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Catherina Cunnane
Catherina Cunnanehttps://www.thatsfarming.com/
Catherina Cunnane hails from a sixth-generation drystock and specialised pedigree suckler enterprise in Co. Mayo. She currently holds the positions of editor and general manager at That's Farming, having joined the firm during its start-up phase in 2015.
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‘I think vets are poorly understood by the general public’ – Gareth Steel

That’s Farming editor, Catherina Cunnane, in conversation with Gareth Steel, a 42-year-old vet and recently turned author of ‘Never Work with Animals: The unfiltered truth of life as a vet’.

“I am originally from Stranraer, a rural town in Dumfries and Galloway, South West Scotland and now live in Cardiff, South Wales.

I am not from a farm; however, it is a very rural area, and many of my friends were from farms. Farmers also form the backbone (the pack?) of the local rugby club.

We had many pets growing up, and my mother was forever taking in stray cats; at one point, we had 13 of them.

I have always had an empathy for animals, even from childhood and would often visit friends on their farms.

My interest expanded as my exposure to different species grew, so I started going into the local vets as a young teenager to gain experience.

However, I was not one of those kids who ‘knew’ they wanted to be a vet above all else. I have always had diverse interests and applied to mechanical and offshore engineering courses as well as vet school.

I have always enjoyed understanding how things work and how to fix them, which is just like veterinary medicine when you think about it!

Also, I thought about mountain guiding or a military career. Although I became a vet, I have climbed all over the world, including Alaska and the Himalayas.

I have served in the military, including operational tours of Afghanistan and other theatres, so I have had quite a varied career.

Veterinary degree

I obtained my Bachelor of Veterinary Medical Science degree at the University of Glasgow, School of Veterinary Medicine (Now the School of Biodiversity, One Health and Veterinary Medicine), enrolling in the course in 1998 and graduating in 2003.

I did go to vet school straight after high school. Looking back, I think I might have benefited from doing something else first and attending when I was a little older and more mature. I was not a stellar student.

My first job was at Armadale Vet Group in Armagh, Northern Ireland. It was a mixed practice, but the majority of the work was on the farms.

We were pretty busy, but the boss did his best to support us. I think I benefited from the fact there were about four recent graduates in the practice. We all offered each other mutual support, and all had similar struggles.

Companion animal practice

Since then, I have worked all over the UK in mixed practice, companion animal, and emergency and critical care. I work in almost exclusively small animal practice now, but I must admit to a soft spot for mixed practice; I love the variety.

Currently, I am a clinical director of a companion animal practice. In my first job, we worked 2 in 5, so, 1 weekend in 5, you would be first on call from Friday night to Monday morning.

Another 1 in 5, you would be second on call, asked to help if the first vet was already busy. In my memory, the job was all-consuming. I worked in mid-Wales for a time; at one point, I did a 1 in 2 rota.

My boss went on holiday, and it was just me for two weeks, every day and every night. Part of the reason I am in my current job is my wife and I have started a family, so it allows me to be a bit more available.

My view of animal welfare has changed substantially since vet school. We have learned that many of the things we thought are unique to humans are also seen in the animal kingdom.

From tool use to mourning the dead, these behaviours have been found in non-human animals.

I think we have to move with the data and accept that we have underestimated animals’ ability to suffer in the past.

At the same time, we have to feed ourselves. I would like to see us take an empathetic but pragmatic approach to improving animal welfare.

I am also very keen to examine ‘bang for your buck’. What are the things we can do that are most impactful? We should not be promoting costly drugs or practices at the expense of cheaper interventions without good reason.

Variety

Looking back over the years, I have had some unusual cases and once had a family bring a stick insect in. It turned out their concern was ‘it has not been eating or moving for a while, maybe a few weeks’ – I am sure you can work out what was wrong.

People are willing to spend a bit more on their pets these days, and veterinary medicine has moved on. I think we are now identifying diseases we might have missed in the past.

Farming-wise, I have had a couple of really challenging Caesareans with conjoined or Schistosoma (Schistosomus Reflexus) calves. I have always enjoyed the ‘fire brigade’ cases on-farm.

So far, I have had a varied career, so what I have not been able to get from veterinary medicine, I have been able to find elsewhere.

I have a few friends who are doctors, and they marvel at our scope of practice.

When I step back and impartially examine what we are doing, the average GP vet is doing an astonishing job.

I have often called it ‘high-consequence decision making in a complex environment, with imperfect data, on a budget’. It is a real challenge; it can be stressful, but that is what gives it its appeal, at least for me.

Client expectation

Over the years, I think client expectation has risen. There are fewer easy cases, as people have more access to high-quality information and resources.

As a farm vet, I used to occasionally tip up and give some calcium under the skin and some in the vein; the cow would hop to its feet, and I would be the hero of the hour.

These days, the farmer has usually given calcium, phosphorus and maybe some glucose, even some warm rehydration therapy with a pump.

As a result, the cases vets are seeing likely need more investigation. Client education would be beneficial. These days, I very much think of vet and farmer or keeper as a ‘health care team’. It should be cooperative, not adversarial.

I have seen both vets and farmers more interested in being ‘right’ than solving the problem together.

Advice for new grad vets

My advice to new graduates is this: gain as much experience as you can, as soon as you can. You may well love animals, but that does not necessarily mean being a vet is for you.

If the tragedy of individual cases really gets under your skin, I am not sure the job is psychologically survivable.

Vets take their lives at four times the rate of the general public, perhaps because we must balance the triumvirate of empathy, knowledge and resources.

We feel our patient’s pain, pressurise ourselves to solve their disease and alleviate their suffering, but are often faced with limited resources for financial or commercial reasons.

Having to accept limited treatment or euthanasia can feel like failure. You have to be able to live with doing your best.

We tend to concentrate on clinical practice when we discuss vets, but there are many roles from disease surveillance to scientific research.

It is not failure to seek out the niche you fit in best, you might have a few jobs before you find the place you can best contribute. That place might change as you do and that is not just ok; it is the optimal use of your time and effort.

A capable vet possesses empathy, diligence and psychological Stability – it helps to keep as fit as you can.

New graduates: advice
  • Give yourself a break;
  • Give other people a break, and assume the best in them until proven otherwise;
  • The job is as much about humans as animals;
  • Cultivate good friends;
  • Keep fit;
  • Respect and listen to the nurses (and bring them cakes);
  • Have a life outside the job.
Never Work with Animals – My book

I think vets are poorly understood by the general public. My book, Never Work with Animals, which has previously featured on That’s Farming, was my attempt to remedy that.

If money was no object, and I could just concentrate on being a good vet, 90% of the stress of my job would be alleviated.

Not well paid and unfair pressure

Furthermore, I think there are two more egregious misunderstandings. Vets are not especially well paid. In 2020, the average vet made about £33,400, and the average full-time vet made about £42,000.

We run small businesses, and we have the same desires as anyone else for fair remuneration, time off and so on. Clients often put unfair pressure on vets to perform procedures or provide drugs at unrealistic prices.

I can understand why, but we cannot always do it. If the business folds, then there will be no provision of care.

Vets often take a lot of stress home. Did that dog do ok? Did I make the right call? As one reviewer of the book put it: ‘They care more than you hope they do and take home even more than you hope they don’t’.

I listened to my colleagues complaining about how misunderstood we are. I had the same feelings myself. In the end, I thought I would try to offer the most honest account of the job I could and let the chips fall where they may.

I hope people will buy the book, and I hope they will find it amusing and informative in equal measure. My book is available to purchase through this link.

Future

I am very interested in One Health, the idea that human and animal health are intimately connected. Once I am too old and decrepit to continue to serve in the military (probably quite soon), I would like to pursue a post-graduate degree in this area and see where that leads.

Also, I am very interested in what I call ‘copper standard care’ – the idea of researching and confirming the most cost-effective interventions we can offer for any given condition and maximising access to them.

Continued specialisation is inevitable, and desirable. But I think tele-medicine and AI will revolutionise what we can provide in general practice.

It is only a matter of time until AI will interpret x-rays with much more accuracy than us mere mortals.

However, it will still be the job of vets to collate all the facts, fuse that with the intangibles and the human factors, then come up with an optimal solution.

Reflection

Undoubtedly. I have made countless errors. But my life would not be better, just different. I think that is a life lesson in itself. You have to live somewhere, do something, and love someone. There is no ‘right answer’, but a plethora of ‘good lives’ to be led.”

To share your story, email – [email protected]

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