A choice for vets: mixed practice or just pets?
As a child, I had an affinity with animals. I liked them, and I enjoyed spending time with my pet dog and cat. My motivation to become a vet was essentially because I wanted to care for animals. I started out with the idea that I wanted to do a job like James Herriott, the Scottish author who wrote about his life working as a vet in the Yorkshire Dales. He treated dogs and cats, but he also looked after the animals in local farms and stables. This type of veterinary work has traditionally been known as "mixed practice", and that's exactly what I wanted to do after qualifying as a vet.
I took a job in the Scottish Borders, in a small town. I spent the mornings visiting dairy farms, beef cattle farms, riding stables, sheep farms and occasionally fish farms, piggeries and poultry flocks. Then in the afternoons and evenings, I was based in the clinic in the small town where I lived, treating sick dogs and cats.
I enjoyed the mix of work: like all vets, I had been trained in mixed practice at college, and it was rewarding to put this knowledge into practice in the real world. But after five years of it, I began to get restless, for several reasons.
First, it became clear to me that it was increasingly difficult to be as up to date as I felt I ought to be with all of the work that I was doing. When I went to conferences, I couldn't simultaneously go to lectures on dogs, cats, rabbits, cattle, sheep, horses, pigs, poultry and fish. There was just too much information. I decided that if I wanted to be as up to date and informed as I'd like to be, I had to narrow my field of interest. So what was it to be? Which part of veterinary would I focus on?
The second reason that I turned away from mixed practice was more selfish and basic: it is tough, tiring work, and I was not convinced that I could continue to enjoy doing it for decade after decade. I liked working outdoors, and getting to know the farmers as we worked together. There was a certain buzz about getting out of bed at three in the morning to help a mare foaling, or to carry out a caesarian on a calving cow before breakfast. And I felt heroic after the hard physical work of dehorning and castrating a hundred six month old calves in one day. But being realistic, after five years of that lifestyle, I didn't think I would love doing it for another forty years. I have a great deal of respect for those vets who manage to do so.
My third, and most significant, issue involved the rationale behind the work I was doing. When I was treating pets, the sole focus was the well-being and longevity of the animal. People wanted me to treat their dogs, cats and rabbits to cure their illnesses and to help them live enjoyable lives for as long as possible.
When it came to farm work, the motivation was different: the bottom line was that in most cases, the aim was to produce meat, milk and eggs in a cost effective way. My job as a vet was to facilitate this. There's nothing wrong with that: it's the way of the world, and it's important that farm animals are cared for to keep them as healthy as possible. But it did lead to some tricky situations. I remember one time I was asked to treat a group of fifty calves that were coughing. They needed a particular type of antibiotic, but when the farmer totted up the cost of doing this, he shook his head. It wouldn't be worth his while to pay for this treatment, so he preferred to let them take their chances. While I understood the farmer's economic predicament, I found it difficult to walk away from those sick animals knowing that I had not given them the help that they needed.
All in all, I knew that my main aim in life was to do work that I was good at, that I enjoyed, and that I felt was in line with my own ethics and motivations. And for me, mixed practice no longer ticked all of these boxes.
At that stage in my career, I took a break, heading off overseas backpacking with my wife. When we returned, I had made my mind up: I was going to become a full time pet vet.
Since then, I've just gone to the pet lectures at conferences, I continue to enjoy spending my working day in the bright, airy, controlled environment of a purpose-built veterinary clinic, and I no longer have to face the ethical dilemmas created by the challenge of farm economics. This narrower focus of interest has suited my personality and temperament well. I'm convinced that I can offer my patients better care than if I was trying to dash around farms and stables as well as seeing pets in my clinic.
I'm still interested in a wide range of veterinary work, reading occasional articles about cattle, sheep, pigs and horses. I worry that the drive for cheap food is making it more difficult for smaller farmers to deal with challenges like those calves that needed expensive treatments.
It's now common for vets to specialise. As well as knowing many pet vets, I have friends who have specialised in treating horses, cattle, sheep, pigs or poultry. It seems to be increasingly difficult to be a generalist in the veterinary world. Having said that, most Irish vets still work in mixed practice: there isn't enough pet work in most small towns to justify a pet-only vet.
I still remember mixed practice with fondness. There's something rounded and pleasing about the idyllic life described by James Herriot, despite all the challenges.