Pursuing a specialist career as a pig vet
Sitting with my grandfather at the age of 7, I was asked, ‘What are you going to become?’. ‘Daktari,’ I proudly stated. Having no idea of the words ‘veterinary surgeon’, I already knew I was enthralled with the television series Daktari, featuring the adventures of Dr Marsh Tracy, an animal doctor in East Africa, Judy the chimpanzee and Clarence the cross-eyed lion. Since that day, I have enjoyed working with and helping animals.
Early years around farm animals
From the age of 11, I was fortunate to ‘work’ on a large mixed animal farm with poultry, sheep and beef cattle, and particularly pigs. The local vets at Norwood, Beverley, especially John Crooks and John Jenkins, provided inspiration to pursue my dreams.
Following surprisingly good A-level results, I entered veterinary school. After five fun years at Liverpool, I qualified with a good grounding in large animal medicine and a desire to become a pig vet. But Mike Muirhead, a great mentor in my professional life, encouraged me to try anything but pigs, to provide grounding in veterinary medicine. I therefore decided, and was encouraged by my bank, to round off my clinical expertise in small animals.
The focus on individual animals and the need to talk and make a rapport with complete strangers has provided a valuable resource in my career and has been vital to my work with pet pigs around the world. After a year of small animal work, dealing with numerous species – from golden eagles to a pet cockroach – all in the centre of Liverpool, I ventured north to try my hand at large animal work. The only problem was that I found myself classified as a small animal vet with no experience. A break came with a job working in Dumfries, where I spent 6 great years in the lowlands of Scotland in a truly mixed animal practice, with some of the best clients in the world.
Emotional and intellectual challenges
Life throws curve balls and, following the tragic loss of my wife, Jane, in a car accident, my life appeared to be pointless, or at least directionless. The farmers, friends and colleagues in Dumfries were inspirational following my loss, but professionally I needed a new focus. Fortunately, the true potential of the veterinary degree started to open doors, and an opportunity to complete a PhD and a Leverhulme residency in pig medicine provided me with the necessary emotional and intellectual challenge. With the great support of John Walton and the team at Liverpool university, I threw myself into the new project and, after three years, I was a pig vet at last.
My work with urinary tract disorders in pigs revolutionised my treatment beliefs. I realised that it was possible to successfully treat many conditions simply by good management of the animals. This was not just preventive medicine, but a means of maintaining clinical health rather than treating diseased animals. Since that day, under the guidance of Mike Muirhead and Allen Leman, I have pursued this strategy, which has reformed pig practice around me. It is surprising how many ‘sick’ pigs can be clinically cured by being provided with adequate fresh water.
"Production animal medicine gives me the opportunity to spend most of my professional time working with healthy animals, where my prime concern is driven towards enhancing their welfare and wellbeing"
My work with pigs has presented a stepping stone to a new adventure looking at production animals in general where, for example, I have new challenges such as looking at colony collapse disorder of honey bees.
Keeping healthy animals healthy
A major concern that I have with many practice scenarios is that we spend our time working with sick and injured animals. My interests in animal care do not lie only in the pathogenesis of disease processes, but in the enhancement of the animal's husbandry. Production animal medicine gives me the opportunity to spend most of my professional time working with healthy animals, where my prime concern is driven towards enhancing their welfare and wellbeing.
I have to be realistic; my job is to ensure the farming community makes a profit. I have had to accept that I do not generally directly influence when an animal goes for slaughter. But I can work within its farming lifespan to provide it with an acceptable a life as possible. I believe that current veterinary training programmes over-emphasise the disease processes, while animal husbandry courses are progressively diminished.
Working with pigs can be a challenge to young veterinarians who struggle to see the pigs through the metalwork surrounding them, and farmers who have degrees in agriculture and business studies. My experience with farmers is that once you become part of the health team they become great friends and will readily share their experiences and insights in animal production.
My work with pigs has thrown open numerous doors in many fields of study and institutions all over the world, from large commercial pig farms of North America to achieving my dream of being a daktari working with village community projects in East Africa. I have practised veterinary medicine on all the continents (except Antarctica) and I am lucky to have friends in all corners of the world.
One word of caution, however; if you choose to pursue a specialist career, make sure you look after your work/life balance as dedication to only one area may damage other areas of your life.