Alane Cahalane: Saving moon bears and caring for Hong Kongs pets

April 22, 2019
Anissa Fritz, contributing writer

dvm360, dvm360 May 2019, Volume 50, Issue 5

Veterinary surgeon, TedX star and Fetch dvm360 keynote speaker shares what its like to practice in Asia.

Working with moon bears, owning a veterinary hospital in Hong Kong and giving TedX Talks are just a few of the few things that make Alane Cahalane, BSc, DVM, MA, DACVS, a veterinary superhero. Better yet, Dr. Cahalane will be encouraging all veterinary professionals to recognize their own superhero moments when practicing vet med during her keynote at the Fetch dvm360 conference in Baltimore.

We took some time to dive into Dr. Cahalane's work performing surgery on moon bears who have been held in captivity. One moon bear in particular, named Claudia, sparked Dr. Cahalane's notoriety. When Claudia was rescued by Animals Asia and suddenly became lame, the organization called Dr. Cahalane. Soon after, Dr. Cahalane was performing the world's first-ever surgical attempt at restoring motion to a lame bear. The surgery wasn't just the first of its kind, it was also successful.

Raised in Canada and the United States, Dr. Cahalane shares her experience and decision on moving her family and career from the states to Hong Kong. She also talks differences between the U.S. and Hong Kong in regards to practicing veterinary surgery. Here's what she had to say: 

Q: Can you describe the work you've done with moon bears? How did you first get involved?

A: When I first moved to Hong Kong in 2011, I knew the region didn't have many veterinary specialists. As a surgeon, I wanted to see how I might elevate my specialty in Asia through lectures and teaching or volunteer work. I remember contacting Animals Asia, an organization that rescues and rehabilitates moon bears that are held in captivity, and saying, “I'm here if you need me!” Four years later, Claudia came along and they remembered me! The veterinarians who work with Animals Asia are highly skilled and do most of their own surgeries-especially on gallbladders. But since Claudia, I've had the opportunity to help with bear cruciate ruptures and meniscal injuries, a mandibular fracture, a broken maxilla and a few bad wounds.

I love the work, the bears and the team at Animals Asia. It's inspiring to know that this organization does exactly what they set out to do-rescue bears and give them a place to live, play and feel free. The bears themselves have so much spirit. They're happy to be well-fed, socializing, climbing, swinging and wading in pools. It's a happy place that I'm lucky to visit and be involved with.

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Dr. Cahalane will deliver the keynote address, sponsored by Boehringer Ingelheim, at the Fetch dvm360 conference in Baltimore May 3. She'll discuss the importance of recognizing the magical and superhero moments in the practice of veterinary medicine.

Q: What's the biggest difference between surgical practice in Hong Kong versus the U.S.?

A: The biggest difference is the number of veterinary specialists. Hong Kong-a city with an estimated half-million beloved family pets-has approximately 900 family practice veterinarians and fewer than 20 specialists across all specialties. I'm here to change that. Pet owners in Hong Kong see their pets as family members; they really do want them to have the best care available. Our organization, VSH Hong Kong, is building awareness in pet owners in Asia about what it means to see a specialist, when their pet might need a specialist and the importance of finding a trusted family veterinarian who will see their pet through its lifetime.

Hong Kong-a city with an estimated half-million beloved family pets-has approximately 900 family practice veterinarians and fewer than 20 specialists across all specialties. I'm here to change that.

Q: Are there other differences in veterinary care between Hong Kong and the U.S.?

A: Hong Kong pet owners are likely to keep treating their pets, even when the prognosis is poor. They want to palliate their pets and keep them feeling as good as possible. I've seen many clients buy at-home oxygen cages for their pets with cardiac or airway disease. Clients in Hong Kong often seek a combination of western and traditional medicine when it's indicated. Most of my surgical patients also follow through with physiotherapy. As a result, the surgical caseload in Hong Kong is very diverse-from fractures to complex cancer cases to minimally invasive procedures. There's a lot of potential for a veterinary specialist to do amazing things here.

Q: Are there any aspects of living and working in Hong Kong that surprised you?

A: The thing that has surprised me about Hong Kong is how quickly it felt like home. I grew up in Canada and the U.S. My kids are growing up in Hong Kong. It really doesn't feel that different, except that now we spend long weekends in the Philippines or Cambodia rather than Atlantic City. From a work perspective, we've built a business here that promotes a very positive and rewarding work culture, which reminds me of my first job out of my residency in a private practice in North Carolina. What I took away from that job, and maybe didn't realize at the time, was the positive work culture that existed between the specialists, the nurses, the ER doctors and the customer care staff. We laughed, we worked hard, we seemed united. In fact, the internist I worked with there has joined me now in Hong Kong! Hopefully together we can continue to build that same sort of safe, progressive, yet powerful work environment.

Q: What advice would you want to give to veterinary surgeons (or anyone in the veterinary profession) who want to work in other countries?

A: I would tell them, “Just do it!” After I had my daughter in 2009, I started to think about where I wanted to raise a family. It was important to us to raise children in a place that felt safe for them to be anyone they wanted to be, and also experience a unique culture. Plus, many parts of the United States felt saturated with surgeons at that time. The Hong Kong opportunity came up as a bit of a surprise, as Asia really wasn't on our radar. But it felt unique, and authentic, and we went for it. It was meant to be a short, two or three year stay, and we're at eight years and counting. We had hesitations about moving to Hong Kong with a 2-year-old daughter and a 12-week-old son, for sure. Of course, our families were sad to see us move. But now we spend a few weeks every year in Boston and Florida so our kids can see their cousins and grandparents. Even 15-hour plane rides have become a fun experience for us! No one looks back and says, “I wish I hadn't taken that chance to move abroad.” Once you live in another part of the world, I believe it changes your perspective forever.

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