Veterinary Notes: A dog's life for the modern vet

IT IS axiomatic in modern behavioural psychology that a variable schedule of reward is the most effective way to enhance a behaviour; a human, a rat, a dog or a dolphin will work far harder and for longer for a randomly delivered, unpredictable jackpot than for a constant stream of smaller rewards.

The reverse is also the case; a random schedule of punishment is by far the most terrifying - a steady drip of water may be ultimately fatal but a random and unpredictable series of blows will drive you into madness faster. If you allow that sleep deprivation, even sleep interruption, is a highly effective punishment then you have one root cause of post- natal depression. You also have a key reason why, until recently, the veterinary profession topped the suicide rankings in the UK - higher by an order of magnitude than their nearest rivals, the farmers.

This situation has, clearly, reversed itself and the incidence of "accidental death" in the farming profession is reaching staggering proportions but this does not detract from the fact that the cute 'n' cuddly world of Animal Hospital is rarely as cuddly as it may appear. My year had been qualified less than 18 months when we heard of a colleague of similar vintage who had self-injected with horse anaesthetic and was dead on arrival at casualty. Five years later, a partner in a local practice set up a lethal drip and last year the flat-mate of a friend came home from collecting his PhD and found the future too bleak to contemplate.

Why is the veterinary outlook so bleak? Perhaps it's not. Perhaps the number of suicidal depressives is no more in our profession than in any other, it's simply that we have an understanding of the mechanics of death and the means to carry it out. There are no "cries for help" amongst vets, no high-speed, blue-light rides to casualty to have 14 bottles of aspirin pumped from a rapidly ulcerating stomach. If life is bad, you have half a dozen means to end it and none of them is readily reversible.

But this is too glib. If access was the only criterion, the gunsmiths of this world would be up there with the rest of us. We have to look deeper at the astonishing dichotomy between the academic standards required of veterinary graduates and the reality of general practice. In this, Herriot, Harris and the entire "cute 'n' cuddly" industry have their role to play.

Thirty years ago, entry to vet school was no harder than, say, entry to law school. Today, a would-be vet student needs straight As, half a lifetime seeing practice and, frankly, a fair amount of luck. Then, having got a place, our under-grad is expected to excel in the basic sciences. Thirty years ago, the veterinary course had a pre-clinical component designed to provide a foundation for practice. Now, the course is run by scientists living in their own private, parallel universe in which all veterinary students harbour a secret ambition to become high-flying molecular engineers. The fact that they may not have a working understanding of the surgical anatomy of the canine elbow is irrelevant.

Follow that with a year's clinical training in a centre equipped with doppler ultrasound, a radiotherapy unit and surgical equipment to make your eyes water and your high-achieving graduate comes out of vet school honed for a lifetime of high-quality clinical work. Which the public doesn't want. Or, if they want it, they can't pay for it. Or if they want it and can pay for it, the practice at which you are working doesn't have the equipment and so the one case in 20 that needs more than antibiotics and corticosteroids is referred to the local veterinary school while you get on with the basics. Life has ceased to be fun, your social life has evaporated.

Then somewhere along the line you realise that the next 40 years will be exactly the same. Or not. There's always another answer and it's never more than a locked cupboard away.

Manda Scott is the author of `Night Mares' (Headline, 6 May, pounds 5.99)