China South of the Clouds

Traveling and Cooking in China's Yunnan Province

Charlie and the Vet

June 30th, 2011

It was exactly what we had hoped we wouldn’t see. Dirty paint was peeling away from the walls; used needles stuck out of the sides of open, filth-caked waste baskets; the doors and windows were wide open, flies and mosquitoes coming and going as they pleased. On old wooden desks set up along the perimeters of the two rooms lay a number of dogs, all hooked up to infusion bags. One, a small golden retriever puppy, was shivering uncontrollably. Some animal before him had left a mess on the floor nearby and no one seemed to care.

We had put off bringing our nine-year-old cat, Charlie, to the vet as long as we could, worried about finding exactly this kind of situation, but her intestines had been blocked for more than four days. We had tried treating her ourselves with any tools we could find. We had spent an arm and a leg on canned cat food and laced it with laxative. Josh read extensively on the internet, then made several flop sweat-inducing trips to local pharmacies to find lubricant and flexible medical tubing so that we could deliver enemas in a cramped side bathroom that the cat, after her first night marooned there with a small liter box, had come to hate. After hunting in vain for mineral oil, we even bought a liter of Vaseline (the only size available in Kunming, apparently) and fed her a little, hoping it would make her way through her system undigested and coat the colon wall. But nothing worked, so here we were, at Kunming’s best veterinary hospital, hoping they could do what we could not.

Charlie at six months

To be completely honest, I knew I was running a risk bringing Charlie to China. A rescue we adopted when she was about six months old, she’d had medical problems in the past and had gained so much weight that we sometimes joked that she was a small bear rather than a large cat. We’d thought about leaving both her and her brother, Buster, in the states, but a quick canvas of our friends and family proved that no one was in a position to take on more cats. Also, Charlie is the most personable, attached animal I’ve ever had. She comes when she’s called, wags her tail like a dog when she’s happy, and wedges herself right in between us whenever she can find a spot on the couch or in the bed. She has always hated when we left her in someone else’s care, so we figured that despite the trauma of a fifteen-hour plane flight, she would choose to be with us if she could.

So that morning we had found and hired a translator, a high-school English teacher named “Monica,” who had brought us to the clinic associated Yunnan Agricultural University. Monica seemed disturbingly nonplussed as she led us through the rooms of the vet’s office. None of the usual trappings of an American veterinary office were evident. There were no assistants hovering to take the cat from us, no back rooms where procedures too sordid for owners’ delicate sensibilities took place. No one wore gloves. When we went for the X-ray, the vet had us lay Charlie on a table and hold her to keep her from squirming but offered no protective shielding for any of us as the image was taken. When they took her temperature, they had Josh hold her on his lap and then left her there, with the thermometer inserted, while dogs came in and out just inches away. After they administered an enema (doing a much more thorough job than we had been able to do), they suggested we let her run around outside, in the open parking lot, so that she could relieve herself.

One of the regulars

At least the vet himself, a slight young man in a white coat, had an appropriate look of concern. He spoke to Monica at length, pointing out the details of the X-ray and the areas that had him most concerned. If this treatment didn’t work, he told her, the cat would need surgery. What would the surgery entail? We asked. How many of the animals who had it made full recoveries? The vet gave Monica a long explanation, and I caught the phrase “thirty percent” and felt somewhat confident in taking this step if it was warranted. Then Monica explained. The vet would be making an incision large enough to remove the intestines from the body and would then open them up to remove all the matter that was in them. And the number that I heard was actually the reverse of what I had thought—while they performed this surgery all the time, only thirty percent of the animals recovered. Thirty percent survival? I heard Josh asking more questions about the procedure, but I had stopped paying attention. To me, something that invasive with only a thirty percent chance of saving her seemed like unnecessary torture. We could try any other possible treatments and call Charlie’s regular vet in New York for advice, but the surgery was, for me, out of the question.

“It must be because they don’t keep everything sterile,” I heard Josh telling Monica. “Maybe we could be there and insist they sterilize everything thoroughly.” She looked confused. I knew she wouldn’t understand. Exactly eleven years ago I’d visited another room just like this one, but that time it had been in a real hospital, and I’d been visiting a human surgery patient.


In the summer of 2000, when I first came to China to study Mandarin in Beijing, my Chinese host mother had gone to the hospital to remove some small benign cysts. My mother had actually undergone exactly the same surgery a year earlier at a bright, welcoming hospital at Stanford University, and her recovery had involved an overnight stay and instructions to refrain from exercise for a little while. My host mother was in her hospital for six weeks. Chinese hospitals didn’t do laparoscopic surgery back then. They didn’t even do linoleum floors or white walls; deep mauve paint hid the dirt better. The patients were stacked head to foot in tiny rooms, and their relatives gathered around them every day to bring them food.

I visited the hospital when she had recovered enough to sit up and show me off to her roommates. (No one else had a white American girl visiting them in the hospital, and I improved her status not just with her roommates but with the doctors and nurses too.) As I sat on a low stool next to her, trying not to show how horrified I was by the surroundings, it struck me that this surgery hadn’t happened despite my visit that summer, it had been possible because of it. My host family was the most loving possible, eager to have me eat dinner with them every night of the week and excited to take me on their favorite day trips, but the real reason they had opened their home to me was that the fee from my program was paying for the surgery, and without that money my host mother would have found herself in even more dire surroundings.

So while most hospitals have changed immeasurably in the last decade, I wasn’t surprised that this run-down veterinary office was the best a small city like Kunming had to offer. I didn’t have the heart to tell Josh all of this, but Monica found a way to answer his questions for herself. “You know,” she said, “I think this is just all very new for us. People didn’t really have any pets until very recently. So there just isn’t very much experience here.”


I first began to see pets in China four or five years ago, in Beijing. There had always been shop cats and strays around, as well as pet birds kept by older men who took them out for walks, in their cages, during the day. But suddenly pure breed dogs seemed to be the pet of choice for entrepreneurs who wanted to show off their wealth with a new, live accessory. These dogs, usually the small Pekinese and Shih Tzus that were once bred for Chinese nobility, seemed shockingly well behaved, trotting along next to their masters in the parks without leashes. Eleven years later, dogs are popular in every area of China with a concentration of the country’s nouveau riche, and every breed is available. In the handful of “bird and flower” markets around Kunming, there are still beautiful love birds and singing mynahs, as well as rabbits, lizards, mice, ferrets, and turtles. But the most popular animals, by far, are the dogs. There are golden retrievers and huskies, poodles whose hair has been painted pink and fluffy white American Eskimo dogs that are kept impeccably clean. In one of the newer pet markets, they are even displayed in clear Lucite pens, looking like trophies in their cases. The only thing you don’t see is a mutt.

Given how new the culture of pet ownership is, we’d heard a fair number of horror stories about abuse and neglect. Sandra, of Sandra’s Restaurant, was particularly caustic on the subject of Chinese pet owners, having rescued more than one animal from families that didn’t understand the responsibility they had taken on when they brought a puppy home to their kids. Sandra was also sour on the subject of Kunming’s vets and had even warned us against the one we were visiting but hadn’t been able to offer any better options as her own vet had up and disappeared a few weeks earlier.


In the next few days we went back to the vet repeatedly. We tried every alternative treatment available, but by the end of the week it became clear that we’d have to reconsider surgery. “She’s strong,” Josh argued. “She’ll be able to recover. And we’ll be much better about caring for her than other people would. We’ll keep everything sterile, and we’ll insist that the vet does too. We’ll be really obnoxious about it, and it will work.” So we grilled the vet. Why don’t most of the animals survive? How many die during surgery, and how many die later? If it’s later, is it two or three days later or a week later? Would they give her painkillers for more than just a couple days if we really insisted on it? It turned out Josh was right; most of the animals died not from the surgery or an infection acquired that day but from infections brought on much later due to poor care by owners. And yes, they said, rolling their eyes at the annoying Americans, they could give more painkillers if we insisted. So we asked Monica to arrange for surgery the next day.

At Josh’s suggestion, I did not look at the operating room. A nurse gave Charlie enough sedatives to put her out, then three vets whisked her away, bringing her back only twenty minutes later with a two inch series of stitches covered by iodine-soaked gauze. As she came to, they tied one of her paws to the table with a long ribbon of soft gauze and gave her an intravenous drip of glucose, sodium, and various supplements and a couple shots of antibiotics.

Charlie did well that night, wandering around Josh’s small office, wobbling from the painkillers, her feet slipping out from under her. The following afternoon we began a ten-day series of fluids and antibiotics, falling into a pattern of working in the morning and heading to the vet after lunch, sometimes with the invaluable Monica and sometimes alone, muddling through as best we could.

At first it was very clear that the staff found us meddlesome, and the nurses were clearly frustrated by our requests that they wear gloves. Our vet, however, seemed to warm both to us and to Charlie as the days went by, making it clear that he felt a personal investment in her recovery. He even seemed to appreciate our higher standards of hygiene, undoubtedly knowing that if all his patients’ owners were as diligent, he’d boast a much higher success rate. One particularly skilled nurse in her mid-twenties took to us as well and oversaw Charlie’s IVs whenever she could.

The longer we were at the vet, the more our perspective on Chinese pet owners changed as well. Yes, most had no real idea of how to train their dogs and had to coax them and drag them around. And a few terrible owners made me wish for a Chinese branch of the ASPCA. But for the most part, the people we saw cherished their pets. Whole families came in to sit with a dog and pet it, hold it, and worry over it as it was neutered or treated for worms. A middle-aged shopkeeper brought a friend along one afternoon and the two sat smoking and wiping his Doberman’s nose as the dog sniffled from a bad head cold. The youngest pet owners, the college students, were the most touching, carrying small puppies in handbags and hovering like worried new moms as their small charges howled.

The one thing that never changed, however, was other pet owners’ reactions to me and Josh. It was strange enough for them to see Americans at the vets’ office, and on top of that, we were the only ones there with a cat. Everyone exclaimed over Charlie, and most felt the need to point out to me how fat she is, sometimes repeating the point, just in case I hadn’t understood. But as we were all stuck there together for a couple hours, many people also took the opportunity to commiserate, ask about what kind of cat she is, and find out why we were in Kunming. For many, I think, sitting next to me at the vet was their first opportunity to talk to one of the many foreigners now living in their city. On one of our last days there, after it had become clear that Charlie would make a quick and full recovery, I was sitting with her while Josh ran errands when I noticed a girl of about seventeen hovering nearby. “What kind of cat?” she asked, in careful English. It turned out that she was hoping to study English in college but had never before spoken to any foreigners. “I always wanted to speak to one, but I’m too shy,” she told me. We exchanged numbers and made plans to get together sometime soon, once all my days were no longer taken up with sitting in the vet’s office.

Photos, from top: Josh Wand (2), Georgia Freedman (7)