A day in the life of a vet

Paula Lester spends a day with a mixed practice vet in the Borders, and has an eye-opening time… 

Pip, a small black-and-white terrier, quivers as Bruce Haggerty BVMS MRCVS gently manipulates her abdomen to see if he can feel the pork bone her owner fears is lodged in her bowel. Hooked up to a drip, which is secured to her leg under a lime-green bandage, she’s been vomiting and will be kept under observation today in case she needs an operation to remove any obstruction.

As Bruce was on duty when Pip was admitted to the Ark Vet Centre in Lockerbie last night, he’s the one who checks her this morning. ‘Everyone still does everything here, but we maintain continuity with patients if we can,’ he explains.

The back room we’re in is part of a purpose-built surgery, established in 1995, that’s about to be extended to meet the needs of the growing number of clients (nearly 5,000), who rely on it and its branches in Langholm, Annan and Moffat. Located in Dumfries & Galloway, most of the practice’s callouts are to the many dairy farms dotted among the rich pastureland that carpets the valleys and to the hardy flocks that thrive on the dramatic hills in the north of the county.

With approximately 70 dairies, 200 beef farms, 200 sheep farms and nearly 2,000 equine clients to look after in a huge area that crosses the border into Cumbria, it’s easy to see why the number of vets it employs has risen from eight to 11 in the past five years. ‘We’re the ultimate GPs, because we deal with every species,’ says Bruce. ‘We don’t know what each day is going to hold, but I love working at the coalface.’

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He’s not joking, either, because we’re on our way to a dairy farm at Corrie, in the hills between Langholm and Lockerbie, to attend to a heifer with a uterine prolapse. The rain is sheeting down on this chilly March morning, as Bruce’s car-with his flatcoated retriever, Kiwi, sitting proudly on the back seat-splashes the five miles along lanes to the farm.

Kiwi starts to whine in excitement when we reach our destination, but Bruce is out of the car in a flash, delving into the boot-it doubles as a mobile pharmacy-for the equipment and drugs he needs, before pulling on his waterproof trousers, wellies and a short-sleeved cagoule-like smock top. Then, grabbing lubricant and a box of long-sleeved disposable plastic gloves, he strides off to the cowshed.

The scene that awaits us is not a pretty one. The heifer has had to push so hard to give birth to a big (dead) calf, that her uterus is hanging out, but this doesn’t faze Bruce. After moving the animal into a better position, he gives the cow an epidural (to stop her pushing against him), removes the afterbirth, washes the uterus with some warm water containing iodine and, quite simply, pushes it back in. Next, he puts in a few stitches (with an eye-wateringly big, curved needle and some nylon tape) to stop it popping out again, administers some anti-inflammatories, then liquid calcium, straight into the vein-job done!

‘They’re very good at what they do,’ comments stockman Andrew Murray, safe in the knowledge that the cow should be able to calve again. ‘Animals are amazing,’ adds Bruce. ‘They don’t worry like we do, they know they feel a bit “meh” and then they feel better-that’s why they recover quickly.’

Time to head to David Stewart’s dairy and sheep farm at Halldykes, where Bruce treats three recently calved Friesians, then drives 12 miles down the M74 to do a fertility check at Eaglesfield. It’s all a far cry from Bruce’s upbringing in Glasgow. ‘I’m a townie,’ admits the 32 year old. ‘But ever since I was a boy, all I wanted to do was be a vet.’ Did he have any pets as a child? ‘My mum said: “Four kids, three bedrooms, no dog!” So I had budgies instead.’

Bruce was so serious about his vocation that, as a teenager, he helped out at a small animal practice in Glasgow and spent Easter holidays lambing. He qualified at his home city’s vet school in 2004 and worked in Cumbria, Ayrshire and New Zealand before joining Ark in 2009.

‘I spend most of my day with my arm up a cow’s bum, but I bloody love it,’ he asserts, his enthusiasm undimmed by the daily, and often gruelling, demands of his profession. ‘People have an impression of a James Herriot-type of fluffy country life but what we do is gritty.’

Just as well then that, out of work, when he’s not feeding the chickens at the home in Castle Douglas he shares with his fiancée, Ali MacLeod (a fellow vet), Bruce keeps fit by playing in the back row for Dumfries Saints. ‘What we do is dangerous, especially when you’re dealing with half a ton of cow. You’ve got to be practical and a problem solver-animals don’t read the textbooks.’

As soon as we arrive at Peter and Susan Morris’s Greengate House Farm, it’s obvious what a great relationship Bruce has with the couple. ‘We love having Bruce as our vet,’ smiles Mrs Morris, as he checks whether or not each artificially inseminated heifer is in calf by using a battery-powered ultrasound probe, which allows him to see foetuses via a pair of goggles.

‘Do you want any blusher for the photographs?’ the couple’s youngest daughter, Janet, 16, asks with a cheeky grin. Along with her sister Jo, 21, she works on the farm. ‘It’s difficult to make a living, but you can just about do it if you do all the work yourselves,’ says Mrs Morris. ‘It’s harder farming here than it is down south, because it’s so dominated
by the wet weather.’

We’re pulling up at Andrew Millar’s Woodhousehill farm to take a look at three cows: one with a sore foot, one that’s struggling to stand after giving birth to twins and one that’s done the splits on concrete. The first two are straightforward-Bruce treats and bandages a crack in the hoof of one and prescribes rest and anti-inflammatories to the new mother. Sadly, the third cow has dislocated her hip and is euthanased that afternoon. It’s not an easy emotional or financial decision for the farmer, but Bruce thinks it’s the kindest course of action because relocated hips tend to pop out again.

No sooner have we got back in the car, than the surgery calls to send Bruce to Brian Blacklock’s farm at Scotsbrig, seven miles away, where one of his Jacob/Texel ewes, which is about to lamb, has a prolapse. Unfortunately, there’s no quick fix here, either, as the ewe escaped from the trailer Mr Blacklock was trying to put her into and ran off, rupturing her vagina in the process-Bruce has no choice but to put her down.

Back at the surgery, there’s just time to organise the afternoon’s visits and make some phonecalls before heading out again.

We drive up the motorway to John Paul’s farm at Griegsland for Bruce to see a heifer that’s struggling to stay on her feet. ‘She’s just sore,’ says Bruce, watching the cow walk gingerly around the shed with her calf. ‘She needs pain relief.’

We’re at Cumrue, a New Zealand-style dairy unit, where a heifer has damaged her foot. There are three options: bandaging it up and hoping for the best, removing the broken toe or euthanasia. The farmer opts to ‘give her a chance’ by amputating the toe. Minutes later, the cleat is lying on the ground and the heifer is walking around on all fours.

We rush back to Lockerbie to pick up prescriptions for the evening surgery at Langholm, which is 20 miles away. Bruce can’t afford to be late as the surgery (which operates on a first-come, first-served basis four times a week) is popular and people will be waiting. ‘Our branches are so important to the community,’ he says. ‘They-and home visits-may be old-fashioned, but that’s how we do it and we’re proud of it.’

5pm to 6.30pm

Bruce sees and treats 15 dogs, from a rescue terrier called Holly, who might have to have her dewclaws removed, to a yellow labrador with a haematoma on its ear.

As dusk falls, we drive to the top of the town to examine a former racehorse that’s trodden on a nail. Satisfied that the wound should heal with the aid of poultices, painkillers and antibiotics, Bruce heads back to the flat he rents in Lockerbie to wait for any emergency callouts.

After dinner, I ask Bruce if he ever gets upset. ‘We have to maintain a professional demeanour, but things do get under my skin,’ he admits. ‘We have to euthanase animals all the time, however, we are very respectful of the fact we’re taking a member of your family.’

We’re back at the surgery to check on the inpatients, on a night that will see Bruce back out at 6.45am the next morning. He tries to sum up a vet’s role: ‘This job’s not just about fixing animals, it’s about caring for people, too.’

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