Vet Alison Blaxter on making the most of every opportunity

Alison Blaxter
My veterinary degree, gained from Edinburgh university nearly 40 years ago, has given me many opportunities – voluntary work abroad, experience in mixed practice, small animal first-opinion and referral practice, clinical research, further formal study, work as a clinical behaviourist, work in the charity sector and teaching.

I profoundly disagree with the message commonly given to vets that they should choose the area of the profession in which they want to work early on in their career. My experience is very different and I have found that you can move between sectors and roles within the profession

Gaining experience abroad

Right at the beginning of my career I had a stroke of luck – a last-minute opportunity to join a group of eight new graduates going to Belize in Central America. None of us had any experience postgraduation, but we had enthusiasm, a Land Rover and some self-raised funds.

We were tasked with investigating why changing an agricultural industry from sugar exportation to beef production was proving disastrous. Imported cattle were dying, so we spent six months testing cattle and sheep for parasitic disease, surveying for endoparasites, demonstrating transmission of anaplasmosis and babesiosis in calves, surveying the tick population and writing recommendations about the importation of animals to increase the national herd.

We encountered rabies and were involved in vaccinating dogs against rabies in Belize city, as well as delivering basic veterinary services in challenging situations.

We met fantastic people, learnt about the mixed culture in Belize and reggae music, witnessed the country celebrating its independence and I still got a job in UK practice almost a year after graduating.

Mixed practice

Returning to the UK, I joined a mixed practice in East Anglia where I learnt how to be a practising vet.

"I profoundly disagree with the message commonly given to vets that they should choose the area of the profession in which they want to work early on in their career"

The things that have stuck with me from this time are the ability to use my knowledge and apply first principles to every case in order to make decisions. I worked with species I had minimal experience of, such as ducks and pigs, which were routinely kept in most small farms in East Anglia at the time. I also consolidated my equine skills, and my employers were relaxed enough to allow me to pursue my long-held interest and expertise in goats.

It seems impossible to imagine now, but there were no mobile phones and when on-call (frequently) I sat in my flat above the surgery, looking out over a Suffolk apple orchard, waiting for the phone to ring. I had calls through the evening about dogs that had scavenged, lame cats, and was often woken at 5 am to deal with milk fevers and riding accidents.

Honours degree in English Literature

To make the most of my time phone watching, I registered with the Open University and discovered the delights of long distance learning. I took a course on 19th century novels and was hooked. Over the next seven years I completed an honours degree in English literature. It seemed to complement veterinary work – I remember reading Thomas Hardy’s account of Ayrshire cattle in Tess of the d’Urbervilles in the lush English spring months, surrounded by calvings and cases of staggers, as well as analysing the emotional content of Auden and Plath when having to counsel small animal owners approaching their animals’ deaths. It seemed to complement veterinary work.

Ultimately, I found farm work did not suit my drive to deliver individual animal medicine. Herd health programmes and the use of computerised data, which would have suited my love of statistics, were not yet with us. I had also discovered that I enjoyed small animal work and talking to clients.

Clinical training post & PhD

I applied to Bristol university for a clinical training post. Cats were my choice of species. I still find them the easiest animal to assess in terms of both behaviour and clinical examination, and teaching palpation skills on a cat’s abdomen and percussion techniques on cats’ chests still gives me great pleasure.

As a Feline Advisory Bureau feline scholar and then as a PhD student with a Wellcome Foundation Scholarship, I learnt how to investigate cases to their utmost point. My PhD involved the immunological investigation of naturally occurring clinical cases of diabetes mellitus – it brought me in contact with fantastic researchers whose opinions I still value.

In terms of the benefits of understanding how far cases can be unravelled if fully investigated, the same principles of enquiry and application of knowledge occur in first-opinion practice, referral practice and research.

Turning to teaching

I dallied with postgraduate research and locuming in small animal practice, but I’d discovered yet another love – teaching. I felt a huge drive and motivation to help others develop consulting skills.

This led to a novel teaching position at Bristol PDSA supported by Bristol university, where students worked individually in a busy charity clinic. We developed the model of teaching that continues to be the way students learn first-opinion small animal work at Bristol vet school. ‘Supervised consulting’ with the cooperation of the client giving validation to the student’s actions – and with the clinical reasoning surrounding the decision making of the case being spoken out loud – is a hugely powerful teaching tool. The link with Bristol PDSA continues today. Charity clinic work itself was also rewarding – it’s a unique opportunity to develop and hone clinical and communication skills.

Six years and two children later, I left the PDSA for Langford’s own small animal practice (SAP as it’s known). At the time, the SAP employed the equivalent of one-and-a-half vets and one vet nurse (VN). It is now a purpose-built, on-site practice with five consulting rooms, six vets, a practice manager and a team of VNs and reception staff.

"Finding opportunities – whether within practice work or in study and research – can make veterinary life continually exciting"

Here, students take consultations within a structure of preparation, checking and overt decision making.

Still interested in learning, I completed the postgraduate diploma in small animal behaviour counselling at Southampton University and then used the skills on a peripatetic basis to provide services to other practices in the area. It felt like a natural progression from an interest in the bond that people have with their animals to extend my role in serving that bond.

Along the way, the SAP and the school’s leaders have allowed my creativity to organise some extraordinary events.

A ‘Spring hop’ was one of the first rabbit awareness weeks – with hopping competitions and a rabbit show. Annual ‘Christmas cat’ lectures for clients, and some of the first puppy socialisation classes held in practice were among my creative ideas that we organised. The attention of the BBC in ‘Vet School’ was also a diverting and entertaining process.

Following interests

Being able to follow my creativity and interests has been vital to keep me motivated and in the profession. Any practice job can provide such stimulation and my advice is that employers and managers should allow younger colleagues time and space to be creative and adventurous!

My working life remains rooted in small animal practice, but has allowed many opportunities to be creative. Finding opportunities, whether in practice or in study and research, can make veterinary life continually exciting.

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