He remembers the time a man brought an old cat to his clinic.
It was a community cat that was suffering from end-stage kidney failure. It was very weak, barely moving. And Dr Chow Haoting looked into the eyes of the caregiver and he realised that the man knew what had to be done.
“He knew the cat was suffering unnecessarily, but he told me his religion condemns euthanasia. He started crying and praying and asking for forgiveness. Once he was done, he told me we should do what’s best for the cat and let the cat go,” Dr Chow recalled, saying that the incident left a deep impact on him.
“He was thinking in the cat’s best interest and not for himself. Even though this cat was ‘homeless’, it had someone who loved him,” Dr Chow said.
That is one of the reasons the 30-year-old works as a locum veterinarian at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA).
Challenges of working in a shelter clinic
Work at SPCA isn’t like that of a normal veterinary clinic, says Dr Chow, who moved from private practice to join the organisation two years ago.
Most of their patients are community animals who do not have owners to pay for their medical bills. And as a non-profit organisation, SPCA Singapore depends on donations to treat these community animals.
Added to that is the challenge of continuing the work during Covid-19.
Aside from Dr Chow, there are seven other medical staff in the team, but due to safe distancing measures, they are working in split teams. Furthermore, volunteers or external vets are unable to help during the circuit breaker period, resulting in a shortage of manpower.
Dr Chow explains that it can also get overwhelming as a large portion of what they do involves emergency work for animals that are injured from road traffic accidents, falling from heights or other trauma cases.
As executive director Dr Jaipal Singh Gill tells The Pride: “Our concerns are magnified during this pandemic. Many crucial fundraising events had to be cancelled, including our annual gala dinner that was meant to raise $500,000.”
Every year, the SPCA clinic alone needs $600,000 to remain fully functional.
Caring for these community animals don’t come cheap. A simple blood test can cost $120 says Dr Chow.
A normal day at the clinic starts at 8am with feeding, changing water bowls and cleaning litter trays. New intakes are examined and diagnosed. Surgery starts at 10am and by the time Dr Chow finishes his reviews and additional consultations (with a quick break for lunch), it’s close to the end of the day. In the meantime, Dr Chow also has to make phone calls to update caregivers and follow up with fosterers. The day ends with the clinic team cleaning up the surgical equipment and cages and sorting out administrative work.
He tells The Pride: “We have to maintain quality of care, but also be prudent. We need to consider if we can afford the medication or blood test. Do we do it now or wait?”
It is not always a straightforward answer, as Dr Chow explains that they recently had social media feedback about not doing a blood test for a community cat.
“This highlights the differences between private and shelter clinics. What the outside world takes for granted is a luxury to us,” says Dr Chow.
He adds: “As a vet, you are trained to provide a gold standard of medicine. But how do you work within stringent limitations and provide the best possible care for all the animals? This is the struggle we face every day.”
Nevertheless, there have been silver linings.
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Dr Chow says that several veterinarian friends from other clinics have offered to lend SPCA Singapore some equipment. An internal medical specialist also reached out to him and offered to provide free consultation for SPCA during the circuit breaker period.
“We are able to do the work we do for the animals because of acts of kindness from other people,” Dr Chow says. “Even strangers have reached out to me and donated surgical masks!”
Doing what is best for the animals
Making tough choices is part and parcel of being a vet. Every animal that comes to the clinic usually has two possible outcomes: They are put up for adoption or released back into their previous environment as a community animal.
But there is a third possibility that sometimes rears its head. There are certain diseases that cannot be treated and limitations to current medical advances. Sometimes the vets need to think about the benefit of the animal and not prolong its suffering.
“Every decision weighs on us and it is not taken lightly,” Dr Chow says. “These are patients we care for every day. There’s a bond. It is sad, but we still need to do right by them and do what needs to be done, no matter how difficult it is.”
Even when Dr Chow leaves the clinic, his work doesn’t end. He is still on standby and often receives messages at night involving medical concerns. The team communicates through text and phone calls to discuss treatment plans or address questions by fosterers.
“Before bedtime, I lie on the bed and ponder how the hospital cases are doing and how we can help patients recover better. Sometimes, there’s the uncertainty that you’re not doing enough or you missed out something,” says Dr Chow.
Finding joy in rehabilitation
What motivates him to keep going and helping the animals?
“The success stories.”
Dr Chow shared that a rescue dog, Harvey, was brought to the clinic in August 2018 with maggot-infested ears. Harvey took six months to fully recover before finding a loving home in August 2019.
“Middle-aged mixed breed dogs are hard to rehome, because everyone wants cute purebreds. So we are lucky someone adopted him!” Dr Chow says.
Aside from seeing the animals find a home, it is also the dedication and kindness of the SPCA team that encourages and inspires Dr Chow. While many of us are content to leave our work in the office, Dr Chow tells us that some staff members even go the extra mile to foster cats on top of their day job!
“It’s my responsibility to make sure I do a good job. I try to be worthy of their support. They all contribute in different ways. Some of their work is quite mundane, but they still do it because they see the big picture and understand what they do is important,” Dr Chow says.
“There is still a lot more work we need to do. Right now, there are still patients fighting for their lives,” Dr Chow says.
Why would he work such long hours for patients that probably won’t appreciate his kindness to them?
At the question, Dr Chow pauses, then admits he never thought about it before.
“When you do an act of kindness you don’t expect anything in return. I don’t think animals can reciprocate kindness because they don’t have malicious intent, they are always the best versions of themselves.”