Work Experience 18: Equine and Small Animal Vet
When I was a little girl there were a few things I thought I’d like to be when I grew up, and being a vet was definitely one of them. I’ve always loved animals, and remember very few times throughout my life that I didn’t at least own a dog. But there have been cats, birds, fish, chickens and guinea pigs at varying points as well. With pet ownership came many trips to the vet over the years. Some visits were routine, some because the animal seemed unwell, and some because there was a situation that required emergency treatment. I was really excited about my work experience job at WestVETS, because for a start it wouldn’t be my dog they’d be treating for once (or so I thought) but also because I was really intrigued to find out what else goes on behind the treatment room doors.
WestVETS have practices at Anstead and Marburg. Both have small animal hospitals offering medical, surgical and emergency services, and diagnostic and examination facilities for horses. The Equine Hospital is located at WestVETS Anstead while the Equine Reproduction Centre is located at Marburg.
What did I do?
I spent the most number of days at WestVETS than I have at any other work experience job so far as there was so much to see!
My first morning was off to a great start when I arrived to see a new litter of Cavalier King Charles Spaniels had been born just a few hours earlier via caesarean. Dr Amanda had been called by their owner at 5am (her day starting a couple of hours earlier than expected), as the mother was unable to give birth to puppy number two naturally. I wish I’d been there to see the surgery. The puppies were so tiny and squeaky, and their tired mum was recovering well.
I headed to the stables with the equine vets, where they needed to administer medications to some of the horses they were treating following surgeries or illness. There I met a young foal and its mother. The foal was well known to WestVETS at just 12 weeks of age as it needed the support of vets after its birth, had become ill with a tick after returning home, and had then broken its leg. Poor thing (and poor owners…quite possibly literally after all of that)!
Then it was time to treat my first patient! Well not really…but I did help Dr Harry (specialist horse surgeon) x-ray a horse’s knee, which required me to wear a heavy lead apron as a radiation shield. It was really interesting to see the x-ray images on the computer monitor, while Harry explained what I was looking at.
The next x-rays Harry did were on the leg of another horse that required surgery. A dead piece of bone which was acting as a foreign body needed to be removed from the horse’s tibia. This sort of problem typically occurs as a result of trauma, where the blood supply to the outer cortex of the bone is damaged. The horse’s body then wants to get rid of this dead bit of bone and won’t successfully deal with it on its own, meaning surgery is necessary.
Once Harry had checked the bone from a variety of angles using x-rays, it was time for him to prepare his equipment for surgery, while the anaesthetist, Dr Amanda, prepared the necessary medications.
The surgery was prepared with a sterilised plastic sheet on the surgery table, before the horse was sedated in a purpose built padded room. This room is designed to safely sedate a horse, and to provide a safe environment for it to wake up in after surgery. After the sedative was administered by Dr Amanda, 4 people stood on one side of the horse, and firmly held him against one of the walls. Once the sedative kicked in, the horse very safely folded itself down and lay on the floor.
Amanda inserted a tube into its mouth that would allow the horse to breathe during surgery.
Vet nurse Kristy attached the horse’s feet to a hoist, which can lift up to 1000kg. The hoist lifted the horse by its legs and Amanda lifted and guided its head while it was moved to the surgery table in the adjacent room.
As anaesthetist, Amanda’s job during surgery was to keep the horse asleep, monitor the anaesthetic depth, heart rate, blood pressure, oxygenation of the blood, and inspired and expired carbon dioxide, and support its cardiovascular system with IV fluids and medications. It was also her responsibility to make sure the horse woke up nicely afterwards. Although pain relief was administered before the surgery, additional pain relief could be given during the surgery by Amanda if necessary. For small animal surgery a vet nurse is the anaesthetist, but the risk of fatality during surgery for horses is far greater, so a vet is required.
There was quite a lot of set-up needed before the surgery could get underway. Clean, long plastic gloves were placed over each of the horse’s feet for hygiene, the rear leg not to be operated on was attached to a hoist and lifted to give access to the site of the surgery, and antiseptic was used to clean the site (it was cleaned and re-cleaned multiple times to ensure it was germ free and to prevent infection). Dr Harry scrubbed his hands for a minimum of five minutes before putting on his gloves and sterile gown, unpackaged and arranged the sterile tools he’d be using, and had sterile blue fabric placed over the horse with a cut out patch at the surgical site. Then they were ready! Except for one thing…Harry’s all-important music. Taylor Swift is one of his favourites, but in this instance he chose a playlist that featured Selena Gomez and Miley Cyrus. Go Harry!
Without going into too much detail about the surgery, Harry found the bone that needed to be removed and used a hammer and chisel (probably not the technical names of those tools but that’s what they looked like to me!) amongst other tools to help remove the piece of bone. It was so interesting to see Harry and his team at work. He was very focussed and worked quickly and methodically. Kristy was available to pass Harry any of the tools he needed, while Amanda continued to monitor the horse.
After removing the piece of bone, a couple of x-rays were taken to ensure that no fragments of bone remained before it was time to close the wound.
Harry explained that there are three layers of suturing needed and he quickly and neatly set about stitching it up. The wound was then wrapped in an absorbent dressing and bandages, before the horse was reattached to the hoist and carefully moved back into the padded room.
For their own safety the vets and nurses left the room, closing the door behind them, and observed the horse on a monitor while it woke up and returned to its feet. Once it was up and moving around comfortably, the horse was moved to one of the stables to recover. Kristy’s final job was to clean the surgery afterwards, which to me would be the yuckiest part of the whole process. Luckily for me I wasn’t handed the mop!
There are so many things happening on any one day at the vet. I can’t possibly describe everything I saw in detail as this would easily turn into an essay, so have listed them below:
- Ultrasound of foal’s chest to check for infection
- Horse dental examination
- Horse knee arthroscopy
- Call out to a property where a horse had eaten a large amount of feed and was at risk of colic (he needed charcoal and antibiotics, monitoring by the owner and a follow up visit the next day)
- Horse castration surgery
- Male and female dog desexing
- Removal of multiple lumps on the skin of an older dog
- Assessment and x-rays of a horse that was brought in with an awful foot injury after spending the night stuck on a barbed wire fence (that subsequently required surgery)
- Assessment of a horse that had been brought in with a nasty eye trauma
- Ultrasounds and chest x-rays of a dog that had been brought in due to being extremely lethargic and with swollen paws (lymphedema)
- Call out to check up on a foal that had been born the day before, to make sure it was healthy and suckling well
- Dog’s coat clipped while it was under sedation
- Cruciate surgery on a dog, and the last unexpected procedure I observed:
- Removal of a suspected cancerous tumour on MY dog Lexie’s leg (I thought I’d be fine watching this surgery after everything else I’d seen, but it’s very different when it’s your own dog). Thankfully it turned out not to be cancerous. She also had her teeth cleaned while under anaesthetic.
As well as an animal hospital, WestVETS Marburg has an Equine Reproduction Centre, and I was amazed (and I have to admit a little bit grossed out at first) at what I saw there. From semen collection (so that’s how it’s done??), to assessing semen that had arrived in the mail under a microscope to check its viability, to artificially inseminating a mare, to ultrasounds of mares to check if they were ovulating, to ultrasounds showing pregnancy and understanding the images on the ultrasound machine. It’s a pretty incredible process! And I have to say, I think I’ve seen enough horse’s bottoms and bowel contents to last a little while at least. But it was all so interesting, and I’m so glad I had the opportunity to see all of that.
What did I learn?
There was so much to learn at WestVETS! Seeing surgeries performed on animals from the beginning when they are sedated, to the end when they are in recovery was really fascinating. Watching some of the diagnostic work that was being done through x-rays and ultrasounds was interesting too. There are so many procedures I didn’t see, such as caesareans, intestinal surgeries (I missed one where a horse had a large mass removed from its intestines – possibly a lead rope it had eaten), and even the sad cases when much loved pets need to be put to sleep due to illness or old age. I think one of my favourite parts of working at WestVETS was the variety in the job, and that on any one day you never quite know what might happen.
I learnt that standing for hours every day takes some getting used to! If you have read my Dance Therapy blog I discussed the need for me to take up pilates – well that was confirmed on day 3 at WestVETS when my back and knees started to ache from standing so much. Seriously though, the vets and nurses don’t sit all day! Except perhaps when they’re in the car on a call-out or grabbing a quick bite of lunch. The vets generally work long hours due to the nature of the job, and are rostered on for emergencies after hours. Having said that, every vet I worked with at WestVets was energetic, dedicated and happy to get on with the job.
As there were often many things going on at once including equine and small animal surgeries, consultations, walk-ins (occasionally a few horse floats would turn up at once), monitoring of animals, phone conversations with owners and call-outs, it was great to see how everyone worked as a team to prioritise and decide who would be doing what. There was not much discussion required, just an understanding that everyone would do what needed to be done.
What an experience! I really loved it.
To gain some further insight into life as a vet or vet nurse, click here to read my interviews with Dr Harry and Kristy.