Bites and headbutts - daily life of a vet

Hannah Stephenson chats to Gareth Steel, whose new book gives a true glimpse into life as a vet.

Vet Gareth Steel has been knocked to the ground many times by cattle
Vet Gareth Steel has been knocked to the ground many times by cattle

He’s been chased by bulls, suffered nasty bites, performed an emergency Caesarean section in a barn and even tended to the wellbeing of a stick insect – but it’s all in a day’s work for vet Gareth Steel.

His confessional new book, Never Work With Animals, recalls some of the most memorable moments from his career – from trying to extract a rabbit wedged in a hole with the help of his ski poles and the local fire service, to literally bringing a dog back to life.

It has parallels to Adam Kay’s This Is Going To Hurt (the inspiration of an adaptation starring Ben Whishaw, which is currently showing on BBC1), but with animal patients, rather than humans. Steel, 41, not only describes the weird and wonderful cases he has experienced, but opens up discussion about the long hours, ethical decisions, prohibitive costs of pet care and guilt trips about cases which have gone wrong during his veterinary career. And the nature of pets has changed in the 20 years he’s been qualified.

“We are treating chickens as pets rather than just agricultural animals, seeing more exotic pets, and I’ve had to do new surgeries – because people couldn’t afford to send their pets to emergency vets – so that is pretty stressful.

“Our appreciation of animals’ consciousness has changed radically since I was at vet school,” he continues. “They have many of the same psychological conditions and feelings that we do.”

Horses seem to be the biggest threat to vets, he notes.

“Being an equine vet is statistically the most dangerous peacetime job in the UK,” he asserts, although treating cattle on farms in his early career often resulted in him being kicked and hurled to the ground.

“I’ve been hurt tons of times. I’ve been nearly knocked unconscious a number of times. I remember giving a cow an injection, when it turned its head really quickly and knocked its skull against my skull, knocked me on my back and although I wasn’t knocked out, I had that almost cartoon-style disorientation.”

He’s worked on farms in rural locations as well as on the high street, sustaining a variety of bites. Cat bites are among the worst, he says, because they house so much bacteria in their mouth and often result in a visit to hospital. And then there are the snakes, lizards and other exotics which have graced his presence. “Why would you have a deadly snake as a pet? It boggles the mind,” he muses.

He even had a family bring in Sticky, their sickly – and as it turned out, dead – stick insect. “I thought somebody was playing a joke on me,” Steel recalls. “But no. This family were there with a vivarium, which had been the habitat for the stick insect. I had to explain I knew very little about stick insects.

“Often, people who have these insects have almost no knowledge of how to look after them. I explained that I could only perform the most basic of examinations. They said he hadn’t been eating his leaves and hadn’t moved for a while. I asked, ‘How long?’ and they said, ‘About a month’. I thought, ‘I think I might know what’s wrong with Sticky’. He was, in fact, dead.”

You can see the humour in it, but there are also heart-breaking stories, one in which he witnesses a whole litter of Rottweiler puppies succumb to canine parvovirus, a disease which usually kills due to the severe gastroenteritis it causes.

The owners are sometimes as difficult to negotiate as their pets, he agrees. One woman came into the surgery wanting to put her dog down to teach her children a lesson, he recalls, while another wanted her cat put to sleep because she was going on holiday for the first time in years. Meanwhile, her friend brought in a hugely overweight dog whose tummy was dragging on the ground, and Steel was told in no uncertain terms not to mention the pooch’s weight.

“I have seen pets who are so overweight, it would be hard not to define their condition as abuse,” he writes. “I think many people substitute treats for the ever-precious commodity of time. Instead of a walk, the pet gets a treat.”

He has attempted to bring solace to countless pet parents who have lost their animals, including an inconsolable cat owner who had accidentally tumble-dried her cat to death after leaving the dryer door open.

Cost is a big factor in treatment, he admits, and advises readers to get as much insurance as they can afford. Some will throw all the money they have to try to cure their severely ill pets, even when he has advised against it. Others just don’t have the money. “I’ve been faced with the reality of having to consider putting an animal to sleep over the price of a night in a cheap hotel and two beers.”

Steel, a Scot who trained in Glasgow and is now working in South Wales, is married to Sian, a veterinary nurse he met at work. Some of his charges end up in his home.

They have a stray cat who is allergic to human skin and is on long term steroids to stop him scratching himself to death, and often have a number of patients at their home overnight. They are also in the process of adopting a street dog from Sri Lanka, who they fell in love with while volunteering there in winter last year. So far, there has been no room for children.

“A lot of people are having children later in life and they are often having dogs and pets prior to that,” he observes. “They refer to themselves as pet parents and they talk about having fur babies. That delineation between pets and the human family has become fuzzy.

“The money, effort and emotional involvement they have with the animals is almost human-like in nature. So, suddenly you are in a situation where you are having to put an animal to sleep, and rather than someone viewing it as a pet who’s old, or poorly, with a very poor quality of life, where it’s not ethical to pursue it any more, in some cases they are just as emotional as losing a family member.”

He sees the parallels between Adam Kay’s junior doctor’s memoir and his own harrowing and hilarious experiences as a vet and, if he was not in front of the camera, would be happy for his work to be adapted for TV. Only, that would involve working with animals – which we all know you should never do.

Never Work With Animals: The Unfiltered Truth About Life As A Vet by Gareth Steel is published by Harper Element, priced £14.99.