All creatures great and small


When Dick Lavelle watched a vet repair a prolapsed uterus on a cow and was reassured this was the second-worst job the vet had ever done, he figured veterinary medicine was for him.

Incidentally, the worst job that vet had ever tackled was removing a rotten foal from a mare. If you're not throwing up, read on, as Lavelle remains enthusiastic about what he describes as a "brilliant career".

Lavelle was born in Cork but lived in Dublin for most of his life. Christmas, summers and Easter were spent with friends on a farm in Fermoy, Co Cork, and it was there he watched the vet at work. After school in Gonzaga College, Dublin, and repeating the Leaving Cert in Ringsend Technical Institute, Lavelle secured his place in UCD in 1975.

He says the high points required for entry to veterinary medicine are unfortunate as you "don't need to be a genius to be a vet. You just need to be practical and like animals and enjoy interfacing with their owners." He found the course good, if a little academic.

"When I left college I went TB testing (on cattle) in Co Kilkenny. Then I moved to a horse practice for two years . . . it was mostly about fertility in mares, getting them in foal, then making sure the foals lived. A few horses were in training so I also treated some injuries." He decided to move on and go into general practice to improve his surgery skills so it was off to Carndonagh, Co Donegal, for a year.

Then, via a few locums in London, he returned to Dublin and went into practice with another vet in Ranelagh. Lavelle now has his own practice in Sandymount, in Dublin, where he works exclusively with small animals, mostly cats and dogs.

The hours are long - he holds three clinics a day, five days a week from 10 a.m. to 12.30 p.m., then 2.30 p.m. to 4.30 p.m. and from 6 p.m. to 7.30 p.m. In an unfalteringly cheery voice, he explains how he fits surgery around these hours. Oh, and there's the Saturday morning clinic too.

The most common type of surgery is the neutering of cats and dogs. He also treats a lot of wounds caused by road traffic accidents and dog fights, as well as doing the occasional house call. "It's a way of life, not a nine-to-five job," he says. On the plus side, he's his own boss and is generally so busy he doesn't notice the day passing.

The high point of the job is working on an animal over a few days and watching it turn the corner while the low point is, undoubtedly, euthanasia. "It's quite sad to see the loneliness especially of older people who know this will be their last pet," he says. Pets usually only live for one-sixth or one-seventh of human lives and people are devastated when they die.

He says second-level students should have a reasonable idea of what veterinary medicine entails if they watch the TV programmes which show vets in practice. He also advises second-level students to get some work experience with a vet and find out what it's all about.

"There's a good future for veterinary medicine in Ireland. It's an agricultural country and a horse breeding country," he adds.