For the love of animals: Exploring veterinary medicine

How does one qualify as a veterinary surgeon in the country?

I KEEP a few chickens and other animals. I see them falling sick but they can’t express themselves. I see them develop certain symptoms and I feel sorry for them,” says animal lover T. Deva Darshini. “There are stray dogs around my house and they are probably hungry but they can’t tell you that.”

Darshini says this spurred her to pursue a Diploma in Animal Health and Production which is offered by Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) at its branch campus in Bintulu, Sarawak.

The three-year course equips students with skills on animal husbandry, forage and pasture management, animal health and disease management. According to UPM Veterinary Medicine Faculty deputy dean (Academic and Student Affairs) Assoc Prof Dr Rehana Abdullah Sani, most of the students get employed as assistant veterinary officers in government service or work as veterinary nurses or para-vets in private practice.

That does not make one a fully qualified veterinary surgeon, though. Until recent years, UPM in Serdang, Selangor, was the only local tertiary institution that offered a Doctor in Veterinary Medicine.

For a long time, Malaysia depended on foreign vets or Malaysians who had graduated overseas.

In 1973, the first batch of students enrolled in UPM’s veterinary programme.

Last year, Universiti Malaysia Kelantan started its veterinary programme. The first batch will graduate in 2014. But first they need to have their degrees recognised.

What is recognised though is the degree from UPM. Through its five-year course, spread over 10 semesters, the university has been producing most of the country’s vets. To qualify for entry, one needs two B+ in Biology and Chemistry in the Sijil Tinggi Pelajaran Malaysia. Entrants need a minimum score of three in the Malaysian University English Test (MUET).

Matriculation students need a minimum Grade Point Average (GPA) of 3.5 and MUET of 3 and above. For diploma holders, a minimum GPA of 3.5 is required. Those who score below 3.5 must have three to four years’ working experience.

Dr Rehana points out that all veterinary and science-related subjects are taught in English.

Darshini is very engrossed in vet studies. After the Klang-born girl completed her diploma early this year, she promptly enrolled in the degree programme. And she has to do the full five years as no extra credits are given for her diploma.

Dr Rehana reveals that the curriculum was tweaked four years ago. Under the old curriculum, practical study only started in the third year; now it starts during the first-year holiday break in December.

The first year practical deals with non-livestock animals in zoos, the SPCA, turf clubs and wildlife sanctuaries. For the second year, the practical stint is carried out at livestock farms during both the semester breaks. In the third year, the students have a choice: four weeks with ruminants or two weeks with poultry and two weeks with pigs.

At the end of the fourth year, the students do stints in vet clinics, and it can even be abroad. UPM has a memorandum of understanding with a few foreign universities – in Australia, Indonesia and Thailand – to host these students. There is a partial scholarship to cover accommodation and airfare.

Dr Rehana is pleased that the student intake for the veterinary programme has grown over the years. This year’s first-year batch comprise 95 students while there are 53 final-year students.

For many of the students, the veterinary course was their first choice, though they qualified for a place in medicine, pharmacy or dentistry.

A case in point is Yew Ee Ling, 24, who is now in her final year of the programme. “I took up veterinary studies because it is unique. You get to deal with not just one species but many different ones. I’m very interested in working with animals,” says Yew.

“I’m one of the remaining batches using the old curriculum. But I volunteered to do stints in places like zoos from my first year. Since we have opportunities to do practicals overseas, I have been to Taiwan and Denmark. Some of my coursemates have been to South Africa, Hong Kong, the United States and Indonesia,” enthuses Yew.

From the fourth year onwards, Yew says, they do stints in UPM’s animal hospital wards. They also learn to perform surgery.

Dr Rehana points out that it is compulsory for Muslim students to treat and work with dogs and pigs.

“There are provisions in our religion for this. If you say you cannot do this, then you cannot be admitted into the programme. All animals are creatures of God,” adds Dr Rehana.

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