Yeoh Eng Cheong, BVSc; A.H. Yeoh
Malaysia is a small developing country with a population of 23 million. At present there is only one veterinary school in the country which was first established in the year 1973 as the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and Animal Science in the National Agriculture University of Malaysia (or Universiti Pertanian Malaysia, UPM). However, in line with a greater diversity of courses available at the university, the name was changed to the current "Universiti Putra Malaysia" in 1997. In 1999 the Department of Animal Science of the faculty was relocated to the Faculty of Agriculture hence the name change for the veterinary faculty to "Faculty of Veterinary Medicine". Each year sees between 50-70 Veterinary students graduating from the faculty. As of April 2003, slightly over 1000 veterinarians will have graduated from UPM. In the early sixties, companion animal clinics were restricted to government run infirmaries serving the public. Private companion animal practice was hardly heard of. Young graduates were mainly absorbed either into the government sector, pharmaceutical companies or feed mills. Other than governmental administrative positions, pig and poultry farming were the major areas in the private sector where most veterinarians could find employment. Commercial production of dairy and beef was unimportant at that time.
The emergence of companion animal practice
During the early seventies large numbers of veterinary graduates returned home from their studies abroad, seeking careers in the government sector. However, they returned during a recession which necessitated the government to freeze all vacancies for veterinarians and all that could be offered was the to do voluntary work in government farms. Some graduates were lucky enough to receive small allowances. Others who were not so fortunate were actually asked to work without pay and offered free 'housing' in the chicken coops! It was out of frustration that these fresh graduates ventured into companion animal practice. Financing a practice was a big problem for them. They sought aid from relatives or businessmen. A few veterinarians pooled resources to set up and run a clinic. Most practices then offered very basic facilities.
Companion animal practice in the early seventies
Most of the veterinary clinics established in the early seventies were owned and operated by graduates from Asian universities. No local graduates entered into small animal practice then because the first few graduating classes from UPM, (beginning from 1975) were snapped up by the government-most were bonded to serve out government scholarship requirements anyhow. The companion animal clinics were generally located in the capital of Kuala Lumpur and its suburbs because a demand existed for their services. The owners there were definitely more affluent and the bigger cities had more expatriates who were a large customer base. However, private practitioners still had to struggle hard financially to make ends meet mainly because of public ignorance and apathy about companion animal needs. Obtaining veterinary drugs for small animal treatment from local suppliers was frustrating. Pharmaceutical companies preferred to service the food animal sector because business there was definitely more lucrative. Selling small animal medicaments to a handful of companion animal practitioners was considered to be economically not viable and a waste of their effort. Hence small animal practitioners had no alternative but to use and prescribe drugs used in human practice, which was obviously shown by the frequencies of human drug sales personnel visiting the companion animal clinics! It was estimated that hardly one or two companion clinics opened up every year from 1970 to 1980. Some veterinarians, in order to avoid the cost of renting premises, preferred to operate mobile house call services.
A need for better services in companion animal practice
Early 1980 saw a turning point--from 1983 onwards, there was a sudden increase in the number of private companion animal clinics set up not only Kuala Lumpur and its suburbs, but also in many other states particularly along the west coast of peninsular Malaysia. To date, there are about 120 companion animal clinics distributed throughout West and East Malaysia. Graduates from Asian universities operate approximately 90% of the clinics. Consequent to the rapid socio-economic growth of the country, values and attitudes of modern and affluent society towards pets changed significantly. Animal welfare issues began to take center stage in national veterinary concerns. With the advent of the internet and easy, almost instantaneous world wide communication, easy access to the latest information pertaining to pet health care became available to the general public. Practitioners began to feel their shortcomings in meeting the needs of well-informed clients.
The formation of "Malaysian Small Animal Veterinary Association" (MSAVA)-previously known as "Small Animal Practitioners Association Malaysia" (SAPAM)
In 1985, a group of forward-thinking veterinarians in practice mooted the idea of an association devoted to Small Animal Practice. They felt that too many private practitioners had obvious shortcomings in skills and knowledge making them unable to adequately address the fast growing, demanding requirements of present-day companion-animal health care. Because these issues urgently needed to be addressed, they consulted with the main country-veterinary body, the Veterinary Association Malaysia (VAM) with the result that SAPAM was eventually set up as a special interest group (SIG) of the parent association VAM. SAPAM was officially registered as an association in the year 1991. One of the most important objectives of the association is to promote the advancement of knowledge for all veterinarians concerned with the practice of companion animal medicine and surgery.
Today the practice of companion animals in Malaysia is clearly not confined only to dogs and cats, but includes other species such as the pocket pets and exotics, and this includes the fish and birds. Realizing the frequent pursuit of continuing education away from Malaysia was prohibitively expensive for the majority of practitioners, the association conducted a series of veterinary continuing education programs in small animal medicine and surgery in collaboration with the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, UPM. This has brought a closer relationship between the faculty and the practitioners in the private sector.
Continuing education is acknowledged to play a great role in the advancement of companion animal practice. The WSAVA continuing education program in the Asia-Pacific has opened the eyes of many young veterinarians who only then realized the necessity to further the pursuit of their knowledge in veterinary medicine. However, in Malaysia, agriculture and food animal production are of utmost importance in the country's economy and this has led to a very obvious lack of attention from the public sector to the needs of development for companion animal practice. Continuing education and research initiated at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine mostly focuses on poultry, cattle and pigs. For this reason, the companion animal practitioners have to seek additional updated knowledge from nearby countries like Australia and Thailand which have more well laid plans and programs for small animal continuing education.
Due to the rapid growth of demand for companion animal services, most single-man practices have expanded by employing young local graduates to cater for the demand. This has created new employment opportunities for the UPM graduates and at the same time stimulated the interest of local graduates to enter practice on their own. There is, admittedly, a generation gap between the senior practitioners and the young vibrant practitioners. When employed, young veterinarians often demand better facilities from their employers for better service to the public. Equipment like x-ray machines, simple laboratory testing equipment and anesthetic machines are considered to be basic necessities now, and quite a few clinics have even better facilities such as ultrasound machines, dental treatment machines, patient monitoring devices, automated hematology machines, blood chemistry machines, and other in-house testing facilities.
The present scenario of companion animal practice in Malaysia
The potential for growth in companion animal practice is ever increasing in most parts of the world as countries develop further. In Malaysia, the number of new pet shops reflects the momentum of growth. It is estimated, from recent press surveys, that last year, importation of pet foods, pet accessories and related products amounted to US$100 million. In 1999, the Nipah virus outbreak saw about 40% of the pig population culled in Malaysia. The impact has awakened two animal health corporations to the fact that they should diversify part of their activities to service the field of companion animals. In year 2002, seven companion animal clinics in Kuala Lumpur alone have been established despite the 'economic slowdown'-this is in astonishing contrast to the 1-2 clinics that opened nationwide in the 70's. This rapid increase in the number of companion practices in Malaysia has raised some issues on ethics and professional conduct. In 1983, the Veterinary council in Malaysia drew up a 'Code of Ethics and Guide to Professional Conduct' for veterinary surgeons in the country and this guideline is currently under review.
The future direction
The direction of companion animal practice must be towards better pet health care as the human animal bond becomes more important in our lives. Several strategies have to be adopted for the change:
An emphasis shift towards preventive medicine and specialization
Establishment of group practices and hospitals
Constantly updating of knowledge and professional expertise
Establishment of a referral center by the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine
Establishment of a smart partnership in continuing education between the Faculty and companion animal practitioners.
Establishment of a Veterinary Nursing course to meet the future demand of practitioners.