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Why would an experienced vet go back to college? Here’s why…


The university course leading to a degree in veterinary medicine and surgery is by necessity a hard-working, information-packed five years. The focus has traditionally been on accumulating facts, with the presumption that other aspects of being a vet can be learned later, when life in practice has commenced. As a result, there has sometimes been a perception (which may or may not be true) that new graduates can be over-academic, with a tendency to be impractical.

An innovative response to this criticism has been established at many vet schools, with a concept known as the “Practitioner-in-Residence”
. An experienced veterinary surgeon leaves their own practice for a period of ten weeks, to spend time at the Veterinary College, teaching students about “real life”. A few years ago, I was lucky enough to fill this role at my own local vet college….

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Old cat, young cat: a bittersweet episode in the life of a companion animal vet

Mrs Kennedy was an elderly widow, whose only companion was a small seventeen year old cat called Puss. Mrs Kennedy had phoned me because she thought that Puss had broken her leg after chasing another cat.

I wasn’t expecting anything too serious. Cats commonly hurt themselves while fighting with each other. An owner may think that the leg is broken, but in most cases the problem is a simple cat bite abscess, which can be easily treated. However, this time it was different. The owner was right.

Mrs Kennedy explained how a neighbouring cat had sneaked into the kitchen, and Puss had leapt up to chase it away. Immediately afterwards, she’d started limping, and since then she had barely moved from her bed…

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Vets are now doctors (in a strictly veterinary sense, that is….)

Did you know that your vet is now a doctor? The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons  has just changed the rules. Vets are not obliged to call themselves “Doctor”, but we now have the option to do so, if we wish.

Traditionally, vets were called “Mr”: the logic was that as “veterinary surgeons”, we fell into the same (slightly superior) category of medical personnel as medical consultant surgeons, who were also “Mr”. Dentists (dental surgeons) were also called “Mr” for the same reason.

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Euthanasia – one vets opinion.

People often tell me that they think putting pets to sleep must be the worst part of my job but in many ways, it is one of the easiest. Yes it is sad, letting a beloved animal go, but in the majority of cases we are doing it for very good reasons; releasing them from a life that has become more about pain and suffering than the joy it should be.

A couple of years ago it was time to put our family labrador to sleep. Molly had reached the grand old age of 14 and had been struggling with arthritis for many years. Although her mind was still willing, her body had let her down and no amount of drugs would help her to be able to walk again.

What was interesting was my mother’s attitude. She is a GP and admitted that in her job death can be seen as a failure, rather than a release. She agreed with my decision but it was a totally different mind set to the one she was used to.

When patients come towards the end of their lives, in many ways the decisions that doctors and vets take are very similar, it is just that vets have an extra option; euthanasia….

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Are vets more interested in the health of their patients or the money in their pockets?

I recently wrote a blog here titled “Debunking myths about “rip off” veterinary fees”, and since then, the subject of money has continued to be one of the banes of my life as a vet in practice.

My aim in life is to do a job that I enjoy, and to be paid a reasonable salary: for most people, that just means that you go to work, do your stuff, and come home at the end of each day. For vets, it’s different: every day, as part of our job, we need to ask people to give us money. Most of us would be delighted if this discomfitting task was taken away from us, but unfortunately, it’s an unavoidable part of our job description.

One recent case provided a good example of the type of daily dilemma that faces vets. An elderly terrier, Sam, had a small benign tumour on his flank. He was fourteen years of age, and his owner had been hoping that we might be able to leave the tumour alone: it’d be better to avoid a general anaesthetic unless it was absolutely necessary. When the tumour began to ooze blood, and Sam began to lick it a lot, we couldn’t leave it any longer so he was booked in for surgery. When booking the operation, I mentioned to his owner that it would be wise to take the opportunity to clean up his teeth, which were caked in tartar. And I gave a detailed estimate of the expected costs.

We took all the usual precautions to ensure Sam’s safety. He had a detailed clinical examination and pre-anaesthetic blood tests to ensure that he had no underlying illnesses that could make an anaesthetic risky. An intravenous line was set up to give him continual fluids during the procedure and to give us instant access to a vein if any emergency treatment became necessary. And a vet nurse was designated to hold his paw and to monitor him for every second of his time under anaesthesia, from induction until he was sitting up at the end.

Everything went well: the tumour shelled out quickly and easily, and a line of sutures closed the wound. I carried out a thorough descale and polish of his teeth, as planned. But it was then that the dilemma arose: beneath the tartar covering his teeth, it turned out that two of his molar teeth had large diseased areas. The gum margins had recessed, exposing large parts of the tooth roots. One of the teeth had serious infection, causing the tooth to be loose: it was easily removed. The other molar tooth was more complicated: one root was seriously diseased, but the other two roots were healthy. The tooth needed to be extracted, but it would be a tedious, time consuming surgical extraction, taking over half an hour, and requiring follow up x-rays to ensure that it had been done properly. This would involve an extra cost to the owner of well over £100. I had already given an estimate, and I didn’t feel that I could go ahead with this without permission.

While Sam was still anaesthetised, I asked a nurse to phone his owner to explain the situation. There was no answer on the home line, and the mobile number wasn’t working. What should I do now?

If I went ahead, I’d be carrying out unauthorised work on someone’s pet. If there were any unexpected complications, the owner could hold me liable. And as for the extra cost? Could the owner justifiably refuse to pay?

The safest legal approach would be to make a note of what needed to be done, and then to inform Sam’s owner that he needed a follow up anaesthetic in a few weeks, during which we’d tackle his dental issues. But I knew that it would be far safer for Sam to have the entire procedure completed during this first anaesthetic, and I knew that his owner would be unlikely to agree to pay for a second anaesthetic on top of this first one. So Sam’s dental issues would probably not be treated, and he would suffer as a consequence.

I made an “on the hoof” decision to go ahead with the dental procedure. It took even longer than I had anticipated, and I had to take a series of x-rays rather than just one. By the end, I was happy that Sam had been given the best treatment, but I was nervous about the owner’s response. Would she think that I had done this just as a way of extracting more money from her? What if she genuinely couldn’t afford more than the estimate that I had given her?

I felt so uncomfortable about the situation that I gave a significant discount on the extra work that I had done. Effectively, I ended up working my lunch hour for nothing because I felt so awkward about it.

But what else could I have done? In the interest of the dog, I could not have left painful, diseased teeth untreated.

What would pet owners feel if the vet presented them with a situation like this? Should you pay the full amount of justifiable extra work if it is unauthorised?  Do you trust your vet? Or do you feel that we are working more for our own interests than for the benefit of your pet?


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Debunking myths about “rip off veterinary fees”

“Rip-off veterinary fees” were the subject of a recent poll on a vets-only website.
In answer to the question “How often does your practice receive complaints about the prices it charges?“, the results were:

  • All the time – 16%
  • Fairly often – 53%
  • Hardly ever – 30%
  • Never – 1%

So around 69% of vet clinics get regular complaints about their fees, and given that many people may feel irritated about fees without vocalising their concern to the vet, the true level of discontent is likely to be even higher. This is clearly an aspect of veterinary care that pet owners feel strongly about.

I always find this a difficult topic to discuss: as a vet, I can’t help feeling defensive, and it’s all too easy to write a self-justifying commentary. Sceptical readers may then brush off any of my explanations: “well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?”….

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A vet visits a Delhi slum: day two – educating young people about animal welfare

After an overnight flight from London, I was delighted to be welcomed to Delhi this morning by a remarkable lady who works on the coal face of the street dogs/rabies issue. Bondana Dutta (or Bondi, as everyone calls her) is the founder of a small but rapidly growing NGO charity called Alliance of Animals and People (AAP).

Bondana resigned as a regional director for CRY ( one of the major Childrens Rights NGO’s) to pursue her work with AAP, and she has brought many skills and strengths to her new role. She believes that the way to improve animal welfare in the slums of Delhi is to start with the children: if she can convince young people of the importance of valuing animals, the rest will follow naturally. The children will pester their parents to do more for animals, and in due course, they will mature into a new generation of adults who are strongly pro-animal.

As an introduction to the educational projects she’s created, I travelled with Bondi to one of her projects, in a slum in South-West Delhi.

The cross-city drive to the slum gave me a taste of the lunacy of Indian traffic: half a dozen lanes of a mad mix of vehicles (from cattle-drawn carts to tuktuks to cars to trucks) barging against each other to get ahead, beeping horns instead of using indicators, yet somehow, all keeping going and reaching their destinations.

We pulled up outside the slum, and walked in through narrow laneways past people sitting outside their homes in small groups. The weather in Delhi at this time of year is pleasant: 20°C with crisp clear sunshine rather than the humid 30°C plus of mid-summer. For people and animals alike, it’s a comfortable climate to be outdoors.

After walking a few hundred yards, we came to a fenced off courtyard in the middle of an open area: around fifty children were waiting for us there. This was Bondi’s community: children aged between five and fifteen who have signed up for regular classes in animal welfare. An AAP worker, a former teacher, was giving a class when we arrived. She acted as an interpreter (the children speak Hindu, with just a smattering of English) to allow me to talk to the children.

I asked a few questions and learned a lot: most of the children cared for street dogs which they view as their “family dogs”. They feed them a mixed diet of scraps, and they make sure that they are vaccinated against rabies and where possible sterilised. I asked about what should be done if a person was bitten by a dog: the children knew all about washing a wound thoroughly then seeking post-exposure rabies vaccination.

I then asked the children if they kept any other animals as pets – cats are popular (but they aren’t as visible as street dogs here), some children kept pet fish, and one girl disappeared for a few minutes, astonishing me when she returned cuddling her pet hamster, Pooni.

I stayed for half an hour talking the the children, and the end, they sang a song to me about the importance of looking after animals well. I came away feeling full of hope and optimism: in the three years that she’s been visiting this slum, Bondi has created a population of young people who care passionately about animals, and in the process, they are taking the necessary steps to ensure that they – and their pets – are protected against rabies.

The AAP model is only being used on a small scale at the moment – Bondi would like to have more full time employees to visit more slums running classes like this, but funds are scarce. Bondi has great vision, and with the right support, her dream of all Indian children being taught about the importance of caring for animals will come true.…

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A vet visits a Delhi slum: day one – an introduction to street dogs and rabies

I’m just a vet in small animal practice in Ireland, but for the next week, I’m going right out of my comfort zone: I am travelling to Delhi, to visit a slum, where I’ll be taking a look at the issue of street dogs and rabies.

Rabies is one of those diseases that just flits across the consciousness of most of us: we know it’s a terrible disease, and we feel blessed that it doesn’t exist in the UK and Ireland, but that’s about as far as it goes. The truth is that for many people and animals, it’s a daily curse.  Minor dog bites are common all over the world, especially in children. Most often minor first aid is all that’s needed: rarely, a visit to the doctor may be called for. Yet in most countries of the world, the threat of rabies in an additional worry.

If a child happens to live in India, that minor dog bite could have had desperately serious consequences. If he was lucky, he might be taken to a doctor to be given post-exposure anti-rabies vaccination. However, it’d be far more likely that this level of medical intervention would be unavailable to him. Nothing would be done other than basic cleaning of the wound. If the dog was carrying rabies, he would be infected, and in the following weeks, he would develop symptoms of rabies. He might have a fever or a headache at first, with an itching sensation at the site of bite. A few days later, he would develop anxiety, confusion and agitation. As the disease progressed, he would develop abnormal behaviour (such as fear of water), hallucinations, and insomnia. He would go on to suffer a terrifying death.

The most shocking aspect of rabies is that it is completely preventable. Vaccination of dogs in bulk programmes is inexpensive and highly effective: it can cost as little as 50c per dog. In comparison,the cost of a human being treated for rabies after a dog bite is around €40, which is over a month’s salary in the regions where rabies is common.

The World Health Organisation believes that mass canine vaccination programmes are the most effective measure for controlling rabies, and that vaccinating 70% of the dogs in an area where rabies is prevalent is necessary to control the disease in both humans and dogs. Targets are in place to have rabies eliminated from the planet by 2030 but this won’t happen unless we all start paying more attention to achieving this goal

In the recent past, mass dog vaccination programmes have allowed some countries to become rabies-free: there are many examples in South America. In Sri Lanka, this type of programme has reduced rabies deaths from more than 350 in 1973 to just 50 in 2010. Yet in over 150 countries around the world, death by rabies continues to be a threat to humans and dogs. Over 60 000 people die of rabies every year, with over 95% of them in Asia and Africa.

India is the country with the biggest rabies problem, with over 20000 people dying every year. So-called “street dogs” are part of the urban culture. They play an important role in the ecosystem by helping to deal with garbage: in areas where dogs have been forcibly removed, the local rat population has boomed, with bubonic plague then becoming a major public health problem. But street dogs also carry rabies.

The size and scale of India makes this problem seem impossible to solve: it’s the second most populous country in the world, with over 1.2 billion people (nearly 300 times the population of Ireland, or 20 times the UK). Despite the magnitude of the challenge, the answer is still simple: vaccination of 70% of street dogs against rabies, combined where possible, with sterilisation of dogs to prevent breeding. If you think of another comparison: 20000 people dying of rabies every year is the equivalent of  67 people dying in Ireland, or 1000 people dying in the UK. Can you imagine the public outcry if that was to happen? Why should we be any less outraged because the people dying happen to live in India?

I’m being hosted in Delhi by a charity called ASHA, which is primarily focussed on human health and education in the slums.  I have persuaded them to help me to investigate the severity of the rabies and street dog issue in one of their slums, and they are providing me with an interpreter to carry out a questionnaire. And the kind and passionate people at Mission Rabies have drafted a questionnaire for me to use.  In the space of ten days, I am not going to make much of a difference to anything, except perhaps to my own understanding of the issue, and my own desire to do something about it. If you read this blog for the next while, perhaps you’ll learn a bit too.

Rabies isn’t going to go away by itself: it will take the joint effort of many people with a wide range of skills from a variety of backgrounds. Could you be one of them?


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So You Want To Be A Vet? – Getting into vet school and beyond

I did and I still do! Being a vet is a brilliant job; every day is different. I get to work with great people and use the skills I worked hard to gain to help animals and solve their problems. However, it is also involves long hours, regular challenges, with both pets and people, and it can be very stressful.

The first hurdle to being a vet is actually getting into vet school and with an average of nine applicants for every place, it is one of the most competitive university courses there is. The standard of students is always extremely high and I know the selectors face a very difficult task in picking out those best suited for a career in veterinary medicine.

First and foremost, you must get the right grades at both GCSE and A Level. Without these you won’t even be considered and rightly so; academically the vet course is tough. However, as well as being a geek (!), you also need to have excellent people skills, good practical skills and, I believe, bags of common sense…..

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High graduate debt, falling demand for pet health care & corporatisation. The veterinary profession is changing: is it for better or worse?

There’s a lot of debate going on right now about the future of the veterinary profession. Many vets are worried about the current trend which basically follows this path:

1) Huge demand to study veterinary, especially among young females (80% vet students are female)

2) Not enough places at vet schools: traditionally, the number of student places has been capped in order to avoid flooding the market with far more vets than jobs

3) The realisation by universities that there’s money to be made in teaching vet students, and that there’s a strong demand from students who don’t make it into the established vet schools. The first new vet school in over 50 years opened recently in the UK, and at least one more is planned. Meanwhile, in Eastern Europe, veterinary courses are taught in English, offering entry to the vet profession with a lower academic barrier if students are prepared to pay the fees

4) This is linked to the rising cost of veterinary education, with students in England paying £9000 per year x 5 years plus living costs

5) The result is that new vet graduates are qualifying with large debts, in higher numbers than ever before

6) Meanwhile the veterinary market is contracting, with people spending less money on pets, and so there are fewer jobs for vets available

7) Result: increasing numbers of underemployed young female vets with large debts

8.) Next part of jigsaw: there are fewer young vets to buy into established vet partnerships, and an increasing trend for chains of vet clinics to go “corporate”, owned by shareholders whose main aim may be profit rather than the traditional broader professional view of a vet fulfilling a calling to earn a living

9) Result: vets become pawns in the animal care field, with young female vets desperate to pay back loans by working for corporations. As employees rather than part owners, they become subject to pressures common in other walks of life (“For your bonus, you need to sell so much food, book in so many dentals, see so many people every hour”)

10) The long term potential result: erosion of trust in vets as pet owners question whether something is recommended because it is really needed, or because the vet needs to reach a target. This erosion of trust has already begun in recent years, with consumers questioning everything that professionals do: the sequence that I’ve outlined above will exacerbate this trend.

This trend in the veterinary professions seems to be a global one, and as ever, the USA seems to be further down the path than the rest of us. An excellent article has just been published on this in the New York Times – read it here……………

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