Injured alpacas and tortoises in labour: life as a vet for exotic animals in China

A Nanjing vet is delighting the internet with her humorous and educational posts showing everyday life with her unusual range of patients

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 August, 2018, 7:17pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 August, 2018, 10:05pm

Dr Liu Youou isn’t your ordinary vet.

In addition to the usual cats and dogs, she has treated a range of exotic animals including alpacas, raccoons, minks, flying squirrels, a giant tortoise and a lizard at her Nanjing practice in Jiangsu province.

The 34-year-old veterinary surgeon has become an internet sensation of sorts on Chinese microblogging platform, Weibo, thanks to her humorous and educational posts about the many unusual patients she cares for at her clinic at the AMC pet hospital at Qingliangmen Main Street.

Almost 160,000 people follow her regular updates on the diagnoses, treatment and care provided to some of Nanjing’s more unusual pets.

Among them was an 18-year-old Brazilian giant tortoise which was brought to Liu’s clinic in June when she stopped eating.

The tortoise was diagnosed with an obstructed labour and was one of the hardest animal surgeries performed by Liu.

“We performed a caesarean section,” Liu said.

“The tortoise eggs had to be slowly extracted one by one or we risked breaking the delicate tissue surrounding them.

“And the abdomen of a tortoise is so very narrow, it is extremely difficult to open it up completely.”

The delicate surgery took around two hours, with more than a hundred eggs removed, to the fascination of Liu’s Weibo followers.

Not all patients are cooperative.

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A lizard, whose owner she humorously referred to as “brother lizard” presented Liu with another operating theatre challenge when it needed treatment for a tumour in its mouth.

“It was hard to perform surgery on the lizard as it just kept tossing and turning, so we could only remove the tumour bit by bit, but as quickly as possible,” Liu said.

Her less exotic patients can also test Liu’s skills. A tiny hamster was discharged after successful treatment for a tumour in its ear.

“We had to remove the tumour, but it was such a risky procedure as the little thing could have died from severe bleeding if we made one wrong cut on its delicate ear tissues,” Liu said.

There are also the animals which do not make it.

A goose was brought in by staff of the school where it lived one night in July in a sorry state. Like the giant tortoise, it hadn’t eaten for two days. Unfortunately it could not be saved.

“Its blood test showed both kidney and liver function had deteriorated drastically – it could not even lift its head,” Liu said.

One of Liu’s most memorable animal encounters was Shenshou, meaning “mythical beast” in Chinese, a clumsy farm alpaca weighing 25kg which was admitted to the hospital last month.

“Shenshou had suffered a severe bone fracture in its right forelimb,” Liu told the South China Morning Post.

“The most challenging thing for us at that time was to carry the heavy, limping alpaca to the washroom.

“It recovered quickly after the surgery, though. We later put it into a monitoring room and fed it with straw.”

While Liu’s Weibo presence is entertaining, the work itself is demanding. She works six days a week at the hospital, performing surgery after surgery.

“I generally work from 9:30am to 5 or 6pm everyday,” she said.

I usually have more surgeries to follow up during the weekends, about three to five. For weekdays, it is about two to three.”

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Liu says the strong bond between her and the animals keeps her steady in her job, but it can also lead to heartache.

“Candy, a cat that was sent to us, had an untreatable chest tumour and was quite helpless most of the time,” she said.

“We spent three months on its treatment, costing 10,000 yuan (US$1450), but still it suffered a relapse. All the nurses in the hospital cried.”

Liu, who grew up keeping cats, says she was determined to become a vet from a young age.

“I remember watching a programme on the Discovery Channel which introduced me to the job,” Liu said.

“I was like, I want to work around pets, each one of them is so adorable to me.

“When I was younger, the concept of vets was still about treating farm animals such as chickens and cattle.

“It was mostly children growing up in rural areas with farms who dedicated themselves to the business.”

Liu recalled many years ago taking her sick cat to a shabby pet station where the vet didn’t seem to know how to treat the animal.

“He even asked me for the diagnosis as he didn’t know, so I had to find out from the encyclopaedia myself,” she said.

Since then, Liu has seen rapid changes in veterinary medicine in China over the past decade as more people have joined the profession.

The shift began in 2005 when the State Council of China announced its intention to upgrade the qualifications required for veterinary medicine. Legislation followed in 2008 and a year later the agricultural department launched a pilot scheme of the new postgraduate course in clinical veterinary medicine in five provincial universities.

Liu was one of the first to sign up, studying at Nanjing Agricultural University after completing her bachelor's degree there.

In 2010 the course was rolled out across the nation and by 2017 more than 70,000 people in China had acquired a veterinary licence.

A study by international pet food company Royal Canin found 61% of China’s vets are aged 35 or younger and, in another turnaround from 20 years ago, the majority – 70% – are women.

All these vets are needed to help care for China’s booming pet population. The 2017 study found 17% of China’s 1.4 billion people are now pet owners, mostly families with children and household incomes of 6000 yuan a month or more.

Last year they spent around 134 billion yuan on caring for their pets. That figure is expected to grow by 20 to 30% over the decade to 2020, as pet ownership continues to rise.

Liu believes there’s a close correlation between the growth in her profession and the number of people keeping pets in China.

“As young people interact with animals every day, more and more decide to take up a veterinary career,” she said.

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The improved standards in the profession have also boosted earnings for China’s vets, who earn more now than they did in the past, Liu says.

“Generally speaking, vets at the level of hospital director earn 10,000 yuan, more or less, per month,” she said.

“As I am one of the stakeholders of the hospital, I earn relatively more than that.”

Liu admits her chosen career has an impact on her family life, but that doesn’t stop her daughter from wanting to follow her into the same field.

“She says she wants to be a vet like me, but I don’t think she has to follow in my footsteps necessarily,” Liu said.

“The perk of having animals around the house is that they can teach her to be responsible and kind.”