How new Hong Kong specialist animal hospital could boost care for pets

HK$46 million facility has specialists in internal medicine, surgery and ophthalmology, and is the first of its kind to offer vets the option of referring cases for surgery

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 May, 2015, 6:02am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 May, 2015, 3:39pm

Careers rarely follow a linear trajectory. For Alane Cahalane, who runs the recently opened Veterinary Specialty Hospital of Hong Kong, the calling of caring for animals came by way of engineering.

Cahalane's family lived just outside the US "steel city" of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania when she was young, and her father worked in the industry as an engineer. Her older sister later followed him into engineering, so it seemed natural for her to do the same. But things took a turn just after she earned her civil engineering degree at Cornell.

"My mother got sick in hospital and it was important for me to understand the medical terms the doctors talked about," Cahalane recalls. "I wanted to know what was happening. That's when I wanted to become some sort of a doctor."

She decided that becoming a veterinarian would let her combine her passion for fixing things as an engineer with her love for animals.

Growing up surrounded by cats, dogs and horses, she was constantly trying to rescue ailing creatures as a child. "If we found a stray dog, I was always the one who brought it home and tried to nurse it to make it better," she recalls.

Cahalane, who graduated from Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, initially worked for a local veterinary clinic after arriving in Hong Kong four years ago. But after lecturing in the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and the mainland, the 40-year-old mother of two started thinking about the potential of elevating the profession in Asia, starting with Hong Kong.

With the help of husband Andrew, a successful entrepreneur, and partners in the US, she set up the HK$46 million veterinary hospital.

The Veterinary Specialty Hospital marks a milestone for Cahalane.

"It's my first entrepreneurial move, but I had lots of help from our partners and husband, who have done this before," she says.

The 14,000 sq ft facility in Wan Chai only takes referral cases - the sole veterinary service in the city to adopt this model - and represents a step forward in animal care. Fitted with cutting-edge equipment more commonly associated with human medicine, it focuses on specialised treatment and offers procedures similar to those for humans, including hip replacements. The team includes four specialists in ophthalmology, internal medicine and surgery, and they plan to recruit others in fields such as neurology and oncology.

Cahalane says animal care in Hong Kong is similar to that in the US a few decades ago. "The general practitioners would do the same thing as vets here. They took on complicated cases and surgeries; they would undertake things they hadn't seen before, which can be difficult and stressful."

Cahalane relies on others on to take care of the business side of the facility while she focuses on surgical work (she is the only board-certified specialist in animal surgery in Hong Kong) and building trust with general practice vets.

"We need to reach out to GPs and tell them what we do," she says, adding that specialist hospitals have different roles in animal care from the neighbourhood clinics. For one, specialist hospitals are modelled after human medicine, she says.

"In human medicine, you go to the family doctor for everything. But when something is very serious or outside the scope of what family doctor is comfortable with, the family doctor has the option of sending you to specialists."

Ideally, veterinary medicine should work the same way: "After trying everything they know on animal patients, GPs may reach the end of their expertise. It can be a complicated or advanced case, or something that they haven't seen before. They can get another opinion from us.

"Specialist facilities can offer a different level of diagnostic equipment, although general practitioners have labs in their clinics with X-ray machines and other equipment. We have CT scanners which are very difficult if not impossible for a general practitioner to provide as they are big, expensive machines," says Cahalane.

"We will always send the animals back to GPs for follow-ups and routine general health care. It's a symbiotic relationship. We collaborate and work together."

Early signs suggest the veterinary community welcomes the specialist service.

"Pets need the services of specialists as we can't solve all problems sometimes," says Justin Choo, a GP veterinarian with a clinic in Discovery Bay.

"There are complicated diseases that we can't diagnose and treat. The clinic gives owners another choice. I can make it clear to owners what I can do and let them decide whether to send the pets to specialists."

Cahalane is also advocating the purchase of pet insurance in Asia. "The concept of pet insurance is not popular here. In the UK, 80 per cent of pets are insured. Less than 10 per cent of US pets get insurance but the number is growing," says Cahalane, who hopes the idea will take off here, too.

Many people treat their pets as family members and all the animals will need medical care, with bills that can add up to substantial sums. Pet insurance is pretty affordable, and can relieve some of the burden of additional veterinary service, Cahalane says.

"I did two hip replacements recently for an owner who has pet insurance. She was relieved because she could give the best care to her pet. A lot of patients that make their way to me are those that are covered by insurance."

A keen volunteer in animal-related causes, her offer to help Animals Asia proved timely when the group unexpectedly sent an email in February with an X-ray film: Claudia, a moon bear they rescued from a mainland bile farm, had broken her leg. Soon after, Cahalane was on a plane to the animal charity's sanctuary in Chengdu.

"I am always interested in wildlife. What was interesting about her X-ray was that it looked very much like a specific type of injury affecting dogs when they have underlying conditions that cause the fracture. It can be caused by traumatic events like being hit by a car or suffering a fall. We also see it as a congenital disease in cocker spaniels but it was never reported in bears before," she says.

"The condition, called ossification of the humeral condyles, predisposed Claudia's bone to be broken. I took her for a CT scan and found it on both her front legs. But it is a lot more complicated than for dogs because it's a 160kg bear with injury on both elbows."

Cahalane conducted an initial procedure in March, fixing metal screws to the bone to try to prevent further fracture.

"It was a real learning experience as [bear] bone is very hard and much bigger and more rigid than a dog bone," Cahalane says. "I spent the whole day on the operating table."

A second surgery conducted in April completed the bear's treatment.

Pets need the services of specialists as we can’t solve all the problems
Justin Choo, veterinarian

"She now has big titanium plates and screws in her elbows and she has recovered very well," Cahalane says.

"Just one day after surgery, Claudia was already playing with burlap sacks in her cage. We need to keep her confined to a small area until her bones heal. The bones can heal to 100 per cent strength. And she should be able to be out with the rest of the bears in the sanctuary later."

Cahalane plans to visit the Chengdu sanctuary again to check on other bears; one is suffering from a torn ligament while another seems to have spinal problems.

Besides there may be more bears suffering the same bone condition as Claudia, but these do not show up on X-ray until they break their legs, she says.

"We always require a CT scan to show us the fine cracks in bone. Claudia had been limping on both of her front legs for a while but they didn't notice until one side really broke. If we see a bear limping on its front legs, we might have better idea of what's wrong with them [in future].

The Chengdu job was Cahalane's first time treating a wild animal, and it has proved inspirational: "I want to do more as it's very fulfilling."