Urban Jungle

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 January, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 January, 2009, 12:00am

Christmas and the new year coincide with holidays for students studying abroad. For many homesick overseas students, this well-earned respite from the books is an opportunity to spend time with family. The festive period is also extra busy at the clinic because owners not only prepare their homes and themselves for the public holidays, but also their pets.

Most pet owners like to get their animal maintenance and chores out of the way before the Lunar New Year. We see a lot more routine vaccinations during this time, as well as owners getting new pets and bringing them in for their first veterinary checks. There is a buzz in the air in the clinic and morale is high - and made even higher with generous Christmas presents given to the nurses by some of our clients.

The festive atmosphere of these months is also bolstered by an influx of budding veterinary students doing holiday internships with us.

These students are not only new faces, they sometimes bring new ideas to the clinic, because going to university keeps them at the forefront of veterinary science.

In recent years, the number of applicants for holiday internships has increased markedly. This is because many foreign universities have changed their entrance requirements to lure fee-paying students from around the world - and a lot more Hongkongers are now studying overseas to become veterinarians.

When I graduated more than a decade ago, there were only 48 students in my class and I was the only Hong Kong-born person in the whole course. But now things are very different. There are well over 100 Hong Kong students studying in vet schools at Australian universities alone. So in the coming four or five years, there is going to be a large influx of new graduates in Hong Kong because many of these students will choose to return home to their families and friends.

I worry about how all these new graduates will affect the city's veterinary sector, especially with the current poor economic outlook. There are not many job vacancies, and most of the vacancies that exist require vets with experience.

To train a new graduate properly, a clinic requires a large caseload and multiple vets to provide support for the inexperienced newcomer. New graduates are also a financial drain on a clinic during their initiation period because they are simply not as productive as someone with experience.

Veterinary clinics in Hong Kong are quiet in comparison to those in the United States, Australia and Britain. The city's veterinary sector can only be described as small. We don't have a sizeable specialist support network and certainly nothing that can compare to a life-size human hospital. We have no local veterinary schools, nor do we have a sufficiently big market to support such a school.

On a tour of the US in recent years, I saw many veterinary hospitals occupying medium-sized office buildings and employing hundreds of staff, many of whom were in-house specialists. The presence of such large facilities and staffing is indicative of a large caseload.

As you can imagine, the opportunity to work in such a busy environment with so many different cases would have a huge impact on the professional growth of a new graduate.

But more than 90 per cent of veterinary clinics in Hong Kong are small, most employing two to four vets, who work in shifts. Many new graduates find working alone is often the norm.

When veterinary interns ask for advice, I find myself invariably recommending that they either seek work experience at a large practice in the country in which they studied, or do some travelling work before returning to establish themselves in Hong Kong.

There are many up sides to becoming a vet, and one of them is that we can usually find work in any number of countries. So a long working holiday is definitely an option, especially for young people. Many of my fellow graduates travelled to other countries soon after graduation and some have found new homes in all the corners of the planet.

It is difficult to predict what the future holds for the veterinary sector. The pet-owning community has been growing and there are now more than twice the number of clinics in the city as there were 10 years ago. As the sector has grown, so has the public's animal husbandry know-how. In turn, that has increased the willingness of owners to take their animals to the vet.

I can only hope that this trend will continue in the near future, as the number of active veterinarians will double in as few as five years.