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A passion for feline medicine
  1. Andy Sparkes

Abstract

Andy Sparkes set out to be a small animal practitioner, but has found his career taking him on an unexpected journey

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I WAS born in Cowplain – a small village close to Portsmouth – the son of a Baptist minister and one of five children. We moved to the London suburbs when I was young, so I spent most of my childhood and school years first in New Malden, then Sydenham and later Beckenham, moving as my father had different pastorates.

From as far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a vet. As a child I always had a strong interest in biology and zoology, but I suppose from the time I knew what a vet was, that is what I set my heart on as a career. I remember vividly those ‘career adviser’ meetings at secondary school, where I was told vet school was just too hard to get into (they had a lot of confidence in me!) and that I should really be thinking of an alternative career option. However, with the encouragement of my parents I refused to relinquish my dream and with God's grace I managed to get sufficient grades at A level to secure a place at the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) in 1978.

I can remember when I was struggling with the pressure of study in my final year at school, someone tried to encourage me by telling me A levels were the hardest examinations I would ever have to take. Safe in that knowledge I entered vet school, only to get a very rude awakening. While I thoroughly enjoyed my time as a student at the RVC, and while there was indeed plenty of fun and laughter, there was also an enormous amount of hard work. After five long years I finally graduated, as much with a sense of relief as with celebration, and wanted nothing other than to pursue a career as a small animal veterinary practitioner.

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I started my veterinary career in 1983 in a mixed practice in the Yorkshire coastal town of Whitby, and in the same year got married to my wife Debbie. Although primarily doing small animal work, I inevitably had to get involved in some large animal work too, but the only aspect of this work I think I can truly say I enjoyed was lambing . . . I have no farming background at all, but there are advantages sometimes in having small hands and wrists. We subsequently moved to Whitstable in Kent, and then to Eastleigh in Hampshire where I continued in small animal work.

Despite only ever wanting to be a small animal general practitioner, I found after around three years in practice that I was becoming frustrated by my own lack of knowledge. I hugely enjoyed CPD events such as regional meetings and BSAVA congress, but while many talks and speakers were inspirational, they also served to emphasise the many gaps in my knowledge. When I graduated, I found it hard to understand why some of my friends and colleagues wanted to stay on at university and do internships, but gradually – having never wanted to see the inside of a university again – I began to contemplate what I had previously found unthinkable: returning to university do an internship or residency and undertake specialist training.

Back to university

In 1986 I signed up as a member of the Feline Advisory Bureau (now International Cat Care), and spent a year concentrating my efforts in improving my feline medicine knowledge and skills. In 1987, I was then incredibly fortunate to be appointed as the Feline Advisory Bureau Scholar at Bristol university, and so this marked both the start of my career in feline medicine and of my long-standing involvement with International Cat Care (iCatCare).

Working alongside the likes of Tim Gruffydd-Jones, Paul Wotton and Alan Wright in the medicine department at Bristol I developed a real passion for feline medicine. Looking back, I think I was very fortunate to simply be in the right place at the right time. Bristol was the only one of the UK universities that had a dedicated feline residency at the time, and it was also a period when knowledge of feline medicine was expanding rapidly. I loved being part of the clinical team at the university, and also found I enjoyed teaching and clinical research and so, after three years, I stayed on to undertake PhD training in the immunology and epidemiology of feline dermatophytosis.

The research training largely took me away from clinical work for three years but was hugely valuable. It is, of course, the training in techniques and critical thinking, as much as the subject area itself, that is so valuable with PhD studies and I was fortunate enough to be integrated with quite a large immunology research group at Bristol university, and also to be working alongside other colleagues doing feline-orientated PhDs.

After completing my PhD, I stayed on at Bristol, being appointed as lecturer in feline medicine – a position again supported by iCatCare. During the next seven years I worked alongside Tim Gruffydd-Jones and other colleagues in the feline centre at Langford, and combined clinical work with teaching and clinical research and also with active support of iCatCare in a variety of ways. It was a hugely enjoyable and productive time and during those years we also established the European Society of Feline Medicine (which was to become the International Society of Feline Medicine) and the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, both under the auspices of iCatCare (or Feline Advisory Bureau as it still was at that time).

Moving to the Animal Health Trust

By 2000 I had progressed to being senior lecturer at Bristol, but at that stage I was offered, and accepted, an opportunity at the Animal Health Trust (AHT) in Newmarket to help establish a feline referral service in its small animal clinic and to help establish a clinical research programme. We moved home from Weston-super-Mare in Somerset across the country to Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk where, happily, our two children settled into new schools well, and my wife found work at a local school. The AHT is a unique organisation in the UK, operating in many respects like a veterinary teaching school but without any formal undergraduate teaching. There is a very active postgraduate teaching programme, clinical referral service and clinical research programme. During more than 10 years at the AHT there were many changes and advances, but I had the privilege of working alongside some outstanding colleagues in a number of disciplines. During the latter part of my time there I was promoted to head of small animal studies.

Throughout those years I also maintained strong and close links with iCatCare; shortly after my move to the AHT I was elected to the board of trustees of iCatCare, and subsequently also served as chair of the trustees for several years, working closely alongside the chief executive, Claire Bessant. For part of the time at the AHT I also undertook some external consultancy work for Hill's Pet Nutrition. In addition to clinical work, clinical research and management duties at the AHT, I therefore also gained a greater understanding of commercial companies in the veterinary sector and also strategy and governance in the charity sector.

Veterinary director

Several months after leaving the AHT in 2011, I took up a part-time veterinary consultancy position with iCatCare, and then in January 2012 I joined the staff of the charity as a full-time employee and veterinary director. iCatCare is a medium-sized charity but operates with a small number of staff (12 to 14 people based at offices in the Wiltshire town of Tisbury). The charity maintains extremely strong links with the veterinary profession, largely though its veterinary division – the International Society of Feline Medicine. However, the veterinary influence is also critical in its other major spheres of activity, which are: providing the best quality information for all who look after cats, in whatever capacity; and providing help, training, expertise and research in methods to improve the health and welfare of unowned cat populations.

The veterinary degree is, in truth, a remarkable degree. While it is and should remain primarily a vocational training degree it also opens the door to many other possibilities too. When I graduated I only ever wanted to be a general practitioner. I still have to pinch myself at times because I find it hard to believe that I have been so privileged to have done so many things during my career. For more than 25 years, my focus and passion has been the advancement of feline health and welfare. I am fortunate enough to have worked alongside many others who share that passion, and have been privileged to be involved in clinical work, teaching and research all towards that goal.

When I graduated, I would never have believed that I could or would end up as veterinary director of a major international cat charity. However, I cannot think of anything else I would rather be doing right now. I still maintain a small involvement with clinical work, but inevitably much of my time is now occupied with other things. However, it is such a pleasure to work alongside a dynamic team that is innovative, motivated and totally focused on improving cat health and welfare. Looking to the future, there is a huge amount to be done, especially on an international scale, but there are huge opportunities also. The challenges, inevitably, come down largely to time and resources, but that has never stopped the charity finding novel ways to influence cat welfare, and I am sure it never will.

I consider myself to have been incredibly blessed to have been able to do the many different things I have done in my career. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my parents for their encouragement during my school years and enabling me to go to vet school, but I also owe so much to my long-suffering wife and children – it has been their sacrifice too that has enabled me to take new opportunities when they have arisen.

I believe that most vets are motivated by a strong compassion for animals and a desire to improve animal welfare. That can be (and has to be) achieved in a whole spectrum of different ways – the important thing is never to lose sight of why we do what we do, and always strive to make a difference. This is a wonderful profession to be a part of, and I look forward to continuing to be involved for many years to come.

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