The cost of companionship

For people on low incomes, getting affordable treatment for their beloved pets is a major challenge

Seeing animal in pain is always a traumatic sight.

All pet owners would agree that some of the most difficult times in their lives come when their pets get sick. Those who can afford it will have a choice of taking them to private animal hospitals and veterinary clinics where services and treatment can be provided readily, in a pleasant environment, at a high cost. But pet owners who cannot afford the hefty bills must seek help from public clinics and hospitals, and the experience is not so different from public hospitals for people: long queues and hours of waiting in a not-always pleasant atmosphere.

Last Monday, 58-year-old Charassri Mugdasanit drove from her home in Rangsit to Kasetsart University Veterinary Teaching Hospital (KUVTH) with her 10-year-old golden retriever Bacon in tow. The hospital was once entirely state-run, but now it has to operate autonomously, though is still part of the university. Regardless, it still has a reputation of being friendly for pet owners with lower incomes, and also serves as a place for internships for the university's veterinary students. Public pet hospitals are usually ones that belong to universities with a department of veterinary medicine, and besides Kasetsart, Chulalongkorn University and Mahidol University also offer relatively cheap healthcare for animals.

Charassri and Bacon arrived at the hospital before 6.30am but, even then, the line was already long. They were placed 82nd in the queue. In any given day, the staff report there are easily 200-400 sick animals -- both first-time and follow-up cases -- visiting the hospital daily.

Animals -- from dogs, cats, rabbits, birds and many others -- are brought to the hospital due to either internal or external injuries. They have abnormalities in blood, liver, bladder, brain or are suffering due to old age, accidents, broken limbs or rashes. It's a normal sight to see pets with cones around their necks. Some wear diapers. And a few are connected to intravenous saline solutions.

At 7am, the hospital opens its doors to let people in for registration. Treatment and the majority of medical services starts at 8.30am. The emergency unit operates 24/7.

"I've been here six to seven times, spending four to five hours each visit," said Charassri.

Bacon has been suffering from kidney disease for the past few months, and now requires a weekly check-up at the hospital. Before coming to KUVTH, Charassri used to take Bacon to a private animal hospital closer to home. She decided to change to KUVTH after the staff at her previous hospital said they couldn't treat Bacon's condition.

"I feel that public hospitals -- as they're also tied to the university -- are better with more equipment at the ready. And the vets see much more diverse cases, making them more experienced," said Charassri. "And it's expensive to go to private hospitals."

While she didn't reveal how much she used to pay at a private hospital, Charassri said each visit at KUVTH now costs 1,000-2,000 baht, which includes blood testing and medicines.

"If you're employed, with steady money coming in, this cost is quite reasonable. But it would be very difficult for those with low or irregular income should their pets get sick," added Charassri.

On the same day, Boonmee Munkong visited the hospital for the first time after being referred from a vet clinic. His one-year-old cat Mali recently had a miscarriage. She requires an operation to remove the kittens, and possibly treat an inflamed womb. "The staff at the vet clinic said the procedure would cost 5,500 baht. I couldn't afford it, so they recommended I come here [KUVTH] for a lower price," said Boonmee. At that time, he didn't know how much the procedure would cost at KUVTH.

"It would be great if we could get the government's support. People with low incomes also love and care for animals. Even humans have the 30 baht healthcare programme. What do animals have?" he said.

Most people assume that a university teaching hospital can offer services at a very low price. Some have taken their complaints to Pantip.com and other social media sites when they found out the hospital bill wasn't as low as they were expecting.

For a case like Boonmee's, Dr Anchulee Dulchart -- KUVTH's veterinarian in internal medicine and rehabilitation -- estimated that the procedure would cost around 4,500-7,000 baht, depending on the internal condition of the animal.

"We're not really cheap here, to be honest," said Dr Anchulee. "But we give each animal a full diagnosis to find the cause of the problem. We don't just provide supportive treatment. We aim to cure. And we would never lengthen the treatment to milk money off the owners."

Dr Anchulee explained that, while the veterinarian's medical service fees at KUVTH can go as low as 80 baht, other services that require the use of machinery can be costly. An MRI could cost 10,000 baht for pets weighing over 15kg, while the CT scan could be 5,000 baht. Prices also depend on the size of the animals.

While many owners grit their teeth and pay up for their loved ones, some choose to just leave their pets behind. Cats and dogs that are rescued from roadside accidents are sometimes sent to the hospital. The staff then have no other choice but to keep these animals in their ward, which then takes up space from other sick animals that need cages to stay in. Some left-behind pets recover and are given away to friends and colleagues of staff.

"It is our job to heal all animals. Still, we mostly accept only ones with owners because we can't care for them after they're cured. If we take them in, it prevents us from caring for other sick animals. It's a never-ending cycle," said Asst Prof Khampee Pattanatanang, director of KUVTH. "We need the government to step in."

Most of the government's support usually come in the form of preventive measures like vaccines against rabies, as well as different campaigns to perform spaying and neutering for free. There is, however, minimal support towards animals' medical treatment.

Owners are pretty much on their own should their pets get sick, explained both Dr Khampee and Dr Anchulee.

Current healthcare services for animals are sadly not accessible for all, said Dr Khampee. He suggested that the government could perhaps raise the minimum standard of income in order for the people to have the necessary means to support their loved ones, pets included.

"To prevent underprivileged pets, perhaps we have to make sure there are no underprivileged owners first," Dr Anchulee said.

But owners are not entirely blameless, either. Many buy cute, furry pets without considering the financial responsibility they also owe to these animals. And it causes suffering to the animals themselves when their owners aren't able to get them treated.

"So many animals have been left to die at home by their owners. Now, that would involve the law. Can we prosecute when owners neglect their pets? The law is against animal suffering, and that should include not getting animals treated when they're sick," added Dr Khampee.

Thai animal lovers celebrated the Prevention of Animal Cruelty and Provision of Animal Welfare Act when it was passed at the end of 2014. It is now illegal -- with some exceptions -- to cause unnecessary suffering towards animals. However, the word "suffering" is not properly defined, and most took it to only mean inflicting bodily harm to animals.

To help lessen the people's burden, KUVTH arranged a funding programme for pet owners with low incomes, which began from the start-up amount of 2 million baht given by HM the King in 2003.

Up to 1,000 baht can now be given to subsidise costs of medical fees for one pet per owner.

There are now some insurance companies offering insurance for cats and dogs. Dr Khampee reported that this animal insurance is still at the beginning stage, and that no pet has come with insurance to KUVTH just yet. But the director said the system would be in place soon to welcome insured animals.

The hospital also allows owners to pay their bills in instalments. Still, there have been many cases of bad debt.

"Hospitals shouldn't have to collect people's debt. That's better left to banks," said Dr Khampee.

Registration at KUVTH opens at 7am. Queue cards can be picked up from around 5.30am.

Treating the petite patient.

Inside the hospital's waiting area.

Bacon, the 10-year-old golden retriever.

Boonmee and his cat Mali.

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