For anyone born post-1985, the TV series Animal Hospital made kids everywhere want to be a vet when they grew up, and hum its theme music around the house like jolly little old men. Now those clips of Rolf Harris crying over Floss the dog have a sour tang, and the real-life Putney Animal Hospital is being shut down by the RSPCA as donations have dried up. But what's day-to-day life like for the ones that turned their crayon-scrawled dreams into a career?
The veterinary world is not all having your face licked by chubby Labrador puppies and flirtatious glances with the farm hand over a bovine rectal exam. After five years of study (six in Cambridge – just because) new vets are thrown into a situation where they're expected to become experts in cardiology, radiology, ultrasound and surgery – and treat literally anything that comes to the table, from guinea pigs to axolotls.
We spoke to two vets, Laura, 28, who works in a private practice in London and Mark, 23, a new graduate working in a vets surgery on England's South East coast, to find out about days spent castrating dogs, treating inbred rabbits and dealing with cats that are off their tits on heroin.
EUTHANISING ANIMALS IS AN EMOTIONAL MINEFIELD
Most vets choose this job because they're animal lovers, but the day-to-day reality involves killing lots of them. Laura has to put at least one patient down each day. "Last year, I had to put 26 animals to sleep in the space of 10 days – that was really tough," she says. Often, the clients are elderly people who bought the animal to console themselves after the death of a spouse. "When you have to put that dog to sleep, it's really hard, because they see you taking away their only link to their husband or wife. It kills me."
And it can get nasty, too. "When I was working in an English coastal town, I had to visit a client's home and put the family greyhound to sleep. When I arrived, there was a crowd of guys in vests drinking cans trying to find out what we were up to. We had to carry out this dead greyhound, and all they saw was this man they knew in tears and us holding his dog's body, so they started getting aggressive with us, wondering what we'd done."
Things don't always go smoothly with the whole euthanasia process either. "A vet friend of mine once had to put down a goose but it took three visits. Between each one he administered more pentoject [lethal injection] and each time he returned the goose was still alive, hissing and trying to bite him."
YOU MEET A LOT OF INTERSEX RABBITS
According to Laura, intersex rabbits are two-a-penny. "I had a rabbit the other day that was a hermaphrodite and, when I went to spay it by removing its uterus, discovered it had a penis but no testicles and one ovary, but no uterus," she says. "It's because of all the inbreeding. In pet shops, you'll look under the straw and there will 100 rabbits in there all shagging each other – brothers and sisters, mothers and sons."
THE IDEA OF BECOMING INSTANTLY RICH IS BOLLOCKS
One of the biggest misconceptions about vets is that they're rolling in it. In fact, most starter salaries begin at £21,800. "People think we ride around in sports cars and want to extort money from people, but we really don't and it can be frustrating when in actual fact you just want to help," says Mark. "I am 23 and living with my parents."
Laura explains that, on top of the 12 hour days, the worst part of the job is being on call. "Some nights you'll get two or three calls and one might end up being a GDV [Gastric Dilatation and Volvulus], which is a twisted stomach in a dog. That means maybe three hours of surgery. You could be up all night, maybe completing a caesarean section at some point, too, but you'll still have to turn up to work the next day."
PEOPLE GET REALLY SENTIMENTAL OVER ANIMAL BALLS
Spaying and neutering animals is essential for controlling spread of disease and preventing over breeding, but some owners get irrationally attached to their dog's balls. "You get people coming in – especially men – and they have some sort of emotional connection to their animal's fucking testicles. Get over it, for god's sake," says Laura. "There are thousands of cats and dogs sitting in shelters, taking up bucket loads of money, and if these pets aren't neutered we're just adding to that number."
"People say, 'Oh, I don't want you to castrate him.' Why? So you can admire his testicles every day? The dog doesn't care about his testicles, he's driven by hormones," says Laura. "I worked in an American hospital where they actually had prosthetic testicles, because men were just so obsessed with their dog's balls. Okay, it does change them a little, but it also prevents them from running across the road to shag another dog and getting knocked over." So what happens to all the ill-fated testes when the deed is done? "We have a ball bin for incineration,' she says. "But they don't get made into sausages, if that's what you're thinking."
PUPPY FARMS ARE BAD NEWS
Battersea Dogs & Cats Home has shone the light on backstreet breeding with its latest campaign, and for good reason. The world of for-profit breeding can be unimaginably cruel – but the business will continue to grow with the demand for pure-bred dogs. Most of the bitches need to have elective caesareans because their pelvises are too small for the birth or they're at risk of dystocia (obstructed labour). "Don't buy dogs from puppy farms. People think they're saving the dog, but they're just funding the practise," says Mark.
Even working with licensed breeders can be a pretty grim process for vets. "You are milking out something that's worth £3k, and this poor little dog is just used as an enterprise," explains Laura. "A colleague of mine was once accused of stealing a puppy out of the womb for the money, but where is she going to hide a newborn puppy? In her pocket?"
ANIMALS CAN GET OFF THEIR NUT JUST LIKE HUMANS
Ketamine is often used as an anaesthetic on cats, and, sometimes, the poor sods have a bad trip – not quite a K-hole, but still enough to have them bouncing off the kennel walls with a racing heart rate. And it's not just prescription drugs, either. Laura once treated a cat that was off its box on heroin after it had rolled in its owner's stash and licked itself clean. "We gave it Naloxone, a drug used to counter effects of opioid during overdose, and it survived."
A DOG'S STOMACH IS A CONFUSING PLACE
"Most of my job is just treating dogs' stupidity," explains Laura. "I regularly do life-saving surgery to remove things from their stomachs – socks, whole pairs of leggings, yoghurt pots. One time, I removed a stone which was a bit mossy-looking. When I showed it to the dog's owner, he bit it, thinking it might be a lump of hash. It hadn't been washed. The veterinary nurse projectile vomited on cue."
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