If you think your pet is exotic, wait until you see its vet bill!
Exotic pets like lizards, snakes and meerkats have become all the rage among some young people, but if one of these critters falls ill, finding a vet can be a challenge and paying the fees can be formidable.
Of more than 80 million pet owners in China, an estimated 17 million keep exotic pets, according to a 2020 report produced by Pethadoop in conjunction with the China Pet Industry Association.
A subsequent 2021 version update showed that 5.8 percent of pet owners in China keep reptiles as pets, while 4.5 percent had rodents.
Pet Han Han veterinary hospital on Dongxiu Road in Pudong is among the venues that does accept some more exotic pets. It reports an increase in business.
"There may be about 300 to 400 cases per month," hospital director Chen Mingchao told Shanghai Daily. "That compares with the beginning of 2020, when the caseload was only between 20 and 30."
Chen said he was scheduled to give acupuncture treatment to a guinea pig in a few hours. The pet had developed a respiratory ailment, probably because its owner used too much perfume and aromatherapy at home.
The hospital, which provides both traditional Chinese and Western medical treatments, accepts small pets such as rabbits, guinea pigs and hamsters, in addition to the traditional dogs and cats. Cold-blooded creatures such as turtles, snakes and lizards are not accepted.
"For some pet diseases, traditional Chinese medicine gives better results than Western medicine," Chen said.
Acupuncture, moxibustion and herbal treatments are his specialties. But acupuncture is most popular with pet owners.
He cited a previous case, where a guinea pig arrived at the hospital with terrible fits of coughing and a poor appetite. After the acupuncture treatment, its breathing became regular and the coughing subsided.
Chen said traditional Chinese medicine treatment is less costly than Western therapies. He cited one Western medical treatment that normally costs 3,000 (US$411) to 5,000 yuan, but is only 1,000 yuan when traditional Chinese medicine is applied.
Another pet hospital that accepts exotic patients is Pethouse Animal Hospital on Guangfu Road W. in Putuo District. It works with aquaria and indoor petting zoos to treat animals like otters, alpacas, sloths, and toucans.
"Unlike mammals, reptiles often have a long course for the onset of disease," said Weng Zhitian, director of the hospital. "So when they show symptoms, the pet is already in a very bad way."
Weng said poor care by pet owners is often the root cause of problems.
"For example, turtles like sunbathing, and if the owner doesn't give them enough exposure to sunshine, they will suffer metabolic bone disease due to calcium deficiency," he said. "Birds have a fast metabolism and may become seriously ill in just one day."
One problem frustrating these pet hospitals is the fact that many owners abandon their exotic pets if they fall ill. Sometimes animals are found discarded in residential areas; sometimes owners never come to retrieve them from hospitals to avoid paying the fees.
Chen said his hospital once encountered an "extreme case," in which an owner who was reluctant to pay medical fees for her hamster flushed the poor critter down the toilet of the hospital restroom.
"If owners dump sick pets here, we treat them and try to find new owners," Chen said. "Discarding them elsewhere can pose a public health risk."
Veterinary fees can be off-putting to some pet owners.
Deng Muxuan, 21, owns a snake and a violet lovebird, told Shanghai Daily that she would prefer to give her pets medicine at home rather than take them to a vet.
"It's not easy for snakes to get sick," she said. "Even if they do become ill, some human medicines, such as metronidazole for mouth inflammation, can be used. Parrots are more likely to get sick, so I prepare common medicines at home. If a pet is critically ill, then I would consider going to the hospital."
Deng said an exotic pet hospital near her home is expensive.
"And there is no doctor who treats snakes," she said. "Moreover, the quality of pet hospitals differs from one to next. Some are not capable of dealing with difficult diseases."
In Shanghai, people search on the Chinese Yelp-style business rating app Dazhong Dianping to find stores selling exotic pets like raccoons, meerkats, marmots, sugar gliders, lizards and snakes.
However, most pet clinics listed on the platform deal only with cats and dogs. Few accept more exotic pets.
Cheng Qi, a local full-time exotic pet doctor, told China's leading popular science website Guokr that the income of most exotic pet doctors is not high because the cases are much fewer than dealing with cats and dogs.
"A dog and cat vet with five years' experience can earn 15,000 yuan a month, while an exotic pet doctor can probably earn only 10,000 yuan," he said. "Low income is the main reason why there are so few vets seeing exotic animals."
According to Cheng, there are presently about 100 registered exotic pet doctors in China, and they are mainly practicing in big cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.
Education opportunities for exotic pet doctors are few and expensive.
"As a full-time exotic pet doctor, I spend about 100,000 yuan a year on continuing education," Cheng said.
According to Pet Han Han's Chen, performing acupuncture on animals requires vast knowledge.
"Humans have more than 300 acupoints," he said, "while cats and dogs have about 170, rabbits have over 90 and hamsters only have 10-plus."
Weng said he and his colleagues need to carefully limit surgery durations to about half an hour because small animals lose their heat very quickly.
"Even if we take heat preservation measures," he said, "any longer time is likely to result in death."
The tiny sizes of pets like hamsters and reptiles also make the surgeries extremely complicated.
Orthopedic surgery on a hamster, for example, can involve embedding a steel needle inside the body and a bracket outside as well.
"Reptiles mainly require outside brackets for surgery," Weng said. "Compared with other animals, a fracture in reptiles takes a longer time to recover and there's more risk of them contracting bacterial infections. Post-operative care is very important."