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The A-Z of everything veterinary (and animals): D is for Danger

07 Jul 2024 6 minute read
A to Z with Siôn Rowlands

It seems a somewhat obvious ‘D’ really; whether you choose to work with animals, make a living from them or just keep them in your home or on your fields, there are obvious and hidden dangers in those occupations that see humans and animals occupying the same space.

Starting with vets and vet nurses, it’s our choice to put ourselves in positions where there is inherent danger, clearly not with the ambition of injury or worse, but with a sense of protecting animal welfare.

Many of the animals we treat are suffering with an injury or disease, both of which can heighten their sense of ‘flight or fight’. They have no idea we are here to help, and many will be intimidated as they see the safety barriers they place between themselves and humans closing in, as we step in to administer much needed treatment.

Whether a prey or predator, all animals will have an innate sense of self-preservation and when they feel threatened, however well-intended, their behaviour can change.

Photo: Siôn Rowlands

Those working with animals are well versed in the subtle signs associated with changed behaviour and the need to be on their guard when tending to animals (injured or not), but contingency plans and safety systems do fail and have done, veterinary staff do suffer life-threatening injuries and there have been too many fatalities. I’ve been unlucky at times but fortunate overall. I’ve suffered countless well-placed kicks from young cattle, headbutts from rams and dog bites, I’ve even been partly constricted by a recovering python. However, my worst injury came at the hands of a seemingly innocuous cat bite.

Tiring

It had been a long tiring Friday early in my career and my guard was down as I attempted to treat a less than accommodating cat. The owner did little to warn me of the cat’s temperament and instead of showing a little caution and reading the signs, and in the interest of time,

I duly set about my exam. Seconds later I received a firm rebuttal to my offer of treatment, with two resulting puncture wounds mid-way along my pinky.

After a gentle rinse under the tap and some paracetamol I forgot about my wound and embarked on a weekend on call. Roll on 48hrs later and whilst undertaking a particularly difficult calving I found myself feeling very unwell.

Tired, a fever and red streaks running up my arm from my injured finger, I made my way to the local hospital to spend time on an antibiotic drip. The cat bite, despite being small, had introduced bacteria and they were replicating quickly in my bloodstream.

Cat mouths are laden with bacteria and their bites present very real risks to human health, surprisingly, however, human mouths are even worse for bacterial counts!

Photo: Siôn Rowlands

There is also a dark side to the veterinary profession, one, until recent years, that has not been widely spoken out. There are some unwelcome statistics surrounding the mental health and wellbeing of veterinary surgeons, and evidence indicates that in the UK, vets are three to four times more likely than the general population to die by suicide (Platt et al., 2010).

The problem is not a UK one, with high levels of suicide also reported in Australia, USA and Norway.

The prevalence of anxiety (26.3%) and depression (5.8%) previously reported in the UK veterinary profession is significantly higher than that in the general population. It therefore seems reasonable to suggest that poor mental health among veterinarians may contribute to the high suicide rate within the profession (Smith, Barcelos, Mills, 2023).

Farming

And then we have livestock farming and the thousands of dedicated, self-employed and tirelessly working farmers who face countless dangers during most working hours of their days. Many of the dangers will relate to the environment they work in and the machinery they use, but there are serious injuries and sadly fatalities caused by livestock. A Health and Safety Executive study (HSE 2022/20233) detailed that injury by an animal was the most common cause of fatal injury in agriculture.

There are then those serious injuries and fatalities from deliberate or chance encounters with animals that have hazard, ‘high risk of injury or death’, in their description. Adventure seeking travelers looking for those perfect photo opportunities with big game in Africa, innocent people occupying the same space as lethal predators in the sea and on land, with shark and snake bites, the risk of serious injury or death from countless species of animal is ubiquitous around the globe.

Photo: Siôn Rowlands

And yet we cannot hold these animals accountable, we are afforded the opportunity to co-exist and survive. Of course, a growing population, the movement of people and building of infrastructure with a need for millions of acres of new agricultural lands to grow crops and farm animals will force us into hitherto naive areas of the earth.

Previously balanced ecological systems will be undermined and there will be new dangers to face, some to humans with zoonotic diseases, but mostly to those species of animals that will be forced to sacrifice their habitat placing their numbers in danger.

Mozambique spitting cobra, found in Siôn’s camp
Photo: Siôn Rowlands

For more details on the challenges in the vet profession why not visit the wonderful Vetlife charity website. And when you next visit your vet surgery why not ask the staff how they are doing?

They may show you their most recently acquired bruise or bite wound or they may simply just thank you for asking and it will make their day I can assure you.

Letting the Cat Out of the Bag: The Secret Life of a Vet by Siôn Rowlands is published by Two Roads and is available from all good bookshops.


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