VETS COLUMN: All creatures great and small

One of the things that makes veterinary practice so interesting is the diversity of challenges.

Not only are we treating very different species, ranging from bulls to budgies, but also serving very different clients. Many are farmers who have to make a living from their animals and need them to be healthy and productive, but we also see family pets, some very small animals belonging to very small children.

The health and survival of these animals does not depend entirely on economics. One such case I saw recently belonged to a six-year-old girl, who happened to be a farmer’s daughter. Her gerbil Jimmy had developed a skin tumour on its back, which was starting to ulcerate.

I discussed the options with her parents: either we could put the little animal to sleep, or operate to remove the tumour (a fairly high risk procedure in such a small creature). I could see the dilemma that the farming father faced. His head was telling him that the gerbil should be put to sleep (the cheaper option), but his heart was telling him to give Jimmy a chance. It was agreed that I would operate. Fortunately, it was successful and Jimmy has made a full recovery, much to the little girl’s delight.

Looking at the practice diary for the day of Jimmy’s op, I pondered on the diversity of veterinary practice. In those 24 hours Jenny did three cow caesarean operations, Joe was lecturing at a farm skills course, Stephen was on duty at Newcastle Races, Ed was x-raying a horse’s leg, and our small animal vets were examining a multitude of dogs and cats at eight surgeries across Northumberland. In the days of James Herriot it might have been the same vet doing all these things, but maybe not on the same day.

As our practice has increased in size, and the knowledge and expertise needed to offer a first class service has increased exponentially, vets are now much more “species specific”. We have a team dedicated to farm animals, another to horses, and another to small animals.

It is impossible to keep up to date with the very different requirements of all the species, but in a mixed practice there is a healthy interchange of ideas between the teams, to the benefit of all.

I sometimes wonder what James Herriot would have made of modern veterinary practice. I’m sure he would have adapted, and still found enough material to keep us all entertained.