Maggie Roberts is director of veterinary services at Cats Protection (CP). She recently took up the role of secretary of the newly formed Association of Charity Vets
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Why form an Association of Charity Vets?
Several of us from UK animal welfare charities felt that the charity sector has been neglected in the UK, despite so many vets and vet nurses being involved with it in many different capacities. Many work for animal welfare charities, providing subsidised or free veterinary care to owners who are unable to pay private veterinary fees, or providing care to unowned animals in animal shelters. An even larger number of vets and veterinary nurses working in private practice also provide services to these charities on an occasional basis. In addition, there is an increasing academic interest in the unique challenges faced by those working in the sector, and academics, often working with practitioners, are trying to increase the evidence base to improve the care that is provided to animals in these circumstances.
The problems that those working in the charity sector face are often special. First, finances are often restricted and decisions on how to ration care or how to decide the extent of procedures to be carried out on individual animals must be made. Secondly, some diseases that are rarely seen in private practice may be more commonly encountered in animal shelters. Thirdly, vets providing charitable care also have a responsibility for the entire population of animals in the shelter as well as in the wider community, and this may impact on the decisions that they take over the care of individual patients. It was felt that an association to support those working in this field would be beneficial and could improve the welfare of many thousands of animals.
What will it do?
There has been an Association of Shelter Veterinarians in the USA for many years, which provides resources, CPD and research on shelter medicine, so we aim to fulfil a similar function from a UK perspective. We held our first meeting on February 2 at Nottingham Vet School and the overwhelming opinion was that the most important part of the association should be providing and sharing information. I am one of the founding members and have taken on the role of secretary temporarily until the association is more established and we are in a position to elect our officers.
What do you like about your job with CP?
It may sound like a cliché, but I feel I have the ability to improve the welfare of a far greater number of animals than I did in private practice, with the chance to educate the public on feline welfare. My job is varied – one day I'll be at a trustees’ meeting discussing strategy, another I might be doing a TV interview. Things can be a little surreal at times; I was on a TV show recently talking about cats and predation and was asked to carry a cat in a ‘onesie’ onto the set! Of course I refused. I work with fantastic colleagues both in CP and within the charity sector.
What do you not like?
There's too much to do and not enough time; I'm sure every vet feels the same way.
Why is your job important?
In the UK, no money is put into feline welfare work by government, so charities like CP are vitally important. We've helped over one million cats in the past five years and supported the neutering of over 190,000 in 2011. When dealing with such massive numbers of animals, veterinary input is vital to ensure good welfare standards and disease control, and the most effective use of resources.
What advice would you give to someone considering a similar career?
Work in private practice first to gain experience of animals and people; you will undoubtedly do some work for local charities or branches of larger ones. Visit as many shelters as you can and undertake some voluntary work. Often charities abroad want vets to help with trap, neuter and return programmes for feral cats. CP and Dogs Trust offer EMS placements for vet students, which provide a taste of shelter medicine.
What's the best piece of advice you were ever given?
Veterinary medicine is an art as well as a science. Vets need to use their clinical skills and judgement and not be totally reliant on diagnostic testing. It's especially important in the pragmatic approach needed for charity work. Alongside this is ‘If you hear hoof beats think horses not zebras’ – common things are common.
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