbelievable.'
Hong Kong's birth rate of less than one child per woman is now among the lowest in the world and Professor Wong believed couples with one or no children were factors in the trend towards pets.
'A lot of parents feel if they have one child, they want that child to be accompanied by something other than a domestic helper,' he said. 'A pet is a good way to give them that company.'
Animal welfare groups have expressed concerns that pets are too often being kept in high-rise apartment blocks by working couples and not exercised enough, but Professor Wong argued that knowledge of welfare issues was gradually improving.
'People do keep animals in small apartments, but they have no children at home,' he said. 'Other people are moving out to the New Territories and looking for places where they can keep pets.
'Prices in the New Territories are going up because more and more people want to move there and keep pets.'
Some less obvious animals are being taken in as pets, Professor Wong said. 'Before it was only cats and dogs. Now we are seeing animals such as chinchillas and lots of hamsters and other small animals are being taken to veterinary clinics.
'All of this is partly related to the economy of Hong Kong. The economy has picked up and people can afford to look after their animals' health and well-being better.
'I anticipate there will be increasing demand. If you look at the coastal cities in China, there has been an enormous increase in the number of people keeping pets. It is going to become more and more a part of our lives to have a pet as a companion in the years ahead.'
Professor Colin Howard, vice-principal of the Royal Veterinary College, said: 'The growth of pet ownership in major cities in Greater China is quadrupling over each three-year period.
'There are two reasons for this: One is the single-child policy means there are an increasing number of elderly people looking for companionship through animals. Secondly, it is regarded as a social symbol of success to keep a pet.
'It is quite obvious to me the whole issue of animal welfare is getting far greater prominence. I have been staying in Hong Kong for extended periods over the past two years and it is quite clear to me that the concern among the general public over the welfare of animals is increasing.'