It can be the difference between life and death: during my visit, vets take a call about a dog attacked by a boar.
Dr Emilie Salvador and veterinary assistant Laure Daillet, at the Clinique Vétérinaire des Voconces, in Vaison-la-Romaine, Vaucluse, are prepared.
Three-year-old Lili, a chienne de chasse, arrives suffering severe shock and hypothermia, her intestines hanging outside her body. She has a 20% chance of survival.
At one point, she stops breathing. At times she whimpers, even under heavy sedation.
Dr Salvador, who raises Bouviers Bernois (Bernese Mountain) dogs, begins untangling the intestines and stitching the tears.
Three people are needed, and even though I am there to write an article, I am pressed into service, helping to bathe the intestines, which are covered in dirt and leaves, and to greet clients at the front desk.
The two women work heroically for two hours. By surgery’s end, Lili has a 50% chance of survival.
On Sunday, Dr Salvador, then Ms Daillet and ultimately practice owner Dr Ludovic Girard check on Lili. By Monday she is ready to go home.
The clinic, which has four vets (vétos) and three assistants, is open six days a week and sees between 25 and 30 animals a day, almost all dogs and cats. A vet is always on call. They are equipped to perform surgery, X-rays, sonograms, blood and urine analysis.
Home visits are made for horses and donkeys and, although they rarely treat farm animals, a goat was rushed in that same day for an emergency Caesarean. She was too large for the operating table, so Dr Anne-Catherine Hoog-Girard delivered three chevreaux on the floor.
The following week Biscotte, a constipated goat, came in and was given paraffin for relief.
When I was there, the driver from the crematorium knocked at the back door. “Don’t look,” Dr Julie Meffre warns. I reassure her I’m OK.
“It never gets any easier,” she adds. The others agree. Dr Hoog-Girard says: “My first few years, I cried uncontrollably every time an animal died. It was terrible.”
Training to become a vet in France is rigorous, lasts seven years and, thanks to government subsidy, costs students about €1,000 a year.
Candidates must have a science baccalauréat and then complete two years of preliminary studies in biology, chemistry, physics and earth science. Students also train in plant biology and even mathematics.
There are four veterinary schools, all run under the agriculture ministry.
VetAgro Sup/Lyon, was the world’s first. It was founded in 1761 by Lyon barrister Claude Bourgelat, who gave up law to work with blacksmiths, who until then were the only people who treated animals. The Rinderpest cattle plague was hitting livestock and Bourgelat sent students to scientifically and medically analyse and treat it.
Of the others, Paris/Maisons-Alfort opened in 1767, INP/ENVT/Toulouse 1825 and ONIRIS/Nantes in 2010.
Admittance is by nationwide contest after the two preparatory years, with 550 places each year.
The first three years are theoretical, with courses from anatomy, immunology and mycology to medical imaging. The fourth year involves field work and the fifth is a concentration in one area and a thesis. Specialised training comes after graduation.
In 2017, the Ordre National des Vétérinaires listed 18,341 veterinarians nationwide: 9,431 women and 8,910 men. The average age was 42.
This was the first year females outnumbered males nationally, although they already did so in Provence, the Côte d’Azur and Ile-de-France.
Veterinarians must be able to perform all types of medicine, from dentistry to orthopaedics, surgery, ophthalmology, rheumatology, obstetrics/gynaecology and dermatology.
Clinique Voconces is typical. Dr Girard joined as a young vet and eventually bought the practice with his wife, Anne-Catherine. She is also a certified animal kinésithérapeute ostéopathe, a specialty requiring additional study and training.
The four vets have different styles and approaches, but all speak English and they have many English-speaking clients, especially in summer.
A typical day begins with the phone ringing and a waiting room filled with anxious humans and animals. There is scheduled surgery every morning, most commonly neutering.
An office consultation costs €34; neutering of female cats €115; spaying males, €65. Female dogs range from €225 to €295; males €145 to €160, according to weight. Vaccinating a cat is €65; a dog €48. Examining a pet between 24 hours and five days before returning to the UK, providing treatment against tapeworm, checking the puce (microchip) and passport is €40.
Vets must be intuitive as patients cannot talk and cats, by nature, hide their illnesses. Like Jean, a young marmalade cat, that Dr Girard is told sometimes limps and does not want to venture outside.
Naturally, Jean does not limp in the exam room.
Dr Girard’s hands gently manipulate the young cat’s toes, rotating his shoulders, feeling his back. The problem is not the foot; it is his shoulder.
An X-ray would be costly and most likely show nothing so Dr Girard advises anti-inflammatories, possibly osteopathic therapy – and a claw trim.
Next is a man whose dog died that morning. Dr Meffre did a post-mortem examination and discovered intestines filled with toys, balls, dirt and rubbish the dog had ingested.
The owner is devastated and Dr Girard spends nearly half an hour with him until he is ready to go.
Next, a couple with a 4½-month-old shelter kitten, Fitou, they had been told was male – but is clearly female with engorged mammary glands.
Dr Girard is concerned as she is too young for her first chaleur (heat). He opts to proceed slowly, prescribes anti-inflammatories and asks her owners to check in daily. He will sterilise her the following week and possibly do a test for feline AIDS.
Fitou turns out to be a precocious kitty with an uncommonly early heat.
These are the simple cases:
One dog arrived inebriated. The owner had been baking bread and the dog ate dough and fell asleep by the radiator. The dough fermented, produced alcohol and made him drunk.
Another was high after scoffing marijuana-laced birthday cake. One ate plaster, which started to solidify.
Cats are often brought in after falling from great heights, chasing butterflies or birds. The vets call them “les parachutistes”.
Years ago, my own marmalade cat Pip fell into a can of oil-based paint then ran panicked over my linens. I hurried him to the vet, where a team worked on him for several hours, then kept him on a drip for four days.
To be a vet is more than just a job and the mood at the Clinique des Voconces is one of unconditional love and respect for animals.
When an animal dies, the vets take it hard. And when a dog such as Lili recovers against the odds...
Owners’ confidence in their vets is often total. Dr Meffre has had more than one man pull down his pants, asking her for a consultation for which he is afraid to see his doctor.
Recently, an older man came in with his post-surgical cat and, as Dr Girard removed the stitches, said, filled with gratitude, his cat was his meilleur ami.