Teaching in China: West Meets East—Eye-Opening Teaching Experience in China

In the summer of 2019, Janice Huntingford, DVM, DACVSMR, was asked to teach continuing education classes on canine rehabilitation and pain management in China and Taiwan. She was not unsure of the subject matter, just the language barrier and the details veterinary medicine in China.

I was surprised to learn that there were small-animal veterinarians in China who were interested in learning about advanced services such as rehabilitation and pain management

by Janice Huntingford, DVM, DACVSMR

Last summer, I spent three weeks teaching continuing education classes on canine rehabilitation and pain management in China and Taiwan. Having lectured extensively on both of these topics in North America, I was not unsure of the subject matter—just the delivery (I do not speak Mandarin) and the level of veterinary medicine in China today.

My trip was arranged through a collaboration of the Integrative Veterinary Medical Institute, the Chi Institute, the International Veterinary College, and the Ruipeng Pet Healthcare Group. I was honored to have this opportunity, but also a bit apprehensive.

I will be the first to admit that I did not know what the modern Chinese attitude was toward dogs and pets in general. I was surprised to learn that there were small-animal veterinarians there who were interested in learning about advanced services such as rehabilitation and pain management.

As it turns out, China’s relationship with dogs is quite unusual and has changed over time. Just as in North America, in China, people started out keeping dogs for protection, to help with hunting, and for catching rodents. Wealthy Chinese nobles and emperors kept small pets such as pugs and Pekingese. It is true that dogs have been—and still are—farmed for food, but in modern China the practice is considered immoral by many people. As the country becomes more affluent and people’s attitudes toward pets change, these practices will hopefully die out. Thankfully, the killing of dogs for food has been banned outright in Taiwan. Just as here in the West, the vast majority of dogs in China are pet dogs who are viewed as companions and usually treated as family members.

During the Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966 to 1976, pet ownership was considered a decadence, and Communist leader Mao Zedong discouraged people from owning pets and shamed those who did. However, with the end of the Cultural Revolution, the negative consequences of having a dog ended. In fact, with the implementation of the “one-child policy” in 1980, Chinese couples were encouraged to adopt dogs as substitute children. Now, there is a substantial infrastructure for pet owning, including kennel clubs, social groups, and pet fairs and shows. China has one of the fastest-growing pet industries in the world. People have more disposable income to spend on pets, and they are spending it.

Just as in North America, clients in China are seeking advanced services for their geriatric and disabled pets. More dogs (and cats) are having orthopedic surgery and need rehabilitation and pain management to recover normal function. There is a group of veterinarians who are eager to provide these services and take care of their patients. In urban areas, specialty hospitals are increasing in number, and many of these are hoping to add rehabilitation to their list of services.

Liberty Square in Taipei, Taiwan, a popular gathering place and a symbol of democracy in Taiwan.

Different Worlds

With this “lecture tour,” I spent one week in Taiwan and two weeks in Beijing and Shanghai. Taiwan was a good initiation for me, since most of the veterinarians spoke English and their techniques and practices were mostly on par with those in the West. The lectures were held at the National Taiwan University, which has a veterinary rehabilitation department. The practitioners and their patients were just like most of our colleagues: eager to learn new things to help improve the lives of their patients.

I found that the students in both Taiwan and China were reluctant to ask questions or engage in dialogue with the lecturer. I much prefer interaction with the participants, rather than presenting a monologue, but that was not really their preference. Most of the veterinarians took copious notes but kept their questions until after the presentation. I found the people very grateful for any tips I could give them, and they asked if I would mind shortening the lunch and tea break to “sneak in” a lecture on nutrition, which I was happy to do!

I have to say I was treated like royalty throughout my entire trip, but particularly in Taiwan. I was a guest at many dinners and ate some unusual things. I was shown the cultural highlights and visited some museums. I was invited to the zoo to see the pangolins and consult about rehabilitation of some of the zoo animals. I was treated to a foot massage (much needed). I also visited veterinary hospitals that had rehabilitation services or were interested in improving or adding this service. I came to realize that Taiwan is a mixture of old China and new technology.

Inside a brand-new veterinary specialty hospital in Beijing, China.

My two weeks in China, following my week in Taiwan, were very similar but also very different. China is an ancient culture that is thrusting itself headlong into the modern world. I was last in China in 1992, when the fields were still harvested with scythes and water buffalo, and the bicycle truck was the main way of moving goods. Fast-forward to today and the modern China with scooters, lots of trucks, a modern subway system, and toll roads.

Unlike in Taiwan, most of the people I met in China did not speak English, but Google Translate works pretty well, which leads me to another thing. We take for granted our ability to Google questions, to jump on VIN and look up the latest treatments, or to have a veterinary encyclopedia at our fingertips. Not so in China. As a Westerner, I had to subscribe to a virtual private network (VPN) before I left Canada. Using a VPN allows people to access the internet without the government censors knowing where they go online and what they search for. Sometimes it worked well. Other times I was shut down and unable to access the internet at all.

My lectures, which were numerous, proceeded slowly, as I had a translator. I could only speak a few sentences at a time, to allow the translator to do her work. Sometimes I forgot myself and lectured too long on an exciting topic only to have to go back and do it again slowly for my translator. She was amazing, however, and spoke very quickly.

Change Is Happening

It seems there are some very wealthy people in China—wealthy people with pets—and they are demanding top-rate veterinary services for their fur kids. In Beijing, I was asked to tour a new veterinary specialty hospital that had only been open for a few months. The hospital was planning to add rehabilitation to its services and it had an entire floor to dedicate to it. I can say without a doubt that this hospital would rival or surpass the best veterinary specialty hospitals in the West. It had all the toys, including two computed tomography scanners and a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine.

A patient gets ready for acupuncture treatment at a veterinary rehabilitation hospital in Taiwan.

Because many of those who can afford to use the service are wealthy, the hospital had an entire VIP wing complete with a VIP waiting room and a small apartment and special runs for the pets. It was quite obvious to me that China has become a tiered system with ultra-wealthy people, an average middle class, and of course those living in poverty. The thing is, most of the people looking for veterinary services in the hospitals I visited were just like my clients—concerned about their pets, treating their pets like family, pampering them, coddling them, and feeding them too much. I was surprised to find that as in North America, many of the pets in China are overweight.

Although the clients and practitioners were similar to those in the West, there were some marked differences in the East. In Taiwan, they had most of the pain medications and devices that we have in the West or they are coming soon. Laser therapy is not unheard of. Pets do get MRIs if they have orthopedic surgery. The big food brands, from Mars to Nestlé, are there, as are some of the smaller players. Their pet stores are well stocked, and, except for the language, you would not know you were in Taiwan. People in Taiwan love their pets. They also seem to like and care for their street dogs.

China, with its authoritarian rule, still has a way to go, but things are changing slowly. Pain management is hampered by lack of availability of pain drugs and restrictions on which medications veterinarians are allowed to use. I was surprised that, considering most of our medical devices are now made in China, there was a paucity of things like lasers and dog exercise equipment. Street dog euthanasia still happens. Veterinary practices are a mixed bag, with some very high-end practices and others with very questionable medicine. The good news is that China is changing to embrace pets in large numbers—pets who need good healthcare. The new generation of Chinese veterinarians wants to be up for the challenge!

And as for me, next year I am going back to China and Taiwan and I am adding South Korea into the mix. Overall, this was a great experience—eye opening, humbling, and interesting. I feel very blessed to be able to share my knowledge with veterinarians who are hungry to learn new things. Truly, our profession, with its myriad opportunities and infinite variety, is the best in the world! 

Janice Huntingford, DVM, DACVSMR, is a 1984 graduate of the Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph, in Guelph, Ontario. She is certified in chiropractic, acupuncture, rehabilitation, and pain management. In 2015, she became a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation. She has coauthored several textbook chapters, has published several peer-reviewed manuscripts, and continues to speak nationally and internationally on pain management and rehabilitation.

Photo credits: All photos courtesy of Janice Huntingford

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