Veterinary Care: Emerging Chinese Industry

Pet ownership is on the rise in China, which has led to increased demand for veterinary care. Of the roughly 1.1 million animal clinics in China, 70 percent are family-run practices and the rest are mostly small medical institutions. Only a few maintain comprehensively high medical standards or have access to advanced medical devices and drugs, yet skyrocketing prices coupled with unsatisfactory service have become the norm. To better understand the present reality of China’s veterinary care industry, we invited Xi Tinghui, manager of Beijing Baobaobeibei pet store, to share her insights.
by Xi Tinghui
A veterinarian adjusts the equipment in the operation room before an operation. CFP

In 2013, an Alaskan malamute named Yuanbao was brought to us in need of medical treatment. Yuanbao started limping when he was six months old. His owner first thought he had sprained his leg, but the symptoms never went away. After two or three weeks, the owner decided to seek medical advice.

A veterinarian diagnosed Yuanbao’s ailment as elbow dysplasia (ED). The congenital disease is incurable and will restrict the creature’s movement throughout his life. Yuanbao’s only hope is relief from painkillers for the rest of his life. ED can be treated with surgery in the United States, but the techniques have not been introduced to China’s veterinary sector. We could only suggest that Yuanbao continue with the medication and hope for the best.

Pets used to be rare in China. But the latest statistics show that China has more than 100 million pets, and the country’s pet industry is expected to maintain a growth rate above 30 percent in the next few years. As the number of pets increases, veterinary care is now heavily sought-after, becoming an industry of enormous potential. However, many roadblocks impede its progress.

As the manager of a pet store, I often hear complaints about the expense of treating pets. A single pill can cost dozens or even hundreds of yuan, and just a check-up will often cost up to a few hundred. Pet hospitals in China are mostly private enterprises without unified market standards. Most clinics set their prices independently according to the cost of the respective technologies and services. To maintain a pet hospital’s profitability, veterinary treatments are usually expensive.

The Alaskan malamute named Yuanbao has been diagnosed with elbow dysplasia. Courtesy of Xi Tinghui

Vaccines, medical devices and supplies used in pet clinics in China are heavily dependent on imports. The White Paper on China’s Pet Industry 2016 determined that imported pet vaccines accounted for more than 90 percent of the domestic market share, while demand continues to grow. This fact not only bottlenecks the development of pet healthcare in China, but also increases the already high pricing in the industry.

China’s veterinary sector has just begun to take shape. Although individual medical departments have gradually become specified, specialized treatment is still lagging. Human hospitals are divided into highly specific departments, enabling humans to receive any necessary treatment. The classification of pet physicians is less refined and specific than that of human doctors, which increases the difficulty in diagnosing pet diseases.

The gap between veterinary care in China and developed countries is closing, but compared to the latter, pet institutions in China still have a long way to go. China’s pet pharmaceutical industry is about fve to ten years behind the Western world, and the country lacks advanced equipment and technology to deliver intensive pet care. Pet psychology is another area where China falls behind. Pets react to their owners’ attitudes and without proper guidance, they will act like rebellious youths. Most pet trainers play the role of a psychologist. Yet due to a lack of standardized procedures, the service and quality of those medical institutions vary.

Still, the global industry has been awed by the quick progress of China’s veterinary care industry. Major breakthroughs have been achieved in some areas. China now has advanced equipment, adequate drugs, and world-class teams capable of performing, specifically, orthopedic surgery on animals. The cost for treatment in this department has dropped to a relatively affordable rate, accordingly. Today, treatment methods from traditional Chinese medicine are being gradually integrated into the domestic pet care industry. For example, some pets that have shown symptoms of epilepsy have found relief through acupuncture. China’s vast market and its rapid development have certainly captured the attention of foreign peers. While China’s economy continues to maintain a strong growth, the pet medical industry is bound to improve.

Today, China’s veterinary industry is more vibrant than ever. However, across a wide range of treatment realms, the industry needs further standardization and stricter control. The industry is still fine-tuning itself, and our furry friends will endure less and less suffering as time goes on.