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A revolution in global companion animal care?

The global veterinary community is going through an enormous shift-change, with increasing pet ownership, and the adoption of good animal welfare practices.

We spoke to the World Small Animal Veterinary Association’s (WSAVA) new President, Shane Ryan who is based in Singapore, to discuss the transformation taking place in pet ownership in that part of the world and the big issues affecting industry.

You set up your practice in Singapore 30 years ago – what are the biggest differences you’ve seen in the industry there since 1989? 

When I came to Singapore back in those days, I was the tenth veterinary practitioner in the whole country, and now we’ve got I think nearly 400, so it’s totally transformed as a profession. This is due, in part, to the change in Singapore itself. When I first came here, Singapore was still a developing nation, and it’s very much now a first-world country. 

As a veterinarian working at the SPCA at that time, there were many abandoned community-owned animals left behind as people were resettled from kampong-living to high-rise apartments. Pet ownership was mostly restricted to the more affluent, and it was a certainly a luxury to be able to afford to take animals to the vet. 

That has changed immensely with the emergence of a strong middle-class. Now people can afford not only to look after a pet, but to look after a pet very well. 

With this rise in pet ownership, how does Singapore view animal welfare now?

Singapore has experienced a Westernization of many concepts and one of those is animal welfare. It’s become a major focus of discussion in Singapore. New animal welfare laws have been introduced, and animal welfare issues are heavily reported upon here. They’re concerned about strays, and the stray dog population is managed rather than culled, which is how the government used to control dogs here.

As a result, in my opinion, it means that people are more prepared to be responsible for animals. If they adopt an animal, they’ll look after it. 

Other countries such as Brazil, India and Mexico are going through similar changes in pet ownership. What advice would you give veterinarians in those countries, having experienced it yourself?

I think they may well have the same issues we did; a lack of access to the most recent techniques, knowledge and expertise, simply because it doesn’t exist. I would strongly urge veterinarians to get out there, and get your hands on as much further education as you can. At the WSAVA, we certainly try to help provide continuing educational support, but it needs to come from individuals too.

You’ll get a return on your investment. It means you can offer better services for your clients, and job satisfaction because you can provide a better service for your animal patients. 

Do you believe the global veterinary community is more accessible than ever before?

Very much so. I remember doing a Master’s degree in Australia, distance learning in the mid ’90s in the very early days of the internet. I would be sent cassette tapes of telephone recordings to listen to – they wouldn’t put me on the call because it was too expensive to have an international dial-in. 

Now, because of the internet all this is easy. We’re even seeing the evolution of telemedicine. Telemedicine is going to change everything – it is already changing everything! It will absolutely make it easier for clients to access veterinary services. 

What are some of the challenges you’re seeing for the veterinarian sector at a global level? 

A big one is antimicrobial resistance. Veterinarians have a role to play here, and if we’re not careful as a profession we might lose access to a number of therapeutics, but particularly antimicrobials we need for the best possible treatments for our pets. We need to stop antimicrobials getting into the hands of the public through illicit sources.

There’s also anthropomorphisation, the humanization of animals. We’re increasingly extending our lifestyle choices to our pets, for example, thinking “because I’m a vegetarian or a vegan, I’m going to feed my animal this food”. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with doing that if done correctly, but it’s important to remember animals are not small humans, and so this behaviour can lead to health and welfare issues.

We’re also working to improve the breeding standards of pets with hereditary issues, such as those with flat faces, short legs or excessive skin folds which have become popular breeds driven by celebrities and social media. They’re cute and lovely but as breeds they’re maybe pushed to extremes, so we’d like to breed them back to a healthier variant. 

In your new role, what issues will you be championing? 

I’d like to see us more as an international advocate, an international voice for animal welfare in its various guises. We’ve just put out our welfare guidelines for the veterinary practitioner, but we also want to be speaking to major organizations such as the OIE – World Organisation for Animal Health and the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations). 

We’ve also started a new committee which focuses on the wellbeing of members of the veterinary profession. We want to look after the welfare of our people as well as our animal patients.

It’s International Love your Pet Day on February 20th, what would you say to someone looking to adopt a pet?

From a scientific perspective, there are numerous benefits to people. It’s shown to be healthier for kids, particularly when it comes to allergies and there’s a number of reports, which show the health benefits of owning a pet if you have a sedentary lifestyle.

It also gives people a sense of responsibility and focus if they’re living a more isolated life, which we seem to do in our crowded cities. 

But you also need to look at it from the animal’s point of view. Its life is worth something. If you’re thinking of getting a pet, you’ve got a living entity that you need to look after. Do it, it’s good for you and the animal!

Dr Shane Ryan is President of the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA). He grew up in Australia, graduating in 1980. After qualifying Shane gained experience in mixed practice, treating companion animals, horses, cattle and camelids. After travelling to Europe he arrived in Singapore and opened his own companion animal practice. He now lives there with his family and two cats.