Photo: Noah Seelam/AFP
Biryani is a four-year-old cat. One October morning, I notice she's picked up what looked like a mild skin infection and she was grooming herself excessively. I take her for a blood and skin test.
The skin test does not throw up a bacterial or fungal infection. But her blood test shows fairly high levels of creatinine, indicative of kidney malfunction.
I take her to arguably one of the best and perhaps the oldest veterinary clinics of South Delhi. After a long wait the vet walks into the room and lets out a long yawn. He glances through the reports casually. I am unsure if he has registered what he's reading, or what he is being told about the cat's condition.
There's been no eye contact, so far.
In between his yawns he briefly looks up at me, tells me it is a fungal infection and that I shouldn't worry about the creatinine level being high. He suggests that I put her on a special renal diet. And that I repeat all the tests - at his clinic. The skin test cost me Rs 1,800 and the blood test Rs 1,500.
Biryani, all this while, has been in a pet carrier. She hasn't been physically examined. The doctor then looks at the door, calls out to an assistant to send in the next patient.
I have no choice but to leave the room. I step out and foot the bill. It's much more than I'd pay for my own treatment at one of Delhi's best clinics.
Three months later, Biryani stops eating altogether. I take her to another clinic and learn that her creatinine levels have shot up dangerously. The senior vet there tells me it is renal failure and puts her on intravenous fluids twice a day. He says he will continue the schedule for five days and then let nature take its course.
The next few days are stressful. I take Biryani to the clinic for drips twice a day. Since there is no provision of keeping cats at this clinic or any other - I am forced to keep Biryani with me all day, mostly in the car.
The thought of having to drive her back home and then pick her up again after I finish work is a nightmare. There is also the issue of clinics. Even those that offer 24-hour emergency services, don't allow pets in beyond a stipulated time.
On one occasion I miss the mark by 15 minutes and am not allowed into the clinic. I have to plead with the vet on duty to accommodate Biryani because she needed the fluids to survive till morning.
This isn't my story alone. Almost everyone who keeps pets has been through this experience. More so those who venture to make cats part of their family.
Luckily for me, a friend who knows cats and has experience in veterinary care, asked me to send details of Biryani's illness and treatment. He asked me to change the line of treatment and connected me with a cat specialist in Chennai.
I was horrified to learn there was little need to prescribe her an exorbitant life-saving drug. Or that the fluids should not have have been administered to her intravenously. Or that the fluid being given to her was the wrong one and that she should have been given one with a different formulation.
Two weeks later, Biryani starts to look better. She hates her daily dose of subcutaneously administered fluids, but the fact that she is able to protest gives me hope.
According to London-based research firm Euromonitor, pet care continues to record double-digit growth in India - 7 million pet dogs in 2007 to 12 million in 2014 - and more households are expected to own a pet, especially in urban areas.
Not just that. The pet food industry is booming and many Small and Medium Sized Enterprises have jumped in to make hay while the sun shines. The market is estimated to be around Rs 1,800 crore.
The services segment has seen a rise in the number of companies offering pet boarding, pet relocation and training. There is a significant growth in pet shops, grooming parlours and veterinary clinics.
But is anyone keeping a tab on what's going on?
A trip to the vet is bound to make deep holes in anyone's pocket. Gone are the days when human medicines doubled up as doses for canines and felines. Imagine having to buy salmon oil worth Rs 900 to get rid of dandruff on a pet's coat. A life-saving drug for Rs 5,000. A kilo of medicated food for Rs 1,000.
Nine years ago, when I got my first set of cats, a wide range of human antibiotics were used many a times to treat them. So wouldn't a generic medicine work just as well?
Arun Menon, who is involved in the veterinary care value chain, says veterinary medicines are not expensive for the most part, if the veterinarian knows the salt ingredient.
"Vets peddle them due to high margins. However, a good vet would recommend the human alternative supplement which works in most cases."
Menon says it is important to be an informed pet owner.
"There are very few veterinarians you could take your pet to confidently. For the uninformed, it's a roll of the dice. And for the pet it is sometimes a matter of life and death."
Pets are often advised to undergo tests at the drop of a hat. But the vets or para-vets do not have the skill set to draw blood or urine. Or to conduct an X-ray or an ultrasound.
Menon, who himself keeps pets, says there are countless stories of pet owners who have faced negligence, ignorance and pure arrogance. Worse is the suffering to which the pets are subjected.
"Try taking your pet for an ultrasound - a lot of vets have the machine but very few know how to interpret the scan. Some premier vets are unable to even spot a tumour on a digital scan. If you want to do a CT or an MRI, you might have to turn to human diagnostic centres that offer the facility late at night. Some cities like Delhi have nothing till date."
In a blog Menon writes that some vets now have in-house diagnostics like labs for blood work - but they are unable to interpret the results or come up with a diagnosis and an optimal treatment plan.
What is the remedy?
For the ecosystem to change veterinary healthcare has to be looked at as a viable business.
"It needs capital and the return on investment is not as quick as it is in the human healthcare, so one has to look at this long-term in terms of scalability," says Menon.
"Profitability is not in question but when one is investing large capital one looks at scalability and time-frames, and given the state of the ecosystem at the moment, there are stumbling blocks in terms of availability of local talent pool, regulatory hassles which limit the scope of scalability in the short-term."
Catch's Legal Correspondent Saurav Dutta points out there isn't anybody governing sales of veterinary medicine.
"In the absence of any specific legislation to govern the sale and pricing of drugs required by animals it remains a completely unregulated field where so-called unscrupulous people can easily make a killing and indulge in profiteering," Dutta says.
But it's not just about the money. Frequent visits to vets or labs are traumatic for pets, especially cats. And there are innumerable stories of pets dying of misdiagnosis.
Is there a forum where disgruntled pet owners can seek redress?
"You can put in a complaint to the Veterinary Council of India but the process is arduous and proving negligence is a tough ask. It takes a long time the way the system works today," says Menon.
"They can suspend the licence of the veterinary for a period of time, (but I'm) yet to hear of them suspending a licence permanently but cannot impose monetary or punitive damages. In effect there is no oversight as such," he adds.
Till there is a semblance of accountability, vets will continue to laugh all the way to the bank. And pets like Biryani will be hapless sufferers.
Edited by Anna Verghese