Never a dull moment in companion animal practice
I am often asked ‘have you always wanted to be a vet?’ and the honest answer is that I really can’t remember when the thought first occurred! I was never a typical science student – I absolutely hated maths and physics, and loved writing and the arts. Outside of school, I was completely pony-mad and was adamant that I wanted a life working with horses. I was fortunate to attend a good secondary school, where I received the support and encouragement I needed to realise my ambition of becoming an equine vet. I had no close friends or family members working within the veterinary profession and I was the first person in my father’s family to attend university at all.
I worked hard at school to achieve high grades and spent every school holiday from the age of 15 working with animals – lambing sheep, milking dairy cows, working in kennels and on stable yards. I also had a Saturday job at my local small animal practice as a kennel assistant. Being a veterinary student and ultimately a vet is hard work – half the battle of getting into vet school is proving that you are highly motivated and enthusiastic about working with animals. Work experience will also help you to decide whether this really is the right career for you.
A veterinary medicine degree teaches students to treat animals from the three main domestic species groups – companion animals, farm animals and equids (horses, ponies and donkeys). It wasn’t until the end of my degree, when I had experienced a good amount of clinical work with each group, that I realised I was much better suited to working as a companion (small) animal vet. I enjoyed the variety of the job, which includes surgery, medicine, dentistry and imaging (ultrasonography and radiography), and I preferred being based at a practice with a supportive team of colleagues close at hand. Working with horses can be dangerous and I experienced that first hand in my final year of training. I decided to keep horses as a hobby and thankfully, given the broad nature of the course, my change of heart did not cause me any issues and I started my career as a small animal vet in 2015.
To be an effective small animal vet it is essential to hone your skills in problem solving, communication and teamwork. Having knowledge is one thing, but learning to effectively communicate that knowledge to others is the hard part. You need to cultivate a good ‘bedside manner’ and demonstrate empathy, kindness and patience towards both animals and their owners. Learning to be flexible and adapting to changing situations will also stand you in good stead for life in practice.
There is a huge variety of different roles that you can enter into as a small animal vet. I am a ‘first-opinion’ or ‘general practice’ (GP) vet. It is not essential to undertake any further training beyond a veterinary medicine degree to do this job; however, many GP vets opt to do a postgraduate certificate in a particular area of interest (such as cardiology or dermatology) alongside their job in order to advance their clinical skills. Alternatively, veterinary graduates can apply for a full-time training programme, called a residency, which will ultimately enable them to become a recognised specialist in a specific discipline. Specialist vets tend to work at referral hospitals and universities.
One of the joys of being a vet is the huge variety of work we undertake day to day. In a single day, I can see many different animal species and all sorts of medical and surgical complaints. I’m contracted to work 40 hours per week, and this time is split into consulting shifts and operating shifts. Within a consulting shift, I will often see a mixture of routine appointments, such as vaccinations, and non-routine appointments to assess ill or injured animals. An operating shift can include a wide variety of procedures such as neutering, stitching up wounds, removing lumps, extracting teeth or x-raying fractured limbs. Many small animal vets are also expected to contribute to an ‘out-of-hours’ rota to provide emergency care overnight or during the weekend when the clinic is closed. Although this can be stressful and tiring, I often see my most interesting cases during these shifts!
It’s true that there is never a dull moment in small animal practice, but the flip side of that is that the days can often feel fast-paced and busy. Each 15-minute appointment presents a new problem to solve and effective time management is key. Vets are often faced with upsetting or distressing situations and being emotionally resilient is also important.