A changing vocation
‘I could have gone in for something easier and gentler - like coal mining or lumber jacking.’
Those were the words of veterinary surgeon and writer Alf Wight, better known under his pen name of James Herriot, when asked why he became a vet.
I too am a veterinary surgeon and I wanted to become a vet from when I was 12 years old, and no one could talk me out of it.
The veterinary profession has changed very much since James Herriot treated all creatures great and small in the middle of the last century. The main income in those days came from farm animal and horse practice, the pet animal side of veterinary work was still in early development. Life as a farm vet was hard, physical work, dangerous and dirty. Almost all vets back then were men.
When I started to study, a vet was still expected to be available and on-call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, working very long hours. Work-life balance meant you tried to fit your family and social life around the profession.
After graduation I worked in a variety of clinical and non-clinical positions, including as a farm animal locum vet in the Austrian Alps. This meant travelling to various farms and while it was wonderful to drive through picturesque countryside, it also meant driving on narrow and rough mountain roads, which in winter were covered in snow. Call outs during the night were particularly challenging and dangerous. Nowadays, I only work as a companion animal vet and patients come to me.
But when did vets start treating all creatures great and small? The modern veterinary profession began in the mid-1700s when the first veterinary schools were established in Europe.
Horses were important in the maintenance of military power and mobility, and therefore were the focus of the first veterinary hospitals. Vets came from military or farrier backgrounds and cared for farm animals – dogs and cats were largely overlooked.
Today, vets treat all manner of animals. We also have responsibility in the public health sector for animal welfare and food hygiene, including supervision of slaughter and the import and export of animals and their products. Some vets choose a career in academia to do research and teaching, others work in the food industry or in the pharmaceutical industry – we even have a vet sitting as an MP in the House of Commons and a veterinary peer in the House of Lords.
But what about women? In the UK, it wasn’t until 1922 that the first woman – Aleen Cust – was allowed by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons to officially join the profession. Aleen had actually qualified as a vet 22 years earlier. She went on her daily visits riding side-saddle, before returning home to dress for dinner. During the First World War, she even volunteered as a vet caring for horses on the Western Front. After this, the Royal College couldn’t deny Aleen her veterinary status any longer – but still demanded that she pass a further exam.
In the last century, veterinary businesses were usually family-owned and run by a male vet. His wife would fulfil the role of receptionist and vet nurse. However, in the past 30 to 40 years the gender balance has shifted and today, female vets account for almost 65 per cent of the 23,000 practising vets registered with the Royal College. These female vets still need to balance their career around their family and children. This has led to less interest in old-style practice partnerships, with more corporate ownership of practices offering greater job flexibility but lower pay in exchange.
Many of us consider our professional choice a vocation, rather than a job. While we gain a great deal of satisfaction from being able to keep animals healthy and help sick animals get better, it is not always wonderful to work with animals.
'Many of us consider our professional choice a vocation, rather than a job'
Sadly, we see many vets leaving clinical work in practice within the first five years after they qualify and an increasing number turning away from the profession altogether. There are lots of reasons for this – a high-pressure environment, expectations of personal perfectionism among vets and increasing owner demands can lead to stress, or even burnout. Balancing the high cost of veterinary services with the financial constraints of owners, coupled with personal strain arising from social media complaints, also contribute to the retention crisis.
I am almost at the end of my professional life and I do wonder what my profession will look like in 30 years’ time and how my younger colleagues will cope with the changes ahead of them.
But some things will never change – in the words of Mr Herriot: ‘Animals are unpredictable things, and so our life is unpredictable. It’s a long tale of little triumphs and disasters and you’ve really got to like it to stick to it.’
This article is based on a blog written for the British Small Animal Veterinary Association (BSAVA) to celebrate International Women and Girls in Science Day on 11 February 2021.