Dr. Kai Shiu is a friend to pets and vets

Veterinary oncologist Dr. Kai Shiu’s family expected him to be a physician like the rest of them, but his love for animals won out.
Kai Shiu with Sully
Photo by Amandalynn Jones
Dr. Kai Shiu with Sully

When Kai Shiu was growing up in England, his physician father was so busy that having a family pet was out of the question.

“After much lobbying I was allowed to get a hamster,” Shiu says.

The medical practice consumed everyone. Shiu counted pills and filled bottles. His mom handled the accounting. His dad worked weekdays for the National Health Service and spent his weekends caring for Birmingham’s Chinese population.

“My childhood,” Shiu says, “was spent answering the phone and saying, ‘No, he’s not here.’ ”

It was a given that Shiu himself would become a doctor. Physicians dominated his extended family. Shiu had just enough of a rebellious streak — and a growing love of animals — to spurn medical school for veterinary school. His aunts and uncles bristled. Shiu never looked back.

Today, at 38, Shiu is a veterinary oncologist in Madison, assisting dog and cat owners whose pets have been diagnosed with cancer. He’s in demand as a clinician (with VCA Veterinary Emergency Service & Veterinary Specialty Center) and is on the advisory board of Mars Veterinary Health, a division of the famous candymaker that has quietly become one of the world’s largest animal health companies. He also serves as a founding board member and scientific adviser for Czar’s Promise, a local nonprofit that offers financial support for oncology treatments for dogs and cats and funds cancer research not only for animals but human kids, too.

Kai Shiu with a dog in an exam room

Photo by Amandalynn Jones

Shiu has also been a leader in restoring collegiality among local veterinarians. When he opened southwest Wisconsin’s first private veterinary oncology practice in 2010, he lamented the lack of cooperation — even a sense of animosity — among veterinary colleagues in Dane County. It was a competitive field, but still.

“The local veterinary association in Dane County used to be very vibrant,” says longtime Madison veterinarian Tom Bach, currently board president of the Wisconsin Veterinary Medical Association. “Several years ago, it was in ashes. Kai came in, and with his own initiative, revived it. It’s better now than it’s ever been.”

Early on, Shiu promoted informal pub gatherings, which led to the formation of the Dane County Veterinary Medical Association.

“Kai understands it’s important to just get together and talk with people who understand the stresses,” Bach says. Suicide rates among veterinarians are disturbingly high.

Shiu’s efforts took on a particular poignancy in March when Madison veterinarian Josh Smith, a close friend — he was to marry Shiu’s sister-in-law — took his own life.

“We need to take care of ourselves before we take care of others,” Shiu says.

His own veterinary journey began at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. Just getting into vet school was a challenge. There were only six in the United Kingdom and everyone was reading James Herriot and wanting to work with “creatures great and small.” A secondary school career counselor told Shiu he wasn’t good enough to get into veterinary school.

He not only got into Glasgow, he landed a fully funded summer at Cornell University’s Leadership Program for Veterinary Students.

Kai Shiu in an exam room with a dog

Photo by Amandalynn Jones

While the program is focused on research and pathology, Shiu managed to do some rotations at the veterinary hospital at Cornell. He hit it off with some vets in the oncology service. They encouraged him to apply for an internship.

Shiu got the prestigious Cornell internship, astonishing his friends and teachers in Glasgow, and — truth be told — Shiu as well. It was so demanding — “I was out of my league,” he says — that he wasn’t given time off to return to Glasgow for graduation. “I watched it online.”

But at Cornell, he found his calling. “During the course of the year I gravitated toward oncology. My oncology rotations, I really excelled at. I bonded incredibly with the clients and patients I cared for.”

Shiu calls his subsequent residency in medical oncology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison “some of the best years of my life.” His classmates worked hard but had fun, too. He liked Madison.

“I had always planned to go back and be one of the few veterinary oncologists in the U.K.,” Shiu says. Instead, having seen the vet school struggling with its oncology caseload, in 2010 Shiu decided to stay. He started an oncology practice at Veterinary Emergency Service in Middleton, which is still his clinical home, albeit with some ownership and name changes.

He’s been at it for more than a decade now.

“If you ask me what my favorite part of the job is,” Shiu says, “it’s the privilege of getting to know people in a very, very intimate way in a very short period of time.”

Kai Shiu with a dog in an exam room

Photo by Amandalynn Jones

It’s a job where you might see “grown men or entire families cry in front of you within five minutes of meeting them,” he says.

Shiu tries to create a portrait of the best course of care based on a family’s philosophical, financial and logistical circumstances.

His mantra for veterinarian trainees: “Never come across as judgmental. Always come across as supportive, no matter how much you might disagree with a pet owner’s approach.”

Shiu and his wife, Andrea — a Madison native — have two small children and a cat named Joey Tribbiani, who is “pretty, but not so smart,” in Shiu’s estimation. The cat was a barn castoff that found his way to his clinic. “I sent my wife a picture and she couldn’t say no.”

Shiu loves to cook. He and his friends joke that if the Village Bar is ever for sale, Shiu should buy it and make his charcoal-grilled chicken thighs and dumplings.

They’ve already named the new place: Kai’s Thighs.

Doug Moe is a Madison writer and a former editor of Madison Magazine. Read his blog, “Doug Moe’s Madison,” on madisonmagazine.com.