Bettina is a Devon based farm vet who loves working with large animals. Last year was her first year as a qualified vet and she (and her rescue dog Raja!) took the time to talk to us. Read on to find out about how a city girl from Singapore ended up as a farm vet in Devon (and how she’s found the past year).
You mentioned you’ve always been in cities - be it Singapore or London – what made you decide to become a farm vet?
When I started vet school I wanted to work in wildlife and zoo medicine - I like working with bigger species and I thought wild species were quite cool. At university, we had animal husbandry and clinical placements which I undertook at zoos, and whilst I enjoyed the clinical side of it, I personally didn’t enjoy the ethics or politics behind the way zoos are sometimes run.
I still wanted to work with big animals and going into farm practice made the most sense. I thought it would be quite rewarding working in the food production sector (And I get to work with anything from cows and sheep to alpacas!).
How’s your first year in practice been? It was tough at first - it was a big move from London to Devon. I’m originally from Singapore so I’m used to living in cities. The scariest bit for me was moving to a rural area that was predominantly populated by people identifying as White British as I’m an ethnic minority who is not British. However, my practice had a few people from Europe (like Greece and Poland) and I’ve also (happily) found that most people are really friendly. You sometimes get an odd look or comment but it’s not as scary as it thought it’d be.
The loneliness was a big thing – I didn’t know anyone moving here but I had support from work and keeping in contact with family and friends helped. Within 3-4 months I got into a routine and it was my new normal. Having a really supportive practice where you can always ask someone for help was a really nice way to enter the industry.
There have been a lot of ups and downs. My first night on call (being ready to work at any time, especially if there is an emergency) was the most challenging as I was newly graduated and it was within my first week which was nerve wracking. On-calls consist of taking the call, going onto the farm, and assessing what is going on/what needs to be done. We always have a backup senior vet who can be called and they come out onto the farm to support you. It was nice knowing I had this safety net but in the end I didn’t need to call them and I felt so much better after it.
What does a normal working day look like for you?
At my practice we start at 8.30am and finish at around 5:00pm. You rarely work after 5pm but sometimes it is necessary to start at 5am/6am as TB testing usually begins around that time. The time schedule for on calls is typically 5pm to 8am the next day which can be quite challenging - especially around spring time as it gets busy with calving.
Since Devon is an area with a high incidence of Bovine TB, we do a lot of TB testing. It’s also quite common to get booked for castrates, disbudding of horns, and testing sheep/cows for toxoplasma (or other infectious diseases) if they have poor lambing rates (or lots of abortions). We also do a lot of worming control - especially with sheep and goats.
If you have nothing booked in you wait and see what comes. There will definitely be at least one emergency each day - be it a calving, a cow with a twisted stomach (this is quite a routine procedure you’ll get at least once a week at the practice) or a lambing call.
During lambing season, we might get farmers bringing in sheep that are having difficulties with lambing and where necessary, we carry out surgery in our lambing shed (which is a separate building). There are facilities on site to castrate pet sheep/goats and carry out disbudding’s. We even had a Cria (baby alpaca) come in for a plasma transfusion once! But, most of the time it’s more common for us to get called out to farms.
What did you want to be when you were 16?
I was deciding between studying human or veterinary medicine. Ultimately, I decided veterinary medicine was the way I wanted to go. I’ve always lived with animals - I had a dog, rabbits and backyard chickens - and I think that’s what motivated me to go in that direction.
What advice would you give your 16-year-old self?
I was a very lazy child to be honest! It took a while for me to figure out that I had to put in a lot of hard work to get into vet school. (I had to retake my A-Levels to get the grades needed.) I’d say if you are truly interested in a certain ambition work your socks off!
Having said that, failure isn’t a bad thing – you can always try again. As long as you know you’ve put in the effort you can’t doubt yourself.
Vet school is tough - you’ll constantly question why you’re doing it. But you come to the end of every year and when you pass your exams it helps affirm why you’re there. The minute you graduate and go into practice - serving clients and doing what you always wanted to do - it’s the most rewarding feeling ever.
What’s the best thing you’ve done in your job?
I had one exceptionally busy night where I had 3 calving’s back to back, and they all turned out to be caesareans. I was so tired by the end of it! I then had to do a normal working day the next day. The fact that I managed that, on my own, was the biggest highlight.
Why do you love your job/ why is your job important?
It feels like I’m contributing to something bigger. The UK has such a high standard when it comes to production and farming. We take welfare and ethics really seriously; and I’m proud to be part of an industry where animals are treated and slaughtered respectfully to feed the population.
What is one thing a student hoping to be a farm vet can do today?
It is quite hard when you’re in a city - when I was in Singapore, I had only seen a cow once (and not even touched one) until I came to vet school! If you live in a city, volunteer at a city farm to get an idea of what it’s like to look after farm animals. You’ll get to learn some husbandry and see it suits you.
I would also recommend doing some work experience at a small animal practice as it’s the most realistic representation of being a vet. Make use of any contacts you may have (e.g. if you know a friend with a farm). If you can see practice at a farm vets that’s a bonus - I’m always happy to take on a student to shadow me for a couple of days.
Written by: Veetha Tharmarajah
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