Most people see veterinarians as nothing more than “pet doctors”, people you visit in order to get your fur babies’ health checked. This view severely underestimates the role and importance of vets in our society, as they are also responsible for ensuring the health of our livestock and wildlife and controlling the spread of animal-borne diseases.
Sadly, Malaysia has far too few registered veterinarians than what it needs. As of now, Malaysia only has 2,236 veterinarians, with one for every 14,311 people. For comparison, Australia has about 13,000 veterinarians (one for every 1,923 people); Japan has 40,251 veterinarians (one for every 3,123 people); Thailand has about 15,000 veterinarians (one for every 4,773 people) and Taiwan has 5,342 veterinarians (one for every 4,300 people).
It is time we address the public’s narrow mindset on vets and show just why Malaysia needs more of them.
From Pets to Livestock
Dr Saravanakumar S. Pillai, a former Department of Veterinary Services (DVS) deputy director, highlighted the scope of veterinary services in conjunction with World Veterinary Day on April 29th, 2023.
Veterinarians must also look after livestock, poultry and fisheries to ensure the meat and seafood consumed by the public is safe and food security needs are taken care of. – Dr Saravanakumar S. Pillai
Dr Saravanakumar, who is currently the Humane Society International (HSI) senior adviser for Farm Animal Welfare, Policy & Engagement, added that veterinarians had diversified into animal-based pharmaceutical and animal feed industries.
They also play an important role in government slaughterhouses to ensure the meat consumed by members of the public comes from healthy animals. – Dr Saravanakumar S. Pillai
Indeed, vets play an important role in ensuring self-sufficiency in livestock products. Currently, the Malaysian poultry broiler industry has developed to become commercial and has reached a self-sufficiency level of 99.9%, whilst the egg industry is achieving a self-sufficiency level of more than 100% with excess eggs being exported to Singapore and Hong Kong.
But should Malaysia experience an outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) disease, then our export industry would be impacted and cause billions of ringgits in losses. Such an outbreak had already happened in 2017, forcing vets to act quickly to contain the disease. The 2017 HPAI outbreak affected not only the poultry industry but also the bird’s nest industry which was worth RM16 billion and RM1 billion respectively.
But it is not just bird flu we have to watch out for. Since 2021, there have been cases of pigs coming down with African swine fever and incidences of lumpy skin disease in beef cattle. Before that, between 1998 and 1999, an outbreak of the Nipah virus disease in Malaysia led to the culling of 1 million pigs and human deaths of 105.
These outbreaks of animal-borne diseases only highlighted the crucial role veterinarians play in controlling transboundary animal diseases, especially since many of them can be transmitted to humans including the highly fatal rabies.
This year, Sarawak has already reported 13 human deaths from rabies, all of which could have been reduced or avoided by further strengthening disease control strategies in dogs with the effective involvement of veterinarians.
Why do we Need More Vets?
As of 2018, there are 1.2 million cats and dogs in Malaysia, and 59% of Malaysians now raise pets with the ownership of cats and dogs being 34% and 20% respectively. A 2019 survey found that 67% of Malaysian pet owners have yet to vaccinate their pets, a speciality service provided by veterinary clinics.
With pet ownership growing thanks to increasing affluence and greater societal concern for animal welfare, there will be a simultaneous growth in the demand for quality veterinary services provided by veterinarians and assisted by paraprofessionals, especially as public awareness of the importance of pets’ vaccination and related healthcare services increases.
As previously mentioned, vets play a vital role in our protein production self-sufficiency since a substantial part of our protein requirement is sourced from animals whether it is poultry, eggs, beef, mutton, or pork.
Vets are responsible for ensuring livestock are healthy and productive, making sure that quality meats, milk or eggs are safe for sale and consumption. But besides ensuring quality produce, vets are also crucial in fighting against antimicrobial resistance (AMR), as they ensure medicines are used responsibly and prudently in animals as well as getting involved in other strategies to reduce the impact of AMR through a one-health approach.
The growth of the protein production sectors will inevitably lead to increased demand for veterinarians. And without these vets, our disease control measures will be wholly inadequate for major outbreaks which will cause high mortality and severe losses in the industry.
Why Is There A Vet Shortage?
The growth in pet ownership has already been gaining interest among young entrepreneurial Malaysian veterinarians, who see it as a highly competitive and lucrative market.
Hopeful veterinary students must develop the necessary expertise in animal production, husbandry, disease prevention and control, treatment, animal welfare practices, and food safety and hygiene through a strong educational system.
Unfortunately, there are currently only two universities in the country that offer veterinary medicine facilities: Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) and Universiti Malaysia Kelantan (UMK). Both facilities, according to Dr Saravanakumar, employ undergraduates before they even pass their studies. Otherwise, most veterinarians in Malaysia graduated from schools in Indonesia, Taiwan, and other Commonwealth countries like India and Pakistan.
Annually, UPM has the capacity to produce 120 veterinary graduates while UMK produces 40. Additionally, it is estimated that about 60 to 80 Malaysians are qualifying every year from other foreign accredited universities. Hence, an estimated total of 220 to 240 veterinarians are joining the workforce on a yearly basis. – Quaza Nizamuddin A Hassan Nizam
Quaza Nizamuddin A Hassan Nizam, a professor at the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, Taylor’s University, former director-general of Veterinary Services Malaysia and former Malaysian Veterinary Council president, noted that UPM and UMK are only able to increase the number of veterinary medical undergraduates to a certain level, beyond which they will be constrained by the availability of resources such as sufficient teaching staff and facilities.
This problem was brought up by Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA Selangor) chairwoman Christine Chin.
There are very few new veterinarians [who] join the industry every year. A simple solution would be to allow more distinguished universities around the country to start their own veterinary programmes, thus increasing the growth of local veterinary talent in the industry. – Christine Chin
She added the government should at the very least recognise the certifications of veterinary graduates from other countries.
Canine welfare project Malaysian Dogs Deserve Better (MDDB) director, Irene Low said the shortage of veterinarians had made it harder for local veterinary clinics to run efficiently.
There is a shortage of local veterinarians all the time as many local veterinary students are absorbed by the Department of Veterinary Services upon graduation. – Irene Low
Former DVS director-general Datuk Dr Norlizan Mohd Noor said the collaboration between DVS, UPM and the Malaysian Veterinary Medical Association to produce more veterinary specialists had not yielded the desired results.
We need to train more veterinary specialists but the collaboration is not moving fast enough. The relevant agencies must expedite the training of more veterinary specialists and the progress must be in tandem with the medical profession. – Datuk Dr Norlizan Mohd Noor
With government policy now placing heavy emphasis on food security and production, Malaysia’s veterinarians must also be trained in the relevant fields, with Dr Norlizan noting that there was a dire need to train veterinarians in animal production and nutrition.
The government policy now emphasises food security and hence veterinarians must be trained to be competent in areas that are linked to animal production. – Datuk Dr Norlizan Mohd Noor
Another problem Low and Chin highlighted is the rising prices of veterinary medicine which, combined with the frequent shortage of veterinary medicine in the country, could drastically affect efforts to spay or neuter strays.
Supplies of generic veterinary medicines can sometimes be hard to come by and expensive as they are not given sufficient priority in approval or procurement by the National Pharmaceutical Regulatory Agency. – Irene Low
According to Chin, veterinarians usually offer significantly reduced rates, typically ranging from RM150 to RM180 for dogs and RM100 to RM140 for cats, when performing neutering or spaying procedures on rescued animals as a compassionate gesture.
This has become increasingly difficult for veterinarians to do as prices for medicine like anaesthetic, which can cost up to RM80 to RM100 per dosage, combined with other operational costs like animal food, have increased due to inflation. – Christine Chin
It is clear that Malaysia is in desperate need of vets; not just to take care of our pets but also our livestock and ourselves. To bring the number of vets in the country up, coordinated action between the human and animal health and environmental sectors is crucial. Veterinarians play very important roles in this society, but they must be well-trained and well-supervised by the statutory veterinary bodies created by law.
Hence, the setting up of new veterinary schools in the country is not just crucial but should be encouraged to meet the growing demand and to fulfil the supply. Intervention in providing training for the projected workforce demand will also complement the government’s efforts and create the right ecosystem to raise standards in veterinary education.
Our private educational institutions already have the resources and capacity to create veterinary education programmes that will meet the increasing demands of our society and thus close the gap in workforce demand for veterinarians. All we need is to provide the right encouragement and necessary funding.
Explore our sources:
- Q.N.A. Hassan Nizam. (2023). Does Malaysia have sufficient veterinarians? Malaysiakini. Link.
- W. Muthiah. (2023). Urgent need for more animal docs. The Star. Link.
- INDUSTRIAL INSIGHTS REPORT. (2021). Link.
- B. Lee. (2023). Allow more varsities to offer veterinarian degrees, govt urged. The Star. Link.