Is the watchdog really watching? Looking into the city’s regulation on veterinary services

On April 6, it was revealed that the government amended the Prevention and Control of Disease Ordinance, specifying that pet owners may have to surrender their animals as a disease-control measure. The new power of the authority, in addition to raising queries from animal rights activists, rings the alarm bell about how Hong Kong is lagging behind in protection of animal rights and interests.

CityU Veterinary Medical Centre in Sham Shui Po. (Photo: CityU VMC)

Just one day later, the largest local animal hospital CityU Veterinary Medical Centre (CityU VMC) temporarily deactivated their Facebook account after stating in the latest post that they are dealing with ‘a malicious and untruthful social media harassment campaign’. This is after the organization was suspected to be involved in a medical malpractice recently.

Indeed, suspicions of veterinary malpractice are raised by pet owners every now and then. Instead of filing complaints to the Veterinary Surgeon Board (VSB), most of them choose to share their experience on social media platforms.

Why not the watchdog?

“It takes a great deal of effort, and it is meaningless when the penalties made by VSB are too lenient,” said Karen Chan, who owns a Facebook group where she provides pet owners with a list of vets who were found guilty of professional misconduct in the past.

Since its establishment in 1998, the board has received more than 975 complaints. However, only 145 of them were successfully referred to disciplinary inquiry for further follow-up actions. Between 2016 and 2020, almost half of the complaints were dismissed by the board.

Decisions of VSB on complaints received in 2016-2020. (Source: VSB)

What actually happened to the pets?

1. Kyle Chu and his pet corgi
Daily snapshot Chu’s dog before its sudden passing. (Photo: Kyle Chu)

Kyle Chu’s pet corgi passed away after receiving medical treatment at a well-known local animal hospital last year. Chu’s pet had been suffering from a collapsing trachea, and decided to seek medical advice when it started panting.

After twenty minutes of check-up, Chu’s pet was suspected to have cancer. “The doctor gave me two options: either to conduct chemical examination or euthanasia,” said Chu. However, the former was not recommended by the doctor due to prolonged treatment.

“I was enraged. How could he jump to the conclusion of euthanizing even before the examination? I had to bring my pet back home.” he continued.

Chu recalled that his pet had ‘empty-looking eyes’ when it came out of the consultation room, which was claimed by the nurse to be the after-effect of sedation. Four minutes after they left the hospital, his pet foamed at the mouth and passed away immediately afterwards.

To prove medical malpractice, Chu has to submit an autopsy report to VSB. “Other vets would not conduct an autopsy for animals that passed away in clinics elsewhere. There is essentially no way to claim justice.”

2. Louisa Cheung and her dog Fong Bao

Lousia Cheung also lost her dog Fong Bao last year. She brought Fong Bao to visit the vet after it had a nosebleed.

“After a series of check-ups, the doctor said Fong Bao needed to stay in the hospital’s intensive care unit and take a lot of medications – I could only believe him,” said Cheung.

In frustration, Cheung began to seek advice online, only to find out the doctor she was visiting had not yet passed her professional fellowship exam at that time.

“I had attempted to transfer my dog to other hospitals, but the hospital was dilatory in sending out its medical records.”

After four days in the intensive care unit, Cheung had to make the decision of putting Fong Bao to sleep.

3. Ruby Lai and her kitten
Lai’s kitten was having a difficulty in breathing. (GIF: Ruby Lai)

Ruby Lai, an owner of two cats, suspected professional negligence performed by a vet when she seeked emergency services for her kitten last year.

Lai recalled the consultation process as perfunctory, and gave her three cans of recovery food despite her kitten being in a critical situation. “The doctor said my cat would develop immunity after eating and recover by itself.”

Lai brought her kitten to another animal hospital as its situation deteriorated. This time, the kitten had an x-ray examination and was diagnosed to be in a critical condition of pneumonia.

Fortunately, Lai’s kitten recovered in the end. “If the former hospital had ever suggested to inspect my kitten with x-ray, it would not have to suffer for extra hours!” said Lai.

When pet owners suspect veterinary malpractice, the only legitimate method to file a complaint is via VSB, an independent statutory authority established under the Veterinary Surgeons Registration Ordinance. However, all of the interviewees, and many other pet owners with similar experience choose not to reach out to the board. Why so?

Complicated and Lengthy Procedure

 Justice delayed is justice denied.

To successfully file a complaint, the pet owners have to first obtain a medical record from the concerned veterinary service provider by themselves, in which the provider can refuse to comply. They then have to complete a form detailing the medical incident, which often requires the use of terminologies that non-professionals do not have knowledge of.

Even after the complaint is filed, it on average takes a few years for VSB to process the application. ‘It is impossible for the pet owners to wait for VSB’s reply indefinitely.’ commented Chan, the Facebook group owner. “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

At this moment, the board is still investigating complaints filed in 2015.

Lack of Deterrent Effect

The penalties ordered by VSB have been criticized for being lenient and ineffective in warning the vets concerned. Most guilty vets are either penalized with reprimand, or with compulsory participation in at most 30 hours of continuing education. Even if the vet fails to complete the said hours, his name will only be temporarily removed from the register and will be restored upon completion.

The penalties’ deterrent effect is questioned, when a vet who has been found guilty of professional misconduct three times is still engaging in veterinary practice.

“The penalties are not only lenient, but also ridiculous. The board had once ordered one of the guilty vets to hold a talk – I cannot decide whether it is a punishment to the vet or to the pet owners who listen to it,” said Chan.

Order of disciplinary offences made by VSB in 2016-2020. (Source: VSB)

Blacklist Circulating among Pet Owners

Chan’s pet is also a victim of suspected veterinary malpractice. In the process of approaching VSB, she found out that the board does not have a complete name list of vets who have previously been involved in professional misconduct. On its website, only disciplinary inquiries that took place in the past three years are shown, and the names of the vets are not revealed.

“I believe that most pet owners in Hong Kong depend on online reviews when it comes to veterinary services.’ While Chan agrees that the reviews contain certain reference value, she also questions its credibility. ‘There are internet shills. The reviews may also contain subjective opinions from pet owners that may be unfair to the vets.”

Currently, the only way for pet owners to check whether a vet has a record of misconduct is to read through government gazettes published from then till now. Chan explained this is why she decided to create a list for other pet owners, compiling data from past publications and recording vets who have been found guilty and their respective misconduct. Her group has accumulated more than 30,000 members now.

How Are Other Countries Doing?

In many western countries including the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada, pet owners can pursue cases of veterinary malpractice in civic trials. Although pets are only seen as ‘personal property’ and compensations often only include their ‘market value’, some states such as California and Washington are starting to also recognize their ‘intrinsic value’.

In the interest of transparency, there are official search engines for pet owners to check whether the vet is licensed or has been subjected to disciplinary action before their visit.

Yes, Hong Kong Needs to Take Further Steps

As Mahatma Gandhi said, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” For many pet owners, their dogs and cats are more than animal companions. The unnecessary loss of every animal’s precious life has proved to the city that it is time for the concerned policies to be reviewed.

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