What does it take to embark on a career in veterinary science? Harvey McGavin talks to TV vet David Grant and (below) examines the nature of the beast
Toby the Yorkshire terrier has a tumour on his bum. Removing it is a relatively simple task - all in a day's work for David Grant, veterinarian star of BBC's Animal Hospital series. "Why do they let them get this big?" he wonders, slicing expertly into the grape-sized lump. "If they had brought him in six months ago this would have a been simple." The tumour is malignant, and to stop it coming back, Toby has to be castrated. After a phone call to his owners to gain their consent, Toby goes under the knife again.
It's no job for the squeamish. And it helps to have a steady hand. More than that, veterinary science demands a level of skills and qualifications as high as any of the professions.
"It's very competitive," Mr Grant admits. "The competition is even hotter than for doctors. Vet school is hard work - from nine to five every day - and you have to be very well organised."
During 30 years in the profession he has seen many changes. Anaesthetics and X-rays have improved and blood testing has become a widespread and reliable indicator of ailments. Public attitudes have changed too. Medical advances mean that, just like doctors, vets are now expected to cure more diseases more quickly. And although vets work with animals, they need to relate equally well to their owners. "The requirement for a good bedside manner is the same, " Mr Grant says. "If you have difficulty getting on with people you'll find being a vet unrewarding."
He has honed his bedside manner in several settings. His first job coincided with the late 1960s epidemic of foot and mouth disease. He has also worked in a farm practice in Canterbury, tended to the pets of the well-known and well-heeled at a clinic on the King's Road in London's Chelsea, spent a year in Colombia and lectured to students at Edinburgh University. He is now head vet at the RSPCA's Harmsworth Hospital in Finsbury Park, north London.
The programme has a definite educational value in helping the RSPCA get across its message of responsible pet ownership. But the animal welfare mantra "A dog is for life and not just for Christmas" still doesn't get through to everyone. The festive season has a nasty hangover for the clinic, which is inundated with abandoned cats and dogs in January. Mr Grant says: "Some people never get the message. There are too many animals and too few owners getting them neutered. "
The RSPCA clinic caters for the pets of people on income support or other benefits, and its location, in a busy, built-up part of north London, means it treats more than its fair share of animals hurt in road accidents or falls from balconies of high-rise flats. The variety of the job, even when that means comical, if painful, encounters with ferrets (he mentioned castration and it bit him) is one of its enduring appeals.
His advice to schoolchildren thinking of veterinary science as a career is straightforward: "Visit a vet and see what they get up to. Talk to as many people as possible and be aware that it is very competitive so you need to be pretty good academically. You have to be dedicated, committed and determined. And it helps if you don't have tunnel vision. The people who do best are those who have lots of other interests."
Mr Grant had decided to be a vet by the time he was 12. "My neighbour had a dog, but she was too old to exercise it," he explains. "So I would take it for walks. Her daughter was a vet and she used to talk to me about the job. "
Back in the surgery, Moses the cat needs an X-ray. His broken funny bone has healed well but the metal pin in his leg needs trimming. Five minutes later another family pet is off the operating table and on its way back to its grateful owners. Thirty years after David Grant qualified as a vet, the motivation is the same - "making sick animals better. It sounds corny but that's why we all become vets."