Animal health and working with people: a vet's life
Somebody asked me a question recently: what is the fundamental essence of the work of a companion animal vet?
My answer was long-winded: for starters, treating illnesses and accidents, advising on preventing problems, helping with behavioural issues. Then I expanded on that: reassuring owners, offering different options for treatment of complex conditions, and then helping with end of life decisions and consoling people when a pet has passed away. And to go further, vets also contribute to general public awareness on animal-related issues, such as taking part in discussions on the health of pedigree breeds, the risks of dog bites to people, and how to prevent illnesses being passed on to humans from pets.
My answer was too drawn out. Instead, I came up with an accurate summary, a vet's work is about animal health and working with people.
Animal health is the obvious one. Vets study for at least five years, learning from lectures, tutorials and practical classes all about how animals work. We memorise the anatomy, learn about the physiology (how the body works) and the biochemistry (the chemicals that make up the living body). Then we're taught about how things go wrong (pathology) and the many possible causes (microbiology, including bacteriology and virology). Finally, we are taught how to fix animal health when it has gone wrong, using medicine and surgery.
Of course, it's far more complicated than this: we also need to learn about pharmacology (the vast range of drugs than can be used to treat sick pets), animal behaviour, and a wide range of diagnostic procedures, from blood tests to x-rays and more. Additionally, we need to study veterinary ethics and the national legislation that involves the animals under our care.
And since there is not yet a specific pet vet qualification, we need to learn all about species of animals that we may never even treat, including cattle, sheep, pigs, poultry and horses, not to mention fish and even basic information about some insects (such as bees).
After all that study, vets finally become experts in animal health. In the past, perhaps, that might have been enough.
These days, however, it's recognised that we need to deal with more than just animal health. Veterinary education has been further broadened out to include that other big part of our job: working with people. Every animal has an owner, and animals never come to the vet on their own. Vets need to learn about how to deal with the most complex species of all: the human being.
We learn about human grief and other emotions, which are a big part of the life of vets, who regularly need to help people with the loss of a much loved animal. We are taught about running a business, from employing people to working out the economics of day to day business management: again, this is a key part of the daily work of all vet clinics. We learn about self-managing skills too: if vets don't look after their own physical and mental health, they won't be able to sustain a career of many years in practice. The suicide rate of vets is over four times higher than the general population, so vets need to understand themselves so that they learn to pay attention to their own mental health before things begin to get too bad.
So when a new veterinary graduate emerges, his or her head is filled with the latest that science knows about animal health, with a brain prepared with an armoury of how to work with people.
As this educated new graduate vet enters the work place, there are two unusual aspects about his new career.
First, legally, a newly qualified vet is equally as qualified as a vet who has been busy in the work place for a decade or more. Yes, it's true that some vets go on to get extra qualifications in areas of interest, but vets don't need to do this, and many don't. Yes, all vets do need to continue to educate themselves, carrying out at least 30 hours a year of extra professional learning. But this doesn't make them any more qualified. Once you are a vet, then you are a vet. Full stop. This is very different to many other areas of life (such as medicine) where there may be a long practical induction phase before actually taking on full responsibilities of a practitioner. In some countries, systems are being introduced to phase vets gradually into the work place, but in this country, to date, a vet is a vet is a vet. A big responsibility is suddenly placed on young shoulders.
The second unusual aspect of being a vet is that for many of us, our first day of work is surprisingly similar to our last day of work, perhaps fifty years later. We have consultations with pet owners, where we ask what's wrong, examine the animal, carry out diagnostic procedures (such as blood tests and x-rays) and provide a diagnosis and treatment. And we carry our surgical operations, from spays and neuters to tumour removals to dental work to corrective surgeries of other kinds. This is how we spend our first day in practice, and it's how we spend our last day. Of course every case is different, and there is variety in that sense, but the basic template is the same.
For vets, it's all about animal health and working with people. That's it!