I guess I always knew I was interested in pigs. I grew up in East Yorkshire where there are a lot of pigs, and some of my relatives were pig farmers, so the whole concept of pig farms wasn’t alien to me. In terms of my path into veterinary medicine, a friend of my parents ran a practice in the local town; he took me under his wing and was really good to me.
My interest developed from there. I spent time getting work experience while at school, and then got a place at Liverpool Vet School. As a student, I saw further practice with the local vets, and because that meant seeing lots of pigs, it became “my normal”. A sense of familiarity breeds confidence, and I got used to going out onto pig farms.
I was also particularly lucky that when I went through Liverpool Vet School, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the standard of pig teaching was high, and I definitely benefitted from that. The pig department was headed by Dr John Walton, and he had a PhD student working under him who also gave the class many lectures – it was a double-whammy benefit.
During my time at university and on extra-mural studies (EMS) placements, I was fortunate to spend time with some really inspirational people. You learn an awful lot on EMS placements; you back-up the knowledge you’re acquiring at vet school, but also learn other softer skills, such as how to deal with people and how to communicate effectively. If any students out there are at all interested in finding out about some of the more specialised areas of our profession, I would urge them to go for it and try to get a placement to find out more.
When you graduate as a vet you are multi-species capable and expected to achieve basic competence across the range of species you might commonly encounter. I knew I was interested in a career in farm animal vetting, and in August 1993 I was lucky to get a graduate job where most of my work was on-farm, especially pig farms.
In the 1990s much of the work pig vets were doing was reasonably specialist, and many visits were routine and pre-booked. It is safe to say even then most pig farms were already specialist units, but while we carried out advisory work, there was also a lot more reactive work, responding to disease situations.
That early exposure to pigs was enough to pique my interest; I realised there was something really interesting about working with populations of animals and understanding disease processes, and why and how they work. There was an opportunity to go beyond the “this is the disease, this is the diagnosis, and this is the treatment” approach. I wanted to understand more about epidemiology and how the next case could be prevented. Clearly, a population is made up of a number of individuals, and how stockmanship and individual pig care impacts on health and welfare is central to this.
In some ways, the job I started after graduating is ostensibly the same job I am doing today, although we have all become even more specialised. At the same time, pig farms have developed into quite complex enterprises, often with companies replacing traditional family farms. The result is that expectations have gone up in terms of the veterinary input they want and expect. That can make it tough being a new graduate going out onto farm because the levels of expectation and experience are quite high – support in those first few years is vital.
As with some other sectors, the pig vet workforce is becoming more senior; we need to maintain expertise in the sector and those people will need to be replaced with keen younger members of our profession. The specialised job marketplace means that there are fewer opportunities for students and new vets to be exposed to pigs, but those opportunities are there and the pig vet community is a very friendly one.
So, there is something of a problem, but the PVS is working to get the message out to veterinary students to stimulate them and attract newcomers to this area of the profession. I still firmly believe there are some really good career paths to be had in pig vetting.
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