Vet detective: investigating ‘whatdunnit’

Cat Man, Veterinary Investigation Officer

I always knew I wanted to be a vet and work with animals; they fascinate me and I love being outside in nature. But I was aware it was difficult to get into vet school so, to increase my chances of getting a place, I helped out at a local vets on Saturdays and spent a lot of my holidays working on farms while I was at school. The more time I spent working with animals, the more I wanted to become a vet! 

Despite all my efforts, I did not get into vet school the first time round, but I was determined to try again. I spent a year gaining more experience, including going to New Zealand to work on sheep farms during the lambing season there. Luckily the hard work paid off and I got a place at Cambridge university. 

While at university, I did some work experience at wildlife rehabilitation facilities and from then on I knew that I wanted to help protect our wildlife species and work with these amazing creatures. So, after completing my veterinary degree, I moved to Australia to study towards a Masters in Conservation Medicine alongside working as a vet for a cat charity. When I returned home, I started work in a mixed practice in north Devon before becoming a full-time zoo vet. 

I also spent 18 months working on the Island of St Helena, one of the British Overseas Territories, as the island vet. This involved both mixed practice veterinary work and government work such as import and export checks, assisting in policy- and law-making decisions, and looking after Jonathan the tortoise who is thought to be the oldest terrestrial animal on the planet. Definitely a VIP (very important patient)!

I now work as a Veterinary Investigation Officer (VIO) for the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA). The job is laboratory based most of the time and we carry out disease surveillance in animals for the government to detect new and emerging threats. We also provide diagnoses for vets in practice who submit samples or carcases to us and help them find the underlying cause of unusual disease outbreaks on farms. This allows us to collect information on the trend of endemic disease in the country. Some aspects of our job also involve public health. This could be through the detection of a zoonotic disease that can infect humans, such as discovering Salmonella bacteria in an animal submitted with diarrhoea, or investigating cases of lead poisoning in cattle and preventing the meat from the herd getting into the food chain.

'Postmortem examinations are my favourite part of my job'

Our working week is generally split between days on duty, where we are performing postmortem examinations on dead animals, and days at our desks reporting laboratory test results, researching interesting cases and working on projects. As we do not do any emergency work, we do not have to work out of hours or at weekends. It is one of the few veterinary jobs that is truly 8.30 am till 5 pm, which allows for a good work-life balance.

Postmortem examinations are my favourite part of my job. I find it fascinating to see what pathogens do to the body and matching that up with the clinical signs or symptoms reported by the submitting vet and the farmer. You then need to decide what laboratory testing you need to do to investigate this further. And, finally, you put the pieces of the puzzle together to get a diagnosis. You are always learning and discovering new things. 

Swan postmortem

All VIOs have an area of expertise they focus on. This is either a particular group of animals, such as cattle, or a particular disease. Most of us have additional qualifications in our individual area of expertise. I am a member of the Wildlife Expert Group within the APHA. We do postmortem examinations on wildlife for many different reasons; some birds come to us to test for avian influenza (bird flu) or because there is a concern they may have been poisoned. Monitoring and recording how diseases may be spreading within a population is another important part of our job. For example, we might be testing bats that have been found dead for rabies and white nose syndrome, or red squirrels for squirrel pox virus or adenovirus. We also investigate mass mortalities such as those caused by botulism in waterfowl.

Working in a veterinary surveillance centre is only one type of veterinary government job available. There are lots of different roles within the APHA but also the Veterinary Medicines Directorate, Home Office, Food Standards Agency, Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (CEFAS) and in the devolved governments, as well as policy roles within core Defra. 

If you would like to work for the government once you qualify as a vet, you can join straight out of vet school although it can be an advantage to have experience in general veterinary practice first, especially working with livestock. Additional qualifications can also be helpful although there is sometimes the opportunity to acquire these as part of your role within government. There are lots of diverse opportunities out there for vets. When I started my veterinary degree I never thought I would have the job I have now!

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