Trained in South Africa as a veterinarian, Dr. Joe Gray, shown here with one-eyed Clinic cat Isabelle, came to Canada for the first time in 2002. After taking exams to achieve his Canadian veterinary qualifications, he spent a year living in Deloraine and working in Boissevain. He returned to SA for a few years, then emigrated to Canada permanently in 2006. He’s been a vet in Brandon since that time and is the owner of Grand Valley Animal Clinic. (TIM SMITH / BRANDON SUN)
I know we have a lot of South African people-doctors here, but I didn’t realize that folks with your qualifications were coming as well!
My wife’s a doctor, so we just saw more opportunities here. And I guess now it’s more difficult for a vet to get into Canada — there was just a bigger need when we came for medical doctors.
But it’s pretty expensive nowadays to get in and write all your exams. As a vet, we need to do, I think it’s three exams now. And it’s a pretty big expense to do that.
What was the draw to come to Manitoba in the first place?
I’ve got a friend that I grew up with in South Africa, Dr. Nick Butler — I think I was four years old and he was three years old when we met initially, and he came to Brandon. And we basically followed him. I met my wife, Rina, through him as well, so there’s a fairly strong connection there.
Being a veterinarian seems to be the dream of many young people, I think because a lot of them are fond of animals. Is it a tough profession, though? Medical doctors most often see people when they’re sick, and I’m presuming you just see animals when they’re sick as well.
It’s a very interesting profession, a very nice profession to be in, because it’s not like with human doctors where they have one specialty. We’ve got a lot of different things to look after. We’re the internal specialists and we’re the general practitioners and we’re the surgeons, so there’s a lot of variety. In a way it makes it challenging, but that also makes it interesting, because there’s lots of different disciplines. It never gets boring, basically. And with our practice, it’s especially that way, because we work with large animals, too.
Now when you say large animals, exactly what are you referring to?
Basically horses and cattle. We do quite a fair bit of horse work — equine.
I thought you would go to them! I never realized you’d work on those sorts of creatures at the clinic.
We do go out to them, but we have a facility to get them in here as well. I’d say about 50-50 — 50 per cent of our large animals we go out to, and 50 per cent comes in. That makes it more challenging as well.
So you, yourself, work with all the animals — as you said, no specializations — you don’t just do cats or dogs?
Exactly. We’re general practitioners, so we do a bit of everything. We’ve got special interests — Allister Gray, my colleague — no relation — he does a lot of the horse work, the equine work. And I like the small animal orthopedic work. And then we’ve got Jennifer Beckwith — she does a lot of small pets. So we’ve got special interests, but we’re not specialists.
How many doctors are on staff?
We’ve got five full-time vets, and I think we’ve got five animal health technicians as well. The animal health technicians perform a pretty important role in the day-to-day operations — monitoring patients that are under anesthesia, and after care, et cetera.
Were you always an animal fan?
Yes. I grew up on an acreage, so we always had dogs and cats and horses, and the odd pig. And cows — we always had cows. So I just grew up with animals. I loved working with them — taking care of them. And it was pretty much a very early decision, early on in my life — I think it was Grade Seven — that I decided to become a vet. And I was very focused on getting there. I think that’s something that’s important for young people who decide to go in this direction, is making an early decision and to really work hard at getting there.
I presume that’s because a person needs to take a stream of education that will lead to this, because there’s a fair amount of post-secondary training required, yes?
Exactly. It’s basically the sciences — maths and sciences, obviously — and then because there’s lots of competition and there are lots of young people who want to get into this, it’s pretty important to get the marks, the grades, up there.
It differs from country to country, but as far as I know they have to do about three years of pre-vet — the basic sciences degree — and then after that there’s another four-year vet course.
I would think — and I guess this would apply to medical doctors, too — in many cases you can help the patient, but sometimes, you can’t. So while you get into this line of work because you CAN help and can ease some suffering, there have got to be situations that are difficult. I mean, the happy stuff goes without saying — you can make a dog walk again, or cure something. But then there are the days where you have to put animals down.
Yes. It’s tough. And it never gets easier. You’d expect it to get easier as you get older, but it’s never something you get used to. So unfortunately, that’s the downside of the job, is putting animals down. But then again, you are relieving suffering, so it’s important to think about it that way.
Another challenge is the after-hours — we do work a lot of after-hours as well. There are a fair amount of animals that get hit by cars or get into fight and develop some sort of an emergency. So that’s a bit tough — some people don’t realize how much after-hours time is required.
The after-hours work — are the patients brought to you?
Yes. Unless it’s a large animal that needs attention, like a horse with colic, for instance. Some horse calls we go out to the farm — to the producer or the farm — wherever. But on the small animal side, most of them come to the clinic.
We talked about the downsides of the job — the upside, though, is being able to help?
Yes. It’s just nice helping animals, curing animals. It’s a challenging job and I think that’s why it stays interesting. It’s definitely not monotonous, where you do the same thing every day.
And it’s nice interacting with clients. I think that’s a big misconception in our industry, is that you just need to love animals. That goes without saying, but I think you need to be a bit of a people person, too. If you enjoy interacting with clients, that’s a bit of an upside as well.
One of the big things nowadays is with all the technology we have, that makes it interesting as well. It takes away a bit of that guessing game where you try and figure out what the problem is — your patient can’t speak. Nowadays we can do endoscopy, we can do ultrasound — we can do blood tests, x-rays, right on the premises. So that makes it very interesting — you can just go into so much depth on every patient. That’s rewarding as well, making a diagnosis. I just enjoy the work and I’m glad I picked medicine as a profession. There are more upsides than downsides, that’s for sure.
Awhile back, in the Brandon Sun’s Sound Off column, someone said he or she didn’t believe in having pets spayed. And there was a flurry of response saying that sort of attitude constitutes irresponsible pet ownership. Can I get your spin on neutering and spaying?
Oh sure. There are always pros and cons to anything, but as far as spaying your pet, that’s crucial. We have an overpopulation of unwanted pets as it is — if you look at these Funds for Furry Friends, the Humane Society — they’re just flooded with unwanted pets. So that’s pretty much the most important thing. And as far as spaying bitches, there are health advantages as well. They are very prone to mammary tumours — breast cancer, basically — so you’re increasing the risk of breast cancer if you don’t spay your dog. The other health issue there is that they can develop uterine infections if they’re not spayed. So apart from the fact that it’s preventing unwanted litters, there are huge health benefits as well.
Unlike for humans in Canada, though, there’s no Medicare for animals.
That’s true. And with all the new technology, it can become very expensive for pet owners. But what we try and do is help all animals here — we don’t just help animals if an owner can dish out a thousand bucks on it. We try and give options as far as treatment goes. If we’ve got a barn cat that’s got a bit of a scratch, we don’t need to run expensive tests on it. I think sometimes what happens is that if the owners think they can’t afford it, then the patient doesn’t get ANY treatment. But at least for a lower cost we can do antibiotics and pain medication — give them some level of care.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition August 18, 2012