Caged in

By Yang Jinghao Source:Global Times Published: 2012-11-26 18:20:04

A dog awaits surgery on its vocal chords in a pet clinic on May 6, 2010 in a city in Fujian Province. Photo: CFP
A dog awaits surgery on its vocal chords in a pet clinic on May 6, 2010 in a city in Fujian Province. Photo: CFP

Lisa, an 8-year-old husky, had its heartbeat stop shortly after receiving two injections in a major Beijing pet hospital.

Its shocked owners' initial sadness soon turned to anger at the veterinarians that they accused of malpractice.

"But a hospital director told us Lisa had died of a serious illness and that the death was not their fault," said Wang Yuanyuan, a friend of the dog owners who witnessed the whole process. "It was really unacceptable."

Wang told the Global Times that Lisa was sent to Beijing Guanshang Animal Hospital on November 17 for a uterus problem. The vets declared the animal needed a hysterectomy after days of initial treatment.

"She showed signs of recovery after being on a drip for an hour, but soon began to twitch after receiving injections and died right there on the table," said Wang, noting that the hospital had never informed them of the possible risks.

The hospital refused to admit any wrongdoing and the family called the police in, who organized a further negotiation. "But two days later, the hospital president's assistant again told us they were not liable and defied us to sue them if we wanted to," said Wang.

Believing that going through the courts would not be of any help, the owners resorted to protesting outside the hospital, eventually reaching compensation 2,000 yuan ($321) as funeral expenses with the hospital which opened in 1992.

"The result was not good enough, but what more could we have done?" said Wang.

The hospital couldn't be reached for comment as of press time.

As medical disputes about people have caused a rising number of worrying cases, there is a growing concern about instances concerning pets. The absence of any real legal grounds for these cases has caused some to boil over into frustration and violence.  

Soaring pet disputes

Research shows that the number of pets in China has increased nine times over the last decade, reaching about 100 million by the end of 2011, according to, an industry analysis website.

The surge of pets, mostly dogs and cats, has inevitably been accompanied by growing medical disputes as owners increasingly care about their companion's well-being.

While the dispute about Lisa was grudgingly settled, another cat owner is still badgering a well-known pet hospital in the capital for compensation, claiming it used the wrong medicine and killed her cat. The woman refused to speak to the Global Times for fear any media exposure would ruin her attempts at negotiation.

During the sad moments when their pets have passed on, owners are increasingly putting the blame on animal hospitals. In many instances, it has been reported pet hospitals are often reluctant to admit blame, bringing disputes to a dead end.

On June 26, a 6-year-old golden retriever named Snoopy died in Shenzhen while being bathed at Ruipeng pet hospital, a chain with over 20 franchises, the Shenzhen Evening News reported.

The owner, Yu, said the hospital called him one hour after he left to tell him Snoopy needed an injection for heatstroke. Two hours later, the hospital called again to say that the dog was dying. It had stopped breathing by the time Yu arrived.

Yu posted pictures on his Weibo showing that Snoopy had been bleeding from the nose 10 hours after its death. Sad and irritated, Yu felt he needed to lash out violently and got into a scuffle with a hospital executive after failing to get a copy of the security footage from the hospital and being refused compensation.

Yuan Xiaobin, Ruipeng's legal counsel, said the dog had a fit before its bath. Vets tried to save it but it was too late, and he added that the later nosebleed was due to heatstroke.

In response to overreacting owners in some cases, veterinarians are calling for more understanding from animal owners, saying that many animals arrive at hospital in critical condition and cannot be saved.

Legal means no way out

Hoping to gain satisfactory compensation, some owners would turn to the law as an option. This can be illustrated by the case where the prestigious animal hospital affiliated to the China Agricultural University was brought before the courts earlier this year.

One plaintiff said it was the hospital's fault that his German shepherd was not kept for further observation after a begonia fruit was removed after becoming lodged in its throat. This led to its death and the plaintiff claimed more than 170,000 yuan in compensation, which was the alleged value of the animal. A Haidian district court imposed a fine of 15,000 yuan on the hospital for unlicensed operations instead of medical malpractice.

Lin Degui, the hospital's director, told the Global Times that the hospital is special since it is also a teaching department affiliated to a university, which is not an independent legal unit, making it difficult to apply for a business license.

The case seems to have provided a precedent, but the situation remains very complex.

Pets do not enjoy the same rights as people and are regarded as being the property of their owners. Thus, such cases can only be ruled as property damage dispute, said Xie Jiaxi, a lawyer with Yunnan Liangjian Law Firm who defended a pet hospital in Kunming in 2010.

Jian Zhirong sent his Tibetan mastiff to a hospital in July 2010 for treatment but it died the same night during treatment for a suspected lung complaint. Jian initially asked for 70,000 yuan in compensation. After this failed, Jian sued the hospital and elevated his claim to 260,000 yuan.

Jian's endeavors to prove a link between the hospital's treatment and the mastiff's death all went in vain due to a lack of any real means to do so and he was forced to withdraw the lawsuit.

Xie told the Global Times that China is devoid of qualified medical autopsy agencies, which has hampered the effective solving of many of these disputes.

He explained that unlike medical disputes concerning people, where institutions hold the responsibility of proof, in animal dispute the burden falls on the person bringing the case to court.

Jin Shangjiang, the other lawyer involved in Jian's case, pointed out that the vets' medical practices are usually deemed faultless without authoritative identification, which is not conducive to the improvement of medical skills and management of the industry.

Xie added that the opposite extreme could happen if a hospital had to pay whenever a pet died, leading vets to hesitate when accepting pets to treat. 

Market in disorder

Increasing disputes have also highlighted the loopholes of the pet medical care industry, which has been seeing a dynamic growth despite the general economic downturn.

Zhang Xiaoqiu, from the China Small Animal Association, told the Global Times that the Chinese pet medical market is chaotic, with some hospitals lacking necessary facilities and skills.

In 2009, the agriculture ministry started a veterinarian qualification exam in five provincial-level pilot areas. However, a number of people have set up shop as veterinarians without any qualifications from the ministry. Many pet owners are unaware of this and randomly choose a hospital.

"In other instances, some experienced veterinarians are old-fashioned and don't treat pets as the companions that they are to their owners," said Zhang.

A large headache for owners is also the threat of being overcharged on medical bills, which could add up to several times the equivalent for people. Yu said he had spent about 200,000 yuan at Ruipeng hospital in the last few years without receiving any invoices.

"Even a light illness would cost over 1,000 yuan. It's really extravagant profit," claimed Yu, speculating that the hospital had evaded considerable taxes.

Shi Zhihai, a veterinarian in Henan Province, who also serves as the vice secretary-general of the province's small animal medical association, told the Global Times that the real issue is a lack of supervision.

"For example, some doctors like exaggerating the illness to overcharge the owners," said Shi, adding that some ordinary medicine is sold at many times its cost after being labeled as being exclusively for pets.

Chen, a veterinary assistant who has been working at Ruipeng for seven years, revealed to the Shenzhen Evening News that the hospital would purchase expired drugs intended for humans from some major hospitals, which is against the law. He said that hospitals would also sell domestically made medicines as imported ones at extremely inflated prices.

Shi suggested that pet hospitals should be classified into different grades just as human hospitals, which will help manage them and make it easier for people to choose where to go. 

Government participation needed

In response to the situation, the agriculture ministry issued a circular in May, requiring local husbandry and veterinary authorities to strengthen supervision over veterinary institutions, including unlicensed operations, misuse of drugs and overcharging.

"For a long time, authorities have been concentrating on the general animal husbandry market, treating pets like pigs, cattle and chickens, neglecting the fast development of this booming market," said Zhang.

To properly address these disputes, legal experts, industry practitioners and pet owners have all called for specific laws or regulations to be passed quickly.

Shi said a special arbitration body designated for pet medical accidents should be set up in the model of that in Hong Kong.

One regulation of this kind was worked out by the Shanghai Pet Trade Association in 2006, detailing the approaches parties can adopt for mediation, especially where medical identification is stressed.

Gu, an employee with the association, told the Global Times that one or two such cases came up every month and that most were peacefully settled under the regulation.

While the role of an industry watchdog is stressed, Zhang said the awareness of pet owners should also be raised. "People should be rational toward their pets' illness and avoid overreacting in the face of an unlucky occurrence."

He added that the owners must have the right amount of common sense and knowledge.

"The market is somewhat messy, but it's also promising that disqualified veterinarians and clinics are being gradually eliminated from the market," said Zhang. "But the development of the industry needs a push in the right direction." 

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