‘James Herriot’ vets are a thing of the past

The veterinary profession is continually changing and evolving.

Its roots lay in the ancient trade of farriery, the art and skill of shoeing horses. The farriers of old were also called upon to treat the injuries and ailments of their clients’ horses.

James Herriot, I’m afraid is part of a bygone era. The practicing vet of today tends to more specialised, dealing with farm animals, horses or small animals, but rarely all three.

Remedies were based on very scant scientific principles, but enlightened and progressive “horse doctors” of the 18th century realised there was so much more they could do for their equine patients with more knowledge and research. So the first veterinary colleges were born, first in France and then in Britain, with the emphasis very much on training equine practitioners.

At the same time, scientific principles were being applied to agriculture, and in particular to the breeding and care of farm livestock. So the new profession of veterinary surgery embraced the treatment of farm animals, as well as horses.

But it was not until the early 20th century that vets’ expertise was generally extended to “small animals”, in particular dogs, and later, cats.

The profession today has developed a vast body of knowledge and skill in the treatment of all domestic species, and many wild ones, to the extent that the days of the “mixed vet”, who was competent and trusted with the care of all species, have all but gone.

James Herriot, I’m afraid is part of a bygone era. The practicing vet of today tends to more specialised, dealing with farm animals, horses or small animals, but rarely all three.

It is almost impossible to maintain the level of competence and knowledge required to do the best for the animals if they range from hamsters to bulls. Even then, the profession sometimes calls on outside help, as in the recent case of a human obstetrician called in by a zoo to help with a caesarean operation on a gorilla.

Specialisation is not the only major change in veterinary practice over the last 30 to 40 years. The change in the gender balance of the profession, or “feminisation” as it is called, is having a major impact. When I qualified in 1978, there were 10 women out of 50 in my year. Now the balance of newly qualified vets is completely reversed. This inevitably leads to more vets taking career breaks, as many female vets take time out to have a family.

Those that do resume their careers sometimes, understandably, find it difficult to work full time and be part of an out-of-hours rota. Although more vets are being trained, it does not seem to be compensating for this attrition in the work force, leading to an acute shortage of vets. Many urban small animal practices now employ vets who are never on call, as they “sub-contract” their out-of-hours cover to niche practices that are only open at nights and weekends.

Rural practices like ours are too far away from these providers so continue to offer our own emergency on-call service, which we think is better for our patients and their owners. But it does make it more difficult to recruit small-animal vets, many of whom are attracted by the city lights and the freedom of never being on call.

The third dramatic change in the profession is “corporatisation”. The technology available to vets parallels that available to medics, and this equipment does not come cheap. But such high tech kit is now part and parcel of offering the best diagnosis and treatment.

Substantial investment by modern practices has made it increasingly difficult for young vets to buy into them. Many have been bought by large “corporates” who have the resources to invest in the further development. This means that vets, traditionally independent, have had to adapt to being part of a larger team.

Specialisation, feminisation and corporatisation: three fundamental changes that make modern veterinary practice very different from the days of James Herriot.