S'pore vets call for welfare and mental health needs to be considered in review of sector

Dr Cathy Chan attending to a dog at The Animal Doctors clinic. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
Dr Cathy Chan attending to a rabbit at The Animal Doctors clinic. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
Dr Kenneth Tong vaccinating a dog against rabies at a kelong off the mainland of Singapore. PHOTO: COURTESY OF KENNETH TONG
NParks vet Shawn Chia monitoring as pigs are being ferried from Indonesia. ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

SINGAPORE - Veterinarians in Singapore are calling for their welfare needs to be considered, in an ongoing review that aims to raise standards and address gaps in the vet sector.

The review by the Animal and Veterinary Service (AVS) and the Singapore Veterinary Association (SVA) will also explore the need for a professional body to advance the vet sector's practices and professionalism.

"This review will take into account the aspirations and challenges of the vet profession as well as the needs of pet owners and the general public, to enhance animal health and welfare, and safeguard public health," said the AVS and SVA in a joint statement earlier this month.

The vet sector review, which started last year and is conducted every few years, comes amid a rise in pet ownership in Singapore that has led to an increase in demand for veterinary care. There are now more than 400 vets in Singapore and around 100 vet clinics.

The sector has also seen an increase in specialist services such as internal medicine, traditional Chinese medicine for animals and post-operative rehabilitation.

"With this growth and diversification of the sector, there is a need to clarify the scope of veterinary services and how they can be effectively delivered," said SVA and AVS, a cluster of the National Parks Board (NParks).

Dr Cathy Chan, a vet who co-founded The Animal Doctors clinic, said the strain of sustaining a business, the fatigue caused by seeing animals in distress and the added stress of being harshly criticised online by pet owners have taken a toll on some vets.

The 42-year-old added that mental health issues have caused some vets to leave the industry.

"Vets don't want to speak up online because it's not a very professional thing to do. We always want to try and resolve things directly with the owner... You also have Facebook pages set up to basically slaughter a specific clinic," Dr Chan said, noting that some animal lovers have set up social media pages to target vets or clinics they have disagreements with.

In a case last year, animal lovers sent a torrent of hateful comments to a vet clinic that euthanised a mongrel that had grown increasingly aggressive. This was after some netizens alleged that the couple who adopted the dog in 2017, and the vet, had put down the dog unnecessarily.

After a four-month investigation, AVS concluded that the owners and vet had not breached the law and code of ethics.

SVA currently offers a counselling service for vets and late last year launched a platform where vets can seek advice on work-related problems and stresses, said Dr Timothy Chua, 33, the association's president.

Another gap the vets hope to address in the review is the role the Animals and Birds Act, and SVA's code of ethics, can play in clearly defining decisions and medical procedures that should be made and done by only vets.

Vets note that pet owners are increasingly turning to unconventional services such as animal communicators and pet psychics.

Dr Chan said that currently, a "layperson can perform acts of veterinary science without any consequence, which can be quite detrimental to the animal".

Dr Kenneth Tong, 41, who runs AAVC-Animal & Avian Veterinary Clinic, said such services have a place in the pet sector, in terms of helping owners understand their pets and exploring options to help their sick animals feel better.

(From left) Dr Kenneth Tong withdrawing blood from a dog with assistance from Dr Teo Boon Han and Dr Eleanor Ho at Pulau Ubin, as part of rabies surveillance. PHOTO: COURTESY OF KENNETH TONG

Civil servant Fiona Loh, 35, who is also a cat rescuer, said: "I do engage my regular animal communicator in some rescue cases. I believe conventional and unconventional methods can work hand in hand."

But vets draw the line at treatment and diagnosis.

Dr Chan, who is also SVA's vice-president, said if an owner, for instance, consults an animal communicator regarding a sick pet, and the animal says it does not want to see a vet, that might delay treatment.

Vets also hope to see a register set up to recognise vets with specialist qualifications, so pet owners can identify the vets they need to see.

After sending out a survey to vets and para-professionals, including vet nurses, last month, AVS and SVA will conduct discussions with the sector and wider community in the middle of the year to explore the issues raised.

NParks vet Shawn Chia monitoring as pigs are being ferried from Indonesia. ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

Case for a board

For more than a decade now, vets in Singapore have been calling for the formation of a neutral professional board - much like the Singapore Medical Council and the Singapore Dental Council - in regulating the conduct and ethics of vets here.

Currently, AVS regulates vets and assesses complaints regarding professional conduct. Some vets are not in favour of this system.

Dr Chua added: "A board would have a panel of people involved, neutral parties as well as science-based people arriving at a decision. That raises the whole animal welfare standards as well."

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