It shouldn’t happen to a vet at Christmas — but it nearly always does

Date: Friday 10th November 2017
Some of the practice’s vets and nurses (left to right) Lynn Veitch, vet, Katherine Clare, nurse, Abi Johnson, vet, and Rachael Errington, nurse, with staff dogs Ziva, Todd, Winnie and Poppy.
Some of the practice’s vets and nurses (left to right) Lynn Veitch, vet, Katherine Clare, nurse, Abi Johnson, vet, and Rachael Errington, nurse, with staff dogs Ziva, Todd, Winnie and Poppy.

CHRISTMAS can be a memorable time of the year for the vets of Frame, Swift and Partners, of Carleton, Penrith. The practice provides emergency cover 365 days a year — including the festive period. Its vets serve more than 200 farms in a 20 mile-radius, extending to a 50-mile radius for horses

Vet Jess Gillon examines Border terrier Winnie.
Vet Jess Gillon examines Border terrier Winnie.
Veterinary nurse Rebecca Maughan and vet Chris Swift with a Friesian horse called Vela.
Veterinary nurse Rebecca Maughan and vet Chris Swift with a Friesian horse called Vela.

“AT weekends you can get a horse call out in Egremont and then something over at Alston,” said vet Chris Swift, explaining why two vets tend to be on-call on Christmas Day.

The practice covers a vast area from Junction 36 of the M6 in south Cumbria to Gretna and from Stainmore to the west of the county, which is a lot of country to cover.

A partner in the business, Chris, of Edenhall, prefers to work in the afternoon of Christmas Day so that he can spend the morning with family and attend Penrith Methodist Church.

Aged 59, he has been at the practice since 1982, and in that time has treated all manner of creatures great and small — from the bread and butter veterinary work of pregnant cattle and sheep to real rarities like otters and Armadillos.

Chris has developed a lot of affection for the characters in Eden’s farming community.

Adventures of Christmases past include being stuck in snow one winter and towed out by a farmer and treating a herd of local reindeer, although Rudolph was not among their number.

Is the job anything like All Creatures Great and Small, the 1970s television series set in a North Yorkshire veterinary practice, and based on the famous books?

“The people that you meet, the farmers, are just exactly the same,” said Chris. “There are some fantastic characters out there. The work these days is a lot more advanced with ultrasound scanning and radiography. You can do so much more now with technology but the basic job of calving a cow hasn’t changed one little bit.”

Business partner and vet Jess Gillon, aged 43, is originally from North Yorkshire — James Herriot country. He now lives at Sockbridge and is coming up to his 20th year with Frame, Swift and Partners.

His inspiration to become a vet came from growing up on a farm around animals and reading about them in books by zoo vet David Taylor and Gerald Durrell, the acclaimed naturalist and conservationist.

Jess studied veterinary medicine at Edinburgh University and deals mostly with small animals such as cats and dogs.

“The classic Christmas incident is that the dog has eaten the chocolates under the tree and every Christmas season we see loads of those,” he said. “Chocolate, in any significant quantities, is poisonous to dogs. They often present as out-of-hours or night-time emergencies.

“Last year we had a Border terrier which had eaten, and I kid you not, half a proper Christmas cake. Again, raisins are quite toxic to dogs so we had to make the little dog sick.”

Jess recalls one Christmas meal, between main course and pudding, when he was called out to an unusual scenario. A dog had eaten the needle and thread someone had used to stitch the stuffing into a turkey dinner.

“We anaesthetised it long enough to take the needle and thread out and the dog absolutely lived to the tell the tale,” said Jess. “I even think I was home in time for pudding.”

Vet John Watson explained that while dogs are designed to eat and digest bones, it is better to avoid giving them to pets because they can very easily get stuck.

“They can suffer a really disastrous obstruction of the oesophagus,” said John. “They are really difficult to reach because anything inside the chest is beyond the remit of a general surgeon. If the bone gets to the stomach usually it is going to be fine, because the stomach acid will dissolve it. But if it gets stuck anywhere between mouth and stomach, that is the disaster area. The safest option is not to give your pet bones.”

Jess said it is not uncommon to find on Boxing Day dogs which have swallowed bones or chocolate. The active substance of chocolate is theobromine, which is toxic to dogs, he said.

“A lot depends on the type of the chocolate, the size of the dog, how much they have eaten, and whether or not we intervene,” said Jess.

“If it’s in the first few hours, we tend to make them sick and give them stuff to try to prevent them from absorbing the toxin. If they are too far down the line, then it’s a case of treating them for the symptoms.”

Business partner Neil Frame’s father was one of the original founders of the company. Neil has been in the veterinary business for nearly 40 years and graduated in 1978.

“Christmas Day is not a busy day but it is quite a pleasure to go out. The big difference about Christmas Day is that people really don’t like to call you out if they don’t have to. On Christmas Day, they say ‘I am really sorry to bother you’ and they are,” he said.

Jess added: “I remember the Christmas when it was spectacularly cold here for a long time. When I set off for home, I think it was minus 10 and when I got home it was minus 15. I was doing a caesarian in a farm building and it was so cold that my instruments froze to the table.”

But the vets are never beaten back by the conditions because they are more than prepared to go the extra mile.

Jess said: “Getting to places in winter can be challenging but I’ve never not been able to get anywhere. Not in the last floods, but the ones before, my car filled up to foot level going down to Milburn.

“I ended up having to drive down a river to get to where I needed to be. Afterwards, I did have to take my car in and have all the carpets dried out, but it was nothing. We have the greatest sympathies for everyone affected by the absolute devastation of the flooding.

“But in terms of our work it did not directly impact on us because most of the animals were either ok, or they were gone. People were losing sheep and they were turning up in the Solway. There was devastation, but it wasn’t a devastation that required a lot of veterinary input.

“Generally speaking, people are exceptionally grateful and exceptionally polite for what you do as a vet.

“I think we all recognise that working Christmas is an essential part of what we do, particularly in an area like this. It’s part of our obligation to our clients and the community.”

The final word goes to Neil: “From the top guys to the junior nurses we have a fantastic team — everybody is so self-motivated. We don’t tell them what to do, it’s just done, and done to such a high standard, too. I really am in awe of our younger vets.”