What it’s like to be a young vet

There's more to being a vet than sticking your arm up a cow's backside - four students reveal their lives are a long way from the world of James Herriot


Fancy a career as a vet? Meet four students doing just that…


Jo Hardy, 24

“I’m going to help the Bedouin tribes treat their camels”

I only decided that I wanted to be a vet when I was 16, which was about 15 years later than everyone else on my course. All through school I knew that I wanted a job where I used my brain, but also helped people. I did some work experience with a vet and quickly realised that it was the career for me. People rely on pets for so much, whether it’s emotional support or their livelihoods, so in helping someone’s animals, you’re actually helping them.

A veterinary medicine degree at the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) lasts five years, which sounds quite daunting, but it’s very structured.

You spend the first three and a half years learning the theory, then a further 18 months on “rotation,” working in different practices under supervision.
 Each placement only lasts for a maximum of two weeks, so I spent a year travelling around the country living out of a suitcase. Everyone has a phase of thinking, “Why am I putting myself through this?” but I never considered giving up.
 Of course, five years is also a huge financial undertaking. I’m a bit in denial about how much of a student loan I have to pay back but I’m pleased that I got in before the 2012 fee increase [Jo’s tuition fees would have been nearly £17,000 whereas students on the same course now pay £45,000]. If it had been £9,000 a year, I may have thought twice about whether I could afford it.

Starting salaries for a vet vary. People who go straight into a permanent position earn anything between £17,000 and £25,000, which usually comes with accommodation, a car and a phone. I’m working on a locum basis at the moment. You’re not guaranteed work but you can earn up to £200 a day. It’s a good amount but you work long hours. I get into work at 8am and sometimes stay until 8pm. Even if consultations are scheduled to finish at 6.30pm, they’ll probably run on until 7.30pm and then there’s in-patients to see and phone calls to make. This isn’t a job where you dash out the door at 5pm.

Although I had quite a lot of hairy experiences on rotation, one of the scariest moments was when my own dog Tosca was referred to the RVC by our local vet. Her abdomen had turned septic after an operation and she was on her deathbed. She spent a few weeks at the college – none of the clinicians could get her to eat. She pulled through, but I can’t explain how horrible it was.

In the autumn, I’m going travelling. My first stop is Uganda, where I’m working with a charity that teaches local families how to look after their goats. Then I’m off to spend three months with my boyfriend, who lives in South Africa.

We met during my gap year when I went out there to volunteer on the game reserve where he works. After that, I’m helping to set up a neutering clinic in Thailand [for local cats and dogs] before working with a veterinary clinic in Jordan that travels into the desert to help the Bedouin tribes treat their camels.

I’ve also recently been chosen as Miss Royal Tunbridge Wells. It’s an ambassadorial role, not a beauty pageant. It’s an honour, but of course it makes things even busier. I don’t mind, though. It takes a lot of drive and determination to be a vet so when I decide that I’m going to do something, quitting isn’t an option.

Dru Shearn, 24

“Being covered in poo all the time bothers me less and less”

According to my parents, I wanted to be a vet from the age of three. We always had loads of animals at home – dogs, a couple of ducks, some rescue ponies – and I loved David Attenborough documentaries and Animal Hospital. When it came to picking a career, I never contemplated anything else. Medicine wasn’t an option because, while I could see myself sticking a hand up the backside of a cow, I’m not sure I could have done the same for a human patient.

I knew pretty quickly that I wanted to work with large animals. I’d go crazy if I was stuck inside all day at a surgery. I’ve just started my first job at a practice that combines farm work with looking after the animals at Longleat Safari Park. It’s brilliant, as I only spend about 20 per cent of my time in the office.

Last week, I was sent out on my own for the first time to treat a cow who had milk fever [where calcium levels drop dangerously low, particularly after calving]. She was lying on her side so I gave her some calcium. It was a big nerve-wracking but fortunately she pulled through.

Zoo animals are more complicated because the textbooks don’t tell you how to treat elephants. I went to Longleat last week to check on some lions so I’m trying to pick up things as I go. I’m most excited about getting to treat orangutans, they’re just so expressive.

Although I don’t have to break upsetting news to people about their pets, it’s sometimes worse telling a farmer that his animals have TB when you know his livelihood depends on them. Livestock are not as co-operative as smaller animals and you can’t pick them up and give them a hug. But that’s the best bit of the job. You’re always kept on your toes and you’ll never be able to master everything.

The worst bit about being a vet? It’s probably being constrained by money – you want to do more to help but the owner can’t afford it. If you’d asked me a while ago what I didn’t enjoy I would have said being covered in poo all the time but these days it bothers me less and less.

Elly Berry, 26

“My parent are allergic to dogs and cats, so I had chickens”

I went to a very academic school where we were told that in order to be a vet you needed to take all three sciences as well as double maths. I hated physics so never considered being a vet as a career and decided to study biology and zoology at university instead. When graduation came around, everyone started getting jobs and I thought, “Well,
 I can’t go off and be David Attenborough,” even though 
that’s what every zoology
 student secretly hopes for.
 A friend mentioned that they
 were applying for an accelerated, four-year veterinary degree and I thought it sounded like a great idea.

Although the staff at the RVC are fantastic, nothing prepares you for putting your hard- learnt theory into practice. I spent a lot of time on rotation saying, “I’ve never been taught this in my life!” only to realise that I had, and maybe I should have been a bit more awake in lectures! However, despite all the hours spent clearing up poo, I never really faltered. I did come out of a particularly difficult practical exam once thinking, “Maybe it’s time to apply for the John Lewis graduate scheme,” but that passed pretty quickly. The best thing about the job is the day- to-day interaction with people. Essentially you’re providing a service for them and the animals are a wonderful bonus.

Weirdly, I didn’t grow up surrounded by animals as my parents are allergic to dogs and cats but I worked around that by getting chickens. However, now that I’ve moved out I am finally living the pet dream as the proud owner of two guinea pigs, Alfie and Chumpychops.

At the moment I’m keeping a look out for my dream job, which probably involves looking after cows and dogs in Gloucestershire, where my family live. It’s a relief to have graduated, but I do feel nervous about losing my practical skills so I’ll be getting the books out again before I start in a practice for real. A GP gave me a piece of great advice once: “You don’t have to know how to treat everything there and then. You just need to know where to go and look it up.

Matt Wilkinson, 23

“The worst thing is having to break bad news to an owner”

I come from a very medical family. My dad’s a doctor, my mum used to be a nurse and my granddad did a lot of heart research. He’s 95 now, but he was really renowned in his area of cardiology during the war.

Growing up in this environment meant that I always had a massive interest in medicine but, from a very young age, I was also fixated with animals. I put the two together and decided to become a vet.

Certain cases from your rotations really stay with you. At one point I got to help on a nine- week-old Jack Russell terrier’s heart surgery. Only the surgeon and I were scrubbed in and although I was just passing instruments, it was unbelievable to watch such a fiddly procedure. It’s crucial that such a tiny animal doesn’t lose much blood so you have to handle the tissue with incredible care.

The rotation can be pretty stressful, mainly because you find yourself in some quite harrowing situations. For me, the worst thing having to break bad news to an owner when they’re least expecting it. It’s something that the RVC helps you with. Part of our exam involved trained actors coming in for mock consultations. They throw lots of different scenarios at you and you discuss how you reacted and what you could have done differently. The key is to be empathetic but honest. There’s no point sugar-coating things because you don’t want them to go away not understanding the facts.

I’ve seen quite a lot of tears and it’s difficult not to well up yourself. There have been cases where it’s an old couple with a 22-year-old cat and they tell you that it’s the last pet they’ll ever have. Despite that, after it’s all done [the animal has been put down] they say thank you because they’re genuinely grateful even though you’ve had to do something that isn’t very nice. That bit always gets to me.


Young Vets, Tuesday – Friday 7:00pm, BBC2