Tail stories from life as a vet

TV vet Emma Milne at home with Brian, one of her cats.
TV vet Emma Milne at home with Brian, one of her cats.
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One of the stars of the long-running TV series Vets in Practice, Emma Milne, tells Roger Ratcliffe why pet owners are often more interesting than their animals, and why some pedigree dogs suffer serious illness

There’s no way to talk to a Yorkshire vet that has just written a book without mentioning a certain other Yorkshire vet and, of course, Emma Milne is expecting to hear his name.

Emma Milne at home

Emma Milne at home

“It’s always a massive, massive compliment to be mentioned in the same breath,” she shrugs it off. “I mean, I was completely obsessed with his books when I was little. But I wouldn’t be so vain as to sit here and say I’m going to be the new James Herriot just because I’ve written a book. He’s such an iconic figure in the vet world, there can’t possibly be another like him.”

Emma is in the large kitchen of a cottage near York which she shares with husband Mark, a fellow vet, and their two small daughters Alice and Charlotte. It is just 25 miles down the A19 from the legendary Alf Wight aka James Herriot’s old practice in Thirsk but, she says, it’s light years away from the world of vets described by the author of All Creatures Great and Small.

“Times have changed so much since then. You’d see Herriot having a couple of shots of whisky on a call and then driving home, but you can’t imagine that happening now. In some ways, the job’s easier because of antibiotics and all the knowledge we have, but in other respects there is far more pressure. It’s such a litigious field these days. Any small problem and an owner might take you to court. As a result vets are really nervous, which is probably why there’s such a high rate of depression.”

Emma is taking a sabbatical from the job to concentrate on motherhood, and at the age of 40 has just published her first book about life as a vet. She already had a high profile from her appearances in the BBC Television’s Vets in Practice, which ran for 11 series and four Christmas specials until 2003, and also as a campaigner for animal welfare. The book, she says, contains her pent-up anecdotes about the animals – and their owners– she has met in the course of a 20-year career.

Emma Milne during her work aboard

Emma Milne during her work aboard

It’s the people more than the pets who make the book so entertaining. As she says: “Most animals arrive at a vet’s with a person attached. Some owners will be wonderful, some will be awful, some will be distraught and some will be stark raving mad. But deal with them you must.”

Just as Herriot’s Mrs Pomphrey was far more interesting than her overweight Pekingese Tricky Woo, so Emma’s clients steal the show. She tells one story about a man who kept a large snake. Snakes, she says, really detest the smell of alcohol, and this snake’s owner went out one night and got well and truly hammered. Later he called the police to report that his snake had attacked him, and when they arrived at his house they found the snake latched on to his arm and trying to ingest it.

“This inebriated moron had got out a massive kitchen knife and tried to cut off his own arm rather than harm his snake. There was blood everywhere and the police thought it looked like a murder scene.

“Then there was the farmer who found a crow had come down the chimney of his beautiful house. He got out his gun and completely shot up the living room. I don’t think he managed to get the crow.”

The embarrassments which Herriot and rookie vet Tristan Farnham experienced at the hands of old Dales farmers are echoed by Emma’s experience with one Exmoor farmer shortly after she qualified in the 1990s.

She had been called out just before dawn to her first-ever calving and was met by a wiry, grim-faced man. “He generally made me feel as welcome as an unexpected rash in the nether regions,” she writes in the book.

“It wasn’t until I started getting my calving top on and sorting out my kit that he unleashed his main reason for not wanting me there. No offence, he said, he just didn’t think that women were up to the job.

“If he couldn’t calve the cow then there was no way a woman could, and he was pretty sure that eventually I’d have to phone one of my male partners to bail me out so I could get back to painting my nails or whatever it was he thought I should be doing with my time.”

Of course, the farmer was soon gobsmacked when Emma delivered two perfect twin calves.

There’s plenty more stories like that, but it’s with the more serious side of the veterinary world that Emma finds herself increasingly involved these days.

She has become a passionate critic of breeders who are perpetuating breeds with inherent deformities and illnesses, and mentions breeds like the bulldog, basset hound, Pekingese, Neapolitan mastiff, Dogue de Bordeaux and shar pei.

“With breeds like these you can guarantee that they’re going to be ill because they are so inbred or their shape is so odd. Some of them literally can’t even move or breathe or see because they are so wrinkly or short-legged or short-faced. I’m just sick of seeing dogs suffering because they’ve been bred to be a certain shape.”

She is concerned that people think it’s normal for a bulldog to faint because it can’t breathe properly when it gets warm. It’s a drum she’s been banging for several years, and one that’s been heard by the organisers of Crufts, who this year introduced vet checks for 15 breeds. Six of them failed their checks and weren’t allowed to progress through the show.

She has taken a lot of abuse for criticising the breeders, and also received hate mail after opposing fox hunting on BBC’s Question Time. Standing up for her principles, however, led to her being named Vet of the Year by the International Fund for Animal Welfare in 2008.

Another book will eventually emerge from Emma’s cottage, although she’s not sure if it will be another collection of vet stories or something more serious. An early idea is a book about animal euthanasia, something that she has had to deal with twice this winter with the death of her two much-loved Collie-crosses Pan and Badger.

She’s still devastated, she says with a catch in her voice. Both dogs had been with her for most of her adult life. They were brothers and Badger, in particular, seemed to be attached to her with a piece of elastic.

“When we lost him it just felt like someone had ripped out a piece of me, and that’s when I started thinking about a book. Euthanasia is possibly the most important part of a vet’s job, making it as beautiful as it can be for the animals and also helping owners come to terms with it. Having been through it myself, it’s something I’d like to write about.”

Tales From the Tail End: Adventures of a Vet in Practice by Emma Milne is published by Summersdale. Price £7.99. Her website is at www.emmathevet.co.uk