Pet Project

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Animal owners and veterinarians cheer as private hospitals bring the latest in science and skill to India

SOMEWHERE IN BETWEEN the plywood shops, spas, cremation grounds and temple sites at Delhi’s Chattarpur area lies Gaushala Road, a relatively empty stretch of private farm houses. On one property, oblivious to the noise of party-goers at nearby Tivoli Gardens, Surya Prabha, better known as Noddy, snuggles deeper into his freshly-laundered paw print blanket. He hasn’t been able to urinate for the last four days and the build-up of toxins in his blood has severely depleted his energy levels. He barely moves as the doctor inserts a needle into his belly and starts to drain the impure blood from his kidneys. This is Noddy’s third time at the dialysis machine. An 8-year-old pug belonging to Delhi-based businessman Amit Bali, he was brought to Renal Vet India, the country’s first and only dedicated animal nephrology hospital, on the verge of death. Now, a week since he began kidney treatment here, he’s finally showing signs of improvement and his owners hope to have him back home within a few days time.

“He was diagnosed with tick fever initially by another vet. But only when his urea level was over 10 [the upper limit for blood urea] and his platelets were touching 70,000, did the vet realise the fever had led to damage in his kidneys. He had been so busy treating the cause, he hadn’t bothered about the effect,” says Bali as he and his elderly father watch their dog’s blood drip into a purification chamber and then back into his body through a series of tubes. These imported blood lines from Portugal might cost more (supplies cost between $60 to $70 per dialysis) but they have been designed to keep the loss of blood to a minimum during the entire process.

“All done,” says Dr Shabina Qayoom. It’s been 30 minutes since the dialysis started and Noddy is now ready to be moved to the hospital’s 24-cage ICU. Here, Dr Qayoom and Dr Shakool Khan, both of whom in two weeks time will be India’s only certified veterinary nephrologists, will monitor him for the next 24 hours. When it’s time for them to go home, a nurse will sit by the dog’s side and take hourly readings of his temperature and pulse. Noddy’s personal diet chart mentions the precise amount of fluid and food (both determined by his weight) that can be given to him. Close circuit cameras in turn allow the vets to watch both the nurse and the dog from their home, ensuring there is zero room for error in the post-treatment care given to him. “We keep the patients in cages for a reason. Most of them have a catheter placed at the base of the heart. The animal’s movement needs to be limited to ensure it doesn’t shift,” explains Dr Qayoom. In a few weeks from now, the facility will also offer owners a private bed of their own. This way they won’t have to be separated from their pet as night falls.

“Kidney failure is fatal to a dog and 90 per cent animals will die from it if it isn’t treated in time,” explains Dr Lidiane, the head vet here. She has recently moved to India from Renal Vet in Rio De Janeiro, a 20 year old hospital with six centres throughout Brazil, to help set up the branch in Delhi and train Dr Qayoom and Dr Khan in nephrology. Both the Indian vets are also specialising in performing haemodialysis in under 3 kg animals, a skill which is extremely rare around the world. “Even in the US, the minimum weight for haemodialysis is 10 kg,” adds Dr Lidiane. She pauses to show me her latest tattoo, a tiny map of India on her wrist and then continues, “I love being here because there is so much love for animals. Owners treat their pets with the same care and commitment as they would their children. Unfortunately, awareness of kidney disease and training in nephrology remains low.” Like Noddy, most of the animals that come to the clinic are usually in a terminal state.

“Vets and owners here don’t know or understand enough about animal nephrology mainly because of two reasons. First, since the Indian diet isn’t as protein-heavy as in the West, dogs tend to suffer from renal problems at a later age. And second, the veterinary curriculum here isn’t detailed enough for vets to perform haemodialysis or treat kidney problems which can arise as a result of any other disease [such as tick fever, gastric ulcer or renal failure],” explains Dr Lidiane.

Started three months ago, Renal Vet India is owned by Stellar Pet Exotica, a Gulf-based company, and plans to open branches in Mumbai and Dubai in the next year. Dialysis treatment starts at Rs 6,500 per session with additional costs for supplies and post- treatment care. The hospital also offers acupuncture treatments. “Animals can sense when a person is trying to help them. It’s quite rare for them to show aggression without cause at the hospital,” says Sunil Singh, the owner. Singh started the hospital when he lost his mongrel, Midget, to kidney failure. “He died within three weeks of being diagnosed. It’s so important that vets refer animals to us in time, so that they still have a fighting chance for survival.”

EXPENSIVE EQUIPMENT (a digital x-ray machine starts at $12,000 and setting up a pathology lab takes a minimum investment of Rs 10 lakh) and shortage of qualified veterinarians (in 2015, Dr Umesh Chandra Sharma, president of the Veterinary Council of India revealed that there were only 63,000 registered vets in India to meet a demand of over 120,000) have long held back the private animal hospital sector in India from expanding. But a series of corporate and private investments is quickly changing all that, allowing a new breed of advanced hospitals to bring in both fresh technology and talent into the country.

“Awareness of diseases has led to a demand for specialised medical care like minimally invasive surgery and rhinoscopy” Dr Samar Singh Mahendran, director, CGS Hospital, Gurugram

Crown Vet in Mumbai, owned by Pratap Singh Gaekwad and Pragyashree Gaekwad of the royal family of Baroda, is one such example. Started in January this year, the hospital’s launch party saw several of the city’s big names come to lend their support including Dino Morea, Priya Dutt, Meher Rampal and Tanisha Mukherjee. The facility is spread across 4,500 square metres near Mahalaxmi Station with a second branch in Khar. Aside from providing 24-hour emergency services, the hospital also has its own path lab, radiology department, diagnostic imaging equipment and three surgery rooms. Dr Billie Jo Chambers, a graduate of the Royal Veterinary College in London, is the clinical director here and brings with her overseas experience of over 7 years, including a stint at a neutering clinic in Bahamas. “Animals need a comfortable environment to recuperate after treatment or surgery,” says Pratap Gaekwad, who started the clinic after his Great Dane fell ill and he had to bring him home while he’d not yet fully recovered from his anesthesia. This made Gaekwad realise the lack of advanced and specialised veterinary treatment and facilities for post-operative care in the city.

Mumbai which has over 50,000 registered pets, 70,000 unregistered pets, 200,000 stray dogs and 300,000 stray cats (according to 2016 BMC data), has just one full-time hospital (two, since the launch of Crown Vet). In contrast to this, New York has close to 33 and London has 15. This is one of the reasons why Ratan Tata and Maneka Gandhi have announced plans to start a hospital which will be completed by 2018. The 9,000 sq m animal care facility in Kalamboli with a total holding capacity of 235 animals will have its own ICU, recovery rooms, imaging and pathology services, orthopaedics department, dentistry department and trauma surgery department.

But the city won’t have to wait too long to see more exciting health options available for their furry friends. Later this year, another corporate giant, Omkar Realtors, will put the finishing touches to the Barkley Day Spa in Worli. Constructed at a height of 200 metres with sweeping views of the Arabian Sea, the spa is set to offer the latest in nutrition and grooming for dogs and cats. “When I was living in the US, I used to take my then dog, a Doberman, to The Barkley in Los Angles. They gave him his own lounge cabana and a gluten-free detox diet that helped him lose weight and regain muscle mass. It might seem excessive to some but my dogs are like my children and who doesn’t want their child to receive the best treatment?” says Purvi Khanna, 34, a city-based banker. She now takes her two current dogs— Jojo and Toto, both Lhasa Apsos—to Crown Vet. “They have the latest in surgical equipment and expertise. It makes a difference to the animal when the environment is positive because when they are unwell, they are all the more sensitive to what goes on around them.”

Corporate help isn’t the only investment avenue. Crowd funding in Chennai has helped the 25-year-old Annie Besant Memorial Animal Hospital collect Rs 12 lakh for renovation and refurbishment of their facility. The revamped hospital in Adyar will now be able to house 150 dogs and 60 cats, provide more specialised treatments and have CCTV cameras on their gates to ensure owners don’t abandon their pets on the premises. “Job prospects are much better now than they were a few years ago,” says Dr Shudha, a graduate of Tamil Nadu Veterinary University. She hopes to move to Mumbai soon and get a job at a private hospital. “I was inspired by the British author and vet, Dr James Herriot and the American vet Dr Jeff Werber, who was the personal vet to many Hollywood stars and to Lassie, during the movie. One day I hope to be their equivalent. We have no James Herriots or Dr Werbers in India.”

There might be no Herriot or Dr Werber but there is no dearth of veterinary heroes. “It is no mean feat to be a vet. To gain the trust of someone who doesn’t speak any language and can be as small as your hand is daunting and difficult. Long hours and leg work and poor conditions are characteristic of veterinary life,” says Dr Salisha Whitney Correia, a vet at CGS Hospital in Gurugram. Set up in 2010 as an initiative of the DLF Foundation, the 1.25 acre facility is named after the owner’s three dogs— Cuddles, Goldie and Spotty—and is Delhi NCR’s only multi-speciality hospital. Their two OPDs receive close to 150 dogs and cats every day suffering from just about anything—cancer to dry skin. The vets here have undergone training in endoscopy and laparoscopy through courses and workshops held in Germany and Switzerland. “This is a new trend, the opportunity for Indian vets to be trained abroad and/or by foreigners. The curriculum in developed nations is much more advanced and detailed. It gives us a chance to pick up the latest skills and learn to operate using advanced technology, especially when it comes to surgery and post-surgical care, two areas where we have been lagging behind,” says Dr Correira.

Minimally invasive surgeries, especially for spaying, broken limbs and tumour removal, is what CGS is presently focuses on. “Minimally invasive surgeries are the current trend in animal medicine and we are the only hospital to have our own C-arm radiographic unit that allows minimally invasive orthopedic procedures,” explains CGS director, Samar Singh Mahendran. In 2016, CGS was awarded the best animal welfare award by the World CSR Congress. “Advancement in pet diagnostic facilities is a necessity to arrive at an accurate diagnosis, then only can one proceed with treatment. Pet owners nowadays are incredibly aware of various diseases and hence, the demand for advanced veterinary care in also increasing,” adds Dr Mahendran.

Inside the OPD, Max, a 7-year-old golden Labrador troops in for his regular teeth cleaning, routine blood tests, nail clipping, massage and skin conditioning session. He’s familiar with the grounds, the doctors and the assistants. This is, after all, the place that helped him recover from a ligament tear and a bout of tick fever. His owner, Meena Patel, says she didn’t even know dogs could rupture ligaments till Max tore his during a fall at their Gurugram farmhouse. “When your pet falls sick, you feel the same as you do with humans,” she whispers, as a vet opens her dog’s jaw to check for cavities and bad breath. “You can research online, read reviews and ask friends and family for recommendations all you want to. But at the end of the day, you just have to trust the doctor and hope you’ve come to the right place.