It's an exciting time to be a veterinary surgeon
IF YOU'RE considering the veterinary profession as a career, you need to enjoy learning. It starts at school: if you don't get straight "A's" in your Leaving, you're unlikely to get a place on the veterinary course at university. And if you do make it, you're faced with lectures from breakfast to supper time, five days a week for five years. There's a lot of information to absorb.
You might think that when you finally qualify as a vet, you can relax on the learning front. Far from it: all vets are legally obliged to complete a minimum of twenty hours of in-contact learning time every year, for their entire career. This can be achieved in various ways, but one of the most common methods is attending conferences. Typically, a vet might need to spend four days at educational conferences every year.
Many people scoff at folk heading to conferences: "Oh yes, another junket? Hope you have fun at the bar!" In reality, while there is obviously a social element to any gathering of people, the learning aspect of veterinary conferences is taken seriously. Most vets enjoy educational lectures: people only become vets because they're curious to know what goes on inside animals, and they want to do their best to help them when they're sick or injured. Attending lectures can be the best way to learn more about the latest and most effective way of doing the job of a vet.
That said, when you've been qualified as a vet for over a decade, going to lectures at conferences can begin to seem less useful. You've learned the basics at vet school and you've dealt with many cases in practice. Sometimes the person giving the lecture may be younger and less experienced than yourself. While it's reassuring to discover that yes, you are up to date, and yes, you are doing things properly, do you really need to sit through hours in a lecture theatre while somebody tells you what you already know?
This is where the concept of "take home points" is useful. Even when an audience is already well briefed in a subject, a good speaker will always be able to find a few extra angles that are not common knowledge. There may be new nuggets of information from research, or there may be innovative ways of dealing with a situation.
Whenever I return from a conference, I try to compile a bundle of take home points to show my colleagues in practice. I sit down with all of the vets and nurses, and we discuss some of the most interesting snippets that I've discovered. Each of us does this after attending a conference: the sharing of information means that our entire veterinary practice - and indeed, all of our patients - can benefit from the latest, most up-to-date, information in the veterinary world.
Many of the take-home points would be of little interest to readers of this newspaper. The behind-the-scene technicalities of being a vet are critically important to my job, but the details are irrelevant to pet owners. As long as people appreciate that the medical care of their pet is being done in the most up-to-date way possible, they don't need to know any more. Concepts like pulse oximetry, anti-bacterial hygienic wall cladding, and supraglottic airway devices are fascinating for vets, but they're not relevant to the general public.
There are, however, many nuggets of information that are worth sharing widely. I've just come back from a couple of the biggest veterinary conferences in the world - one in the USA and one in the UK. Here are a few of my favourite "general interest" bullet points from some of the lectures.
Pain. Vets are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of making sure that animals aren't suffering from pain. Pain is now regarded as the 4th vital sign in veterinary medicine, alongside temperature, pulse and respiration. Animals can't verbalise their pain, and awareness of the signs that they are in pain is a key part of developing an "animal friendly" vet clinic. Vets are learning to recognise more subtle signs of pain, by looking at animals' facial expressions and body postures. And the good news is that there are now many new and useful forms of pain relief that can be given.
Dog behaviour. Vets need to be up to date with animal psychology just as much as with physical illnesses. The key message here is that strange behaviour in animals rarely has a simple answer, any more than it does in humans. It's essential to learn the full background to any behavioural problem, and often this cannot be done quickly. Vets need to allow plenty of time when helping owners of badly behaved dogs.
Cat behaviour. Humans tend to judge cats by human perception, believing that cats need company in the same way as we do. In fact, cats tend to be loners. Multiple cat households often involve stress for the animals, leading to all sorts of problems. It's easier to create socially compatible groups by having two kittens from the same litter rather than forcing two adults to live together. And if you have cats who don't get on well together, you can make life under one roof less stressful by providing multiple feeding stations, and creating a home landscape where retreating, hiding and elevation are all made possible.
We're learning more about animals - in health and in disease - all the time. It's never been a more challenging - and exciting - time to be a veterinary surgeon.