A trip to the veterinarian in China may not be for the faint of heart, but it is a necessary evil if you don’t have the funds to go to a Western clinic in Beijing. The up-side is that they are incredibly cheap, and generally cost in RMB what they would cost in USD in the US (120 RMB to neuter a cat, or 120 USD in the US). If you have a more complicated problem, you will probably have to seek out Western care, as veterinary medicine has not advanced as far in China as it has in the West (I met a visiting vet from the US who said that many of the vets he encountered here did not have the skills and knowledge that vet techs back in the US have), but I have used my local vet for spays, neuters, and vaccinations with no problems. (I have received questionable service and inaccurate diagnosis and advice regarding feline distemper, feline urologic syndrome and an abscess in a rabbit.) You just have to prepare yourself for a potentially harrowing experience.
Veterinary medicine is not a well-respected occupation in China. Many vets failed the exams to get into human medicine, and this is their fallback. They also have very difficult lives. Many live above their shops and are on call 24-7 (most vets are open from about 9-9 each day, but also have a phone number on the store front so that clients can call in the middle of the night with an emergency, though the fees are higher for these services). All the local vets I have used work every day of the week, from the moment the store opens until it closes, because, although they have assistants, I think there is only one actual vet in most store-front operations.
What to Expect
Depending on your Chinese level, you may need to bring a Chinese friend with you to translate, or at least have one on the phone so that they can do translation that way.
Most clinics are no-frills. If you think of what a Chinese hospital is for human beings and take it down a few notches to account for the Chinese attitude toward animals, you might have an accurate picture of what it’s like. There is generally a row of metal examination tables/IV stands (they are just as fond of giving animals IVs as they are with humans), and all consultation and examination is done in the main room with all the other customers. This can be very difficult if something sad happens. As I was leaving one day, a woman’s puppy died and she shoved the vet away from her and started screaming and yelling and throwing things.
Most people bring small animals in cardboard boxes tied with string (I also do this with my cats, now that I know it’s acceptable–buying a carrying case is not on my list of priorities).
Most people also bring towels or blankets to make their pets comfortable on the metal tables.
You may need to pay before procedures, as you do in hospitals for humans. Just depends on the place.
If your pet needs surgery, they will administer the anesthesia by injection while you are holding your pet, and once the animal goes limp in your arms, they carry it to the back, perform the procedure, then bring it back unconscious, lay it on the table, and give it another injection to wake it up. If you have a small animal, I recommend putting it back in the case you brought it in so that it can’t hurt itself or you as it’s waking up. If you have a larger animal, good luck. My dog woke up very badly from the anesthesia, and what followed was an entire hour of a strangled wailing noise and flailing around during which it was very difficult to keep her from hurting herself. In that instance, we eventually left before she was completely with it because it was so unpleasant and it was taking so long.
They will give no medication for pain management, but will likely ask that you return each day for antibiotic injections. If there is any way you can do this yourself or know someone who can, I highly recommend asking them to please prepare the needles and send them home with you.
The vet you end up seeing all the time may not be the first vet that you see. Working conditions are not conducive to happy vets. The second vet we ever used cried when my neighbor reflexively tried to negotiate on the price, and then went into a tirade about how rich foreigners are and how she as a person not from Tianjin was treated so badly by Tianjiners, but foreigners get all the perks, etc. She later called my neighbor and said that because my cat had scratched the tech (I hadn’t even noticed!) while the tech was administering an IV, I needed to pay 2000 RMB for some shots the tech needed to get. Needless to say, we never went back there.
Below are two photos of a typical clinic.