TV vet Steve Leonard on ending an animal’s life and the problem with breeding dogs for their appearance

The star of Trust Me I'm a Vet says that some dogs really should not be bred any more because so many of them suffer horrendous health issues

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Having a dad who’s a hands-on kind of country vet meant there was never any real danger that Steve Leonard wouldn’t eventually follow in his father’s footsteps. Neither were his three brothers likely to choose any other career. It follows, then, that Leonard would almost certainly marry a vet. He did. It must make for fairly competitive discussions around the table at Sunday lunch?

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“We’re a very close family,” he laughs. “People always said we lived in each other’s pockets and in a way we still do. We have always been as thick as thieves and so it’s unusual for us when we meet siblings who don’t have that same close friendship.”

Today, father Des, his four sons Steve, Den, Tom and Keith and Steve’s wife Cathy are all working vets, though it wasn’t always the case for the likeable 44-year-old.

Over two decades he has carved out a successful television career – fronting pretty much one documentary series a year since he first caught the attention of TV talent-spotters during the 1996 vets-in-training docu-soap Vet School.

Family of vets: Brother Den, Steve’s wife Cath with their two-year-old, Severn, Steve, brother Tom and dad Des

Leonard was then in his final year at Bristol University School of Veterinary Sciences, but after graduating he quickly became one of TV’s most in-demand wildlife presenters. Today life has come full circle. Yes, he’s still making programmes – Trust Me, I’m a Vet is currently running on BBC2 – but his heart lies with the small animals practice he works at with his brother Tom in Whitchurch, on the Shropshire/Cheshire border.

“It’s just a little shopfront, but incredible stuff goes on in the background,” he says. “I’m very much on the medicine side of things. I’m trying to find solutions and fix problems without picking up a scalpel.”

One of the big non-surgical advances he’s involved with is treating pets with cancer.

“It’s not for every patient, but there are some tumours that are very amenable to chemotherapy. There is nothing more extraordinary than when you see a dog that has got massive tumours all over its body and you give it a course of chemo and they’re all gone. You haven’t eliminated the cancer, but you might have bought that animal another year or two. This is why we are important in people’s lives.”

The flip side, of course, is that often he has to intentionally shorten life. And pragmatist Leonard believes there are lessons that the rest of us could heed from that side of his work.

“Ending a life is one of the hardest things. There are some animals that look at you in a certain way and you can’t help but get upset and you burst into tears. It happens to all vets, and actually as you get older it gets worse. But you know that, generally speaking, you’re taking away pain and doing the right thing by the animal. I think animals have a sense that they’re hurting and not coping and they just slide away… it can be such a lovely, moving event.”

It’s a controlled end to life that he believes should be available to us in our final days. He says many pet owners contrast the pain-free exit available to their animal with the sometimes prolonged uncertainty that accompanies the last days and weeks of someone with a termi
nal illness.

“They have watched a parent or loved one go through something that they know has no good outcome and they’ve just had to sit and wait. We know they’re dying and we dope 
them up with heavy
 doses of morphine,
 say to their relatives, ‘It might be today, it might be in a week’s time’, and everyone is in limbo. Nobody has an opportunity to say, ‘This is it.’

“If you speak to vets I’m sure lots will say they are pro-euthanasia. It’s a no-brainer when it comes to our field. I know we always run the risk of abuse, but there are certain scenarios where it makes perfect sense.”

Leonard is a rare breed among presenters. Perhaps it’s because he isn’t wholly dependent on TV for his livelihood that he feels able to speak freely about matters that concern him.

Take so-called “designer dogs”. What starts as an innocuous line of questioning about tips for would-be pet owners ends in a forceful condemnation of breeding dogs for their appearance.

“It’s reached the point where some breeds really should not be bred any more because so many of them suffer horrendous health problems,” he says. “We’re talking about the flat-nosed breeds like the French bulldog, which has now overtaken the labrador and become the most popular bred dog in the UK. We’re talking about the English bulldog, many of the pugs and the shih tzus.”

Leonard says the squash-faced look of the dogs that makes them so desirable means they suffer with serious breathing problems.

“Because it looks cute, no one is focused on the fact that it can’t breathe properly. That dog needs surgery the moment it’s born. We are now starting to recommend that we operate to open up their nostrils at as young as 16 weeks of age. And that’s not right. They’re lovely dogs, but they should never have been bred that way.”

Leonard believes the Kennel Club has neither “the political will nor the teeth” to tackle the problem. “We have got very narrow gene pools in some of these breeds, to the point where we cannot breed healthy versions of them. We have to widen the gene pool. Ask any insurance company what is the cheapest dog to insure and it’s a cross-breed – it’s much less likely to have the problems associated with pure-bred dogs.”

Apart from one brother who lives in Huddersfield, the rest of the family all live close to each other. Leonard wouldn’t have it any other way. “Since the age of five and travelling around farms with my dad inspecting cattle, I wanted to be a vet. Sometimes it’s in the middle of the night and sometimes it goes wrong and then it’s soul-destroying, but at the same time it’s so visceral, so emotional and so in the now, that there’s nothing to compete with it.”

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Trust Me, I’m a Vet is on Wednesday at 8pm on BBC2