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"Where were our lectures on animals not being themselves?"

03 October 2019, at 9:00am

I have just returned from a week-long CPD trip. Not for me, but for my daughter, who has GCSE Spanish looming. As a supreme act of educational investment, the whole family went off to Mallorca on a Spanish-speaking learning trip. We visited the rocky, hilly bit along the north coast. Highly recommended: great mountains, rocky coves and good snorkelling (apart from when the jellyfish are paying a visit). We did learn that Spanish for jellyfish is “medusa”; how fantastic is that?

One highlight was my daughter asking staff at a bar “Are you summer?” instead of “Are you open?” but our favourite was when she confused French “gateaux” for cake, with “gato” – Spanish for cat. Having left our lunch in a bag in the bakers to collect later, we sent her to the bakery where she asked the non-English speaking staff “We have come to collect our lunch, can we get our cat out of your fridge please?”

After she had recovered from this slight faux pas, she complained to me that: “We never learn anything useful for daily life in Spanish, just verbs and tenses and stuff.” This resonated with me thinking back to the days of being a recent graduate when I could happily write an essay on secondary hyperparathyroidism, but would struggle with how to deal with a client who walks in at 5:30pm on a Friday and says, “My dog is just not himself.” Where were our lectures on animals not being themselves?

I started in mixed practice and my very first client interaction was round the back of the practice with a local farmer. He accosted me and the only words I could understand were “blood”, “devil” and “sheep”. Just where the hell had I come to work? Turned out he was a very nice chap and to translate for you into Queen’s English, he was asking: “I say, would you mind awfully coming to visit my farm to blood sample some sheep? It’ll be somewhat tricky – verily a devil of a job.”

So as we are in newish graduate season, I was thinking what simple day-one tips we could give to young vets so, like my daughter in Mallorca, they can make practical and day-to-day use of their knowledge. I heard a pilot saying that when you start flying for a living, you start off with a full bucket of knowledge and an empty bucket of experience. The aim is to fill up the second one before the first one empties. In my work now, I couldn’t tell you where most of my knowledge comes from: vet school, reading up, CPD, experience, colleagues, etc.

My first piece of advice is: be like a sponge for passed-on experience from your colleagues. Learn the little things; I didn’t know until a colleague showed me that rabbit fleas like cats’ ears, or that a meibomian adenoma acts like a cork in a bottle, causing a big swelling under a tiny eyelid tumour. I used to have my own “case of the week”, where I’d pick something I’d seen and read up on it as much as I could

Don’t rely on veterinary Facebook groups – they are well intentioned and useful for other things, but often you find that the emptiest vessels make the most noise. Always remember we are practitioners of evidence-based science, not third-hand anecdotes.

Books, even in this day and age, are very useful, too. The NOAH Compendium is a must for large animal vets and small animal vets alike. For large animal vets, why not write out a mini dose schedule of the stuff you have in your boot and withdrawal times, contraindications, etc? A sort of personal “What’s in my car dose guide”. For those of you in small animal practice, also have to hand something like Saunders Manual of Small Animal Practice. I used this book a lot after a period of travelling when my bucket of knowledge was emptying faster than my bucket of experience was filling. It reduces the most complex of procedures and diseases down to five bullet points and a picture. Another useful one is 100 Top Consultations in Small Animal General Practice; this book is a bit less comprehensive but is a very useful format.

A final note on time keeping for small animal vets: keep an eye on your consult times; try to make a decision as to whether this is a 15-minute problem or not. If not, admit it – even if just for the morning. It is quite stressful for you and your colleagues if you get too far behind. Not to mention the contents of the waiting room.

My last piece of advice to farm vets was shouted to me by a farmer as he and some of his friends stayed the safe side of the gate as I went into a pen to TB test a bull: “IF HE HITS YOU, JUST GO LIMP!