By ALISON SMITH SQUIRE
For eight years Matthew Watkinson worked as a vet. But are vets really the saints they are made out to be? Here, Matthew, 32, now an author, exposes the uncuddly truth about vets that every animal lover should read. . .
The greyhound's soulful eyes seemed to plead with me to help him. His thin tail tucked between his legs, he stood still with fear on the examination table as the posse of fellow veterinary students listened to the chief lecturer.
Aged 12, he had bone cancer in a hind leg and it was advanced, we were told. Looking at the dog, I imagined he'd had a good life. Obviously, from the condition of his brushed coat, and his muscled body, he had an owner who knew how to care for him.
As a student vet who in a year was to graduate to work in my own practice, I knew what I would recommend if I were this dog's owner - and that was a loving and peaceful death.
But putting the greyhound to sleep and out of his misery was not the correct answer, the lecturer told me quite sternly.
A humane death would not be the course of treatment offered to its owner. Well, at any rate, not yet. After all, didn't I realize the advances that had been made in veterinary medicine? There were 'options' that could extend this old dog's life.
No, instead, its leg was going to be amputated and then a course of chemotherapy would be tried to ensure that 'all was done to save the dog's life' - at a cost of £1,000 to £2,000, or even more.
I have no idea what the owner thought of this. But, as the majority of pet owners want to do the best by their beloved dog, I can only imagine he or she took this 'chief' vet's expensive advice to try to 'save' the pet.
Meanwhile, I remember pushing down the revulsion I felt about putting the dog through what we all knew would be punishing treatment that in all likelihood would not work.
And even if it did give that greyhound an extra year or so of life, how could anyone explain to it that the suffering was for a reason? That lying in a small cage, surgically maimed, and hooked up to a drip for weeks, perhaps months, would be 'worth it'.
Today I look back on that lecture and realise that already I had begun to question the role of vets in animal 'welfare'.
The point is yes, we could treat this dog's cancer, but was it in the best interests of that dog? Morally, should we have even considered further treatment or was it all about making money?
Of course, back then I avoided becoming embroiled in ethics. I was just thrilled to be one of the lucky few to have made it into the most prestigious vet school in the country - London's Royal Veterinary College.
Having had a comprehensive school education, I went into the job because I was fascinated by biology and genuinely wanted to help animals. And although my parents had good jobs - my mother was a nurse and my father a radiographer - I was the first person in my family to go to university, and understandably my family was incredibly proud of my achievement.
So, despite the doubts already beginning to form in my mind, I ploughed on. A year after the greyhound incident I graduated and took my veterinary oath, which all vets swear to, promising 'to ensure the welfare of animals committed to my care'.
Back then, I had no concept that far from the saviours of animals they purport to be, the blame for much animal suffering in the UK can be laid so firmly at the door of vets.
I had no idea that I would ultimately be driven to confess that I am ashamed to be a vet and that, eight years after qualifying, I would find myself so disgusted at the moneymaking practices that I would leave the profession altogether.
Of course, not all vets deliberately set out to make as much money as they can out of treating animals. But money - not the welfare of the animal - is often at the forefront of the vet's mind.
Of course there are outright cowboys in any field and the veterinary profession is sadly no exception.
Today you will notice more and more practices have sprung up throughout the country - especially in those affluent areas where the middle-class residents treat their pets as part of their family.
One might imagine that because there are so many more vets that animals need more medical help than ever. But the truth is far simpler. A whole industry has arisen out of squeezing the most money out of treating family pets.
While the owner might believe he or she is only taking their cat for a vaccination (and I have no problem with sensible preventative healthcare) for the vet, this visit can be a way to make even more money out of a perfectly healthy animal.
During the 'health check' which accompanies the vaccination visit, it is amazing the potential 'problems' the vet might find.
So your vet discovers your cat has a seemingly innocuous chipped tooth? I have known of cat owners told that despite the fact their cat is perfectly fine - and frankly animals in the wild break their teeth all the time and do not need expensive dentistry work - that to remove the tooth is justified 'just in case' it later causes a problem.
Having a tooth removed, especially a canine tooth, is major surgery - costing upwards if £100 - and should only be done if the cat is suffering because of it.
But more often than not, a loving owner will trust their vet and sadly go along with surgery that is not only unnecessary but plain risky for a pet who does not need it. Similarly, I have known vets suggest doing an 'exploratory' operation on a cat just because it had been sick. But like humans, cats and dogs get sick from time to time. The best response is to wait and see, not offer a battery of blood tests and invasive operations.
Having allowed their pet to have such an operation, the owner when the pet recovers will put this down to the operation being a success. It is not: if nothing was found, your pet would have begun feeling better anyway. Possibly sooner.
Sadly, the best way to deal with many problems is not to treat at all. Small animals such as guinea pigs and rabbits should be put to sleep if they present with an illness that can't be easily rectified with a dose of antibiotics. Their lives should not be prolonged at all cost.
If your cat or dog gets cancer you should not, in my opinion, subject it to long, torturous treatment. Nor should cats that are run over and experience a complex injury or bladder problems - sadly an all-too-common feature of road accidents as the car catches the back of the cat as it tries to escape - endure lots of operations in the hope that the problems can be cured.
Even if they can be - eventually - I believe putting any animal through this is barbaric.
One problem is that overtreating pets has been made to look as if it is normal by programmes such as the BBC's Super Vets, last shown in 2007, where it was usual to subject animals that, frankly, should have been put to sleep to whatever it took to get them well. This is cruel as caging an animal for a long time is not, in my view, thinking of its 'welfare'.
Which brings me to another issue that helps vets to carry out these expensive and totally unnecessary procedures - pet insurance.
These days, pet insurance is pushed as a 'necessity'. Sit in any vet's surgery and you are left in no doubt as you survey the dozens of adverts for it that 'good' owners have it while 'bad' owners do not.
So unsurprisingly, the average middle-class family feels more comfortable having this insurance. They have medical insurance for their children, so it's only natural that they want the same for their family dog or cat. Insurance for a pet dog or cat costs on average from £60 to £250 a year. Worryingly, if you have pet insurance you can be sure your vet is more likely to offer your pet treatments - because your vet knows you won't be paying so you can afford it.
But, however you look at it, insurance is simply a license to print money. Unfortunately, the only creatures insurance helps are vets. If you are a loving owner you will not want to put your pet through cruel, lengthy and costly procedures.
And as this is all insurers cover - they do not provide for any useful essentials such as neutering, vaccinations or teeth cleaning - there is no point to them.
But vets aren't only guilty of treating animals when there is no problem. Sadly they are guilty of creating problems in the first place. Take bulldogs. They have been hideously bred to have a characteristic collapsed face. This restricts breathing and stops them panting properly.
Ridiculous as it may seem, they have also created an animal that can't breathe fast enough to have sex. So a bulldog must be artificially inseminated by a vet using a general anesthetic.
Once pregnant, the bulldog faces another dreadful side effect, again caused by breeding. Bulldogs have such a small pelvis that most are unable to give birth naturally. So 90 per cent of bulldogs require a Caesarean.
If the vet were truly putting the animal first, he would refuse to inseminate a bulldog in the first place. Instead, to ensure the welfare of the bulldog, vets should be insisting that pregnancies only occur in bulldogs that can mate naturally.
But, of course, they won't say that or refuse the breeder's wishes - after all, as a vet you are making money out of all of these medical procedures. An insemination costs around £80 to £300 depending on the exact procedure and a Caesarean £500.
I find it outrageous that, given their role, any vet criticizes Cruft's for exhibiting these dog breeds. After all, it is the vets themselves who have aided and abetted these atrocities.
And this practice certainly isn't confined to bulldogs. We have daschunds bred with elongated spines so they look 'attractive' for their breed. But these sausage dogs are prone to slipped discs and back problems which, in turn, makes more money for vets who do many operations a year to 'help' these issues (most of which do not work and cause more suffering to the dog.)
We have cats that can't breathe because of their overly flat noses and weep constantly from eyes that are too large, other cats and dogs without fur that can't go out in the sunshine as they will burn.
The current fashionable craze for miniature dogs is also damaging. These dogs are prized on their tininess - so the smallest dogs are chosen but in reality these are the runts of the litter that used to be allowed to die as they were so weak.
In turn vets are simply creating weaker animals. They are going against the force of nature, Charles Darwin's natural selection. And because weaker animals are surviving they need more medical care from vets who force them to survive.
This is great news for vets and the reason for their proliferation. But surely not for animal welfare, which they pledged, when they took their veterinary oath, to put first.
So where does the loving pet owner stand in all this?
Common sense must prevail. A loving pet owner does not humanize their cat or dog but realizes it is an animal.
The loving owner does not want to maximize their pet's life at any cost but puts their animal's welfare first.
Do not fear the death of your pet when the time comes. Instead, embrace it and ensure your pet has a good death in the same way you gave it a good life.