223 What happening to Vets

by   David Hancock

 "No lesson seems to be so deeply inculcated by the experience of life as that you never should trust experts...They all require to have their strong wine diluted by a very large admixture of insipid common sense." These wise words of Lord Salisbury, at the end of the last century, came back into my mind recently when fuming over the latest brainless utterance of a vet. I should really make that noun more precise; I was referring to a special breed of vet: the recently-qualified thoroughly arrogant young know-all. There is not much wrong in being young; every vet was once recently-qualified but there is a great deal wrong with an arrogant know-all. AVKA, arrogant veterinary know-all, possesses knowledge without limit. If you want a pitbullterrier identified in court, send for AVKA. If you want a lecture on the wickedness of docking dogs' tails, AVKA's the man. If you want a promotional on dog food, AVKA will promote.

 The AVKA is a national menace. My colleagues in other parts of the country have been: lectured on the illegitimacy of field sports, admonished for owning dogs with docked tails, rebuked for breeding from a Labrador bitch (AVKA considers there are too many Labradors!), pressurised into having an energetic young male Springer castrated (AVKA opined that he was dangerously hyperactive), sneered at for wanting to show a dog and nagged at because they favoured Staffordshire bullterriers (AVKA knows they kill other dogs). My local GP doesn't offer such a comparably comprehensive service, he just treats the sick!

 My local female AVKA however is more ambitious than my GP and so much more forthcoming! My ten week old overshot pup was diagnosed as having a "parrot mouth" (I can't find that expression in my Black's Veterinary Dictionary or in Frank Jackson's Dictionary of Canine Terms) and corrective surgery strongly advised. Male AVKA was extremely disappointed when I wouldn't agree to buy an expensive toothbrush and 'special' paste for my dogs from him. A female AVKA more recently took a brief look at my powerfully-built, supremely fit, strapping young bullmastiff and declared him "fat", going on to give me a pompous lecture  on his future nutrition. It is a waste of time trying to tell an AVKA the conformation of a breed or the difference between hard solid muscle and overweight flesh, you will just get that dreaded patronising smile.

 AVKAs are global and all-embracing; they are keen to write on dogs beyond their knowledge and experience. An AVKA,(USA), has written an atlas of the world's dog breeds, a heavy expensive tome, containing such gems as: Molossian dogs came from the Greek island of Molossus (try finding that in your atlas!); the estate-owning nobility of England even cut off the toes of their groundskeepers' mastiffs; the Sealyham terrier was bred in the mid-1900s by Captain Edwardes (despite his death in 1891!) and how about this one: "The characterisation of the Field Spaniel, for example, was accomplished without cross-breeding." May God save us from literary AVKAs!

 A UK AVKA was writing in one of the dog papers in June that "there is no proof that the tail is important for canine communication", going on to argue also that the tail of a dog plays no part in its ability to corner at speed. This masterly piece ended with a plea for reasoned argument! There is not much reasoned argument in this article  for the brain being at all important in veterinary communication. Coursing greyhounds may not be able to corner at speed in his particular surgery. But how many hours has he spent with sheepdogs on the hills, pointers on the grouse moors, tracking dogs in hot pursuit, anti-ambush dogs in close country, body-seeking dogs in bomb-site rubble, scenthounds on a difficult trail, bark-pointers in a Scandinavian wood and wet retrievers on a freezing estuary?

 Perhaps this veterinary sage would be less dogmatic if he had seen a duck toller at work in Nova Scotia, using its flag to entice wildfowl, an ancient rural canine skill. But a lack of knowledge is rarely a deterrent to a self-appointed authority This particular scientific expert might be of more value to the dog-owning community if he turned his agile mind and eager pen to explain why since the development of modern veterinary medicine our dogs have become less healthy.

 Now, I have enormous regard for the veterinary profession as veterinary surgeons. The vet who heads the practice looking after my dogs is as good a vet as I have known. What I object to is the moral vanity, sheer arrogance and the patronising stance of far too many of today's vets. When I worked as a teenaged kennelboy for a vet in the late 1940s, I was most impressed by his humility. He acknowledged that breeders had more experience than he did in some areas. He respected their knowledge, actually listened to their views. He wasn't an agent for manufacturers of dog-owners' needs. I believe it to be most undesirable for vets to promote products in their waiting rooms. Greed can afflict us all and the commercial return on sales of pharmaceuticals, food and accessories can sway judgement. My GP doesn't run a grocer's shop, why should any vet need to? Why can't vets just treat the sick?

 The Great British Rabies Scare has been perpetuated by, amongst others, county vets. County councils have vast stockpiles of cages ready for doggie domesday, largely on veterinary advice. I have lived abroad, with dogs of my own, in areas with a relatively high risk of rabies. Life goes on, there is no air of panic, no ever-present fear of rabid dogs running amok. Our comparatively modern (post 1928) irrational fear of rabies has made us the laughing stock of Europe, where continental borders are crossed by dogs every day without panic in the streets.

 The World Dog Show in Brussels in June 1995 drew dogs from Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Peru, Puerto Rica, Canada, the United States, South Africa, Hungary, Russia, even Croatia. There were over 2,000 dogs from each of Belgium, Germany, The Netherlands and France. Our absence, or rather the reason for it, makes us and the veterinary profession here look absurd. One hundred years ago, we could take our dogs to the Paris Dog Show and bring them home again without quarantine. My, how we have progressed in that time!

 Our discredited and shameful Dangerous Dogs Act was drawn up with veterinary advice. Every month or so, some misguided vet steps forward with remarkable certainty to act as an "expert witness" in a court of law to identify a wretched dog as belonging to a breed which doesn't actually exist. It is disgraceful enough for a representative of the RSPCA (an organisation set up to protect animals not humans) to do so. But for a member of a distinguished branch of the medical profession to do so is even more lamentable. Does their arrogance know no bounds? I don't recall my GP giving evidence in court to identify the origin of illegal immigrants.

 These "executioner AVKAs", for that is what they are, produce quite incredible statements in their evidence. Three particular veterinary surgeons have been more than willing to act as expert witnesses in the identification of pitbullterriers. I'd be interested to learn of the empirical evidence used by these three scientists in such work and what mandate they possess for such a role as veterinary surgeons. In February 1993, the RSPCA's chief veterinary officer is reported as stating: "The Society is still of the opinion that the Pit Bull Terrier should become extinct as a type or breed." Under his terms of reference as a preventer of cruelty to animals, he should be restricting his concern and his activities to the treatment of animals NOT humans. Do "veterinary officers" not have higher priority tasks as qualified animal doctors than spending hours and hours on such non-veterinary work?

 I would fault the veterinary profession too for not doing enough to prevent dogs of the future from being afflicted with inheritable defects. Vets could so easily, within their own profession, take steps to monitor the ever-widening range of such defects in dogs. It is not enough to examine and then merely treat (or lecture others at seminars on) such patients. Registers of carriers of defective genes should be meticulously maintained and the Kennel Club mercilessly pilloried until they accept some moral responsibility. It may well be more the responsibility of breed clubs but most of the latter do not care about the well-being of dogs, they seem to care more for the pursuit of power and position. Outbreaks of human ill-health are thoroughly examined; incidences of inherited diseases even in the same breed of dog are largely unrecorded and remedial action not set in train. The veterinary profession is failing us in this respect, despite the impressive work of some individuals. It is absurd that vets should devote huge amounts of time and energy obtaining the destruction of healthy guiltless dogs yet use all their talents to  keep carriers of incapacitating diseases alive.

 Vets, however,  whatever some misguided individuals in this honourable profession say or do, are indispensible. We need them at least as much as they need us. We should be mature enough, worldly enough and sufficiently robust to shrug off arrogant, tactless, unprofessional  remarks from them such as "Your dog is parrot-mouthed!" or "He's too fat!" when ignorance and inexperience blend. Vets have to tolerate dog-owners who call them out quite needlessly, ask them to destroy perfectly healthy animals and fail to pay their bills on time. Every year produces new medical knowledge for them to master.

 According to The Sunday Times (of the 18th of June), today's vets are "overstretched, financially pressured and emotionally brittle." There is a 'Vet Helpline' advertised each month in Veterinary Record, offering a sympathetic ear to vets in crisis. We, the dog-owning public, should be part of that helpline: gently but firmly teasing the few arrogant know-alls, indicating heartfelt gratitude to the many excellent vets and offering them all our wholehearted support. We might even pass on some of Lord Salisbury's "insipid common sense"!