No expense spared: a dachshund gets ear acupuncture at a Japanese vet's: Photo: Getty
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Should you shell out for a dog’s MRI scan when there are queues at the local food bank?

Money determines which procedures and treatments are carried out. I tend to discourage clients from spending ridiculous sums on their animals.

“I don’t care how much it costs!” The refrain is heard every day in veterinary practice. I have no idea who has some money, who has none, who has less than none, who has won the Lottery. The fluent and well spoken often have nothing to spend on their animals; the incoherent and almost incomprehensible sometimes have thousands in their back pocket.

Money determines which procedures and treatments are carried out. I tend to discourage clients from spending ridiculous sums on their animals. The increasing availability of MRI scans, for example, has certainly enlightened many conditions in the dark backward and abysm of the brain; but it seems that many in the profession are falling back on such diagnostics in cases where it is obvious that something is untreatable. The cost of an MRI scan for a dog? Over £1,000. The cost of the apparatus? Over £1m.

I do care what it costs. The food banks here in the north-east are thriving. When clients tell me that they “don’t care how much it costs”, it is a cause for anxiety.

There was recently a letter in the Veterinary Times by a clinician still traumatised by the abuse from a client who insisted that his puppy should have a CT scan – but would not pay for it. Vets do receive abuse and threats: I reckon on about one tirade every six months. It’s a professional millstone that we cannot respond in kind. Worse, we then receive a letter of complaint through the Royal College. More paperwork. More diplomacy. Surely it’s easier in the Foreign Office.

Some people have their animals insured. Great. Early in my career, I was called out to see a lame horse. On examining it, I found it needed a more extensive work-up than I had the equipment and the experience for. The owner, tab smouldering in the corner of her mouth, agreed that referral was appropriate, especially given the excellence of the insurance policy she had. I suggested an equine practice that might help her. She recoiled, drew hard on her cigarette, shook her head and told me she’d had to sue it for the death of her last horse. So I referred her to a different practice. Her horse went along and was treated appropriately. She left an insurance claim at the practice – for a cat belonging to someone else. There’s bravado for you.

Sometimes, “I don’t care how much it costs!” means, “How dare you mention money! That’s all you vets think about! None of you care!” I think we do care but in a way they’re right – each consultation, I go through all the treatment options and their expenses in detail. Some people are embarrassed that they do not have enough money for the treatment. I praise them wholeheartedly – out of relief that they can spend their money more appropriately. I was once appalled to hear that a client had needed to move house, having spent £5,000 on futile colic surgery for her horse. It is a weakness that must not be exploited by vets.

Besides, there are usually cheaper ways of doing things. Try another practice, for example, as the prices are arbitrary and differ vastly. I have removed a cat’s thyroid (thyroidectomy) in three different practices for £200, £500 and £800. Same surgeon, same procedure, same equipment. I find it extraordinary that clients rarely compare prices on surgery.

Is it a rich man’s world? Most vets who have been qualified for more than ten years earn between £35,000 and £50,000 a year. The farm vets get paid the least, then the equine; the small animal vets are the richest of us all. Where I live, that is often considerably richer than most of our clients.

Then again, compared to the other middle-class professions (accountants, lawyers, medics), we are a poor relation. However, I’d rather squeeze the purulent anal glands of a basset hound than inspect the haemorrhoids of an obese Yorkshireman or advise a crook under which floorboards to hide his or her money. “I don’t care how much it costs . . .”

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The elites vs the people

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Overlooking the effect of Brexit on Northern Ireland is dangerous for the whole UK

We voted to remain in the European Union. The tensions caused by the referendum outcome, and ignoring its effect on us, will cause utter carnage in Northern Ireland.

I’ve been from Northern Ireland all my life. Having spent many years living in Dublin, and now London, I’m quite used to that very fact making people uncomfortable. I get it. From a glance at the news, it would seem we fight each other about flags and anthems and are inexcusably proud of throwing glass at people in bowler hats, or daubing on our own homes the worst paintings ever committed to brickwork. Our tiny little protectorate has generated such disproportionate levels of confusing violence, most people are terrified of saying the wrong thing about any of it. We’re the celiac vegans of nationalities; the worry is that almost anything you offer will offend.

Most people avoid such worries by – whisper it – simply never acknowledging that we exist. This reflexive forgetfulness is, of course, a happy state of affairs compared to what went before. I refer, of course, to the period named, with that Ulster-tinged strain of sardonic understatement, the Troubles, when some 3,600 people were killed and ten times that injured. By some estimates, as many as 115,000 people lost a close relative to violence in this time, and many more a good friend, a colleague or an old school pal. Taken as a portion of 1.5m people, this means a startlingly high percentage of Northern Irish citizens have been directly affected by the conflict, certainly a higher percentage than that of, say, the English electorate who have ever voted for Ukip.

Northern Ireland also contains Britain’s only fully open border with the EU. I know because I grew up on it, specifically between Derry and Donegal, where my dad's back fence demarked an invisible boundary, a small hop from the UK to the Republic, and back. From a migration point of view, this poses a problem, so when Brexit was being deliberated, it did seem odd that Northern Ireland was barely mentioned at all, that the one border that exists in the entire country was given such scant reference during the campaign’s interminable duration. A dreaded EU migrant, travelling freely through Ireland toward my father’s house will not be subject to border checks once he has passed it quietly behind him. No machine guns, no "papers please", none of the fortified rigour mandated by the Leave campaign. Implementing such fortifications would, of course, be a practical nightmare, since so many live in Ireland but work in the UK, and vice versa. But the psychological effect of such a move would be infinitely worse.


Much of the Good Friday Agreement was predicated on free movement between north and south, and cross-border bodies that reinforced a soft-union of the two states; just enough to ameliorate nationalists, but nothing so resembling a united Ireland as to antagonise unionists. Making Irish-identifying Northern Irish citizens undergo any form of border checkpoint between the two countries would not just be a bureaucratic hassle, it would massively inhibit the self-determination nearly half of Northern Ireland's population takes from both countries’ status within a wider European state.

The peace that exists rests largely on this status quo, the acceptance of people who reject violent means and see little injustice in being allowed to live their lives within a British state that dignifies their close connection to their southern neighbours. It is hard to overstate how different this situation would be were armed checkpoints to re-emerge. I remember checkpoints as a child. I remember machine guns and dogs and my dad making sure we weren't nervous while he was being interrogated by armed men inspecting his driving license and checking under our car for explosives. This was every day. Rather than some novel development, this will be a direct, unbidden return to something we worked very, very hard to get away from, something we were promised was over, and something for which thousands of very stubborn, dangerous people struck what many considered a highly improbable truce.

It is this effort to which thousands of Northern Irish people now owe their lives, to which tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands more can count among the living and healthy their siblings, their friends, their colleagues. This may not be at the forefront of minds in Carlisle or Cornwall or aboard the statesmanlike grandeur of a battlebus, but it is the lived reality of Northern Irish people. To stoke up these tensions risks sleepwalking out of a peace that was hard-fought and long considered unthinkable. To do so as a side effect of what appears to be, on its face, little more than a tussle for the leadership of a single political party with little-to-no presence in Northern Ireland seems distasteful in the extreme.

Having stating these facts to friends here in London, I’ve been touched by their sorrow for our plight but, for all their sympathy, it might still not have registered that our problems have a tradition of travelling to people in London and Dublin, in Birmingham and in Monaghan. If greater care is not given to the thoughts, aspirations and fears of Northern Irish people, and those still-present agents of chaos who would seek to use such discontent to their own violent ends, we risk losing a lot more than free use of bagpipes or pleasingly bendy bananas.

Westminster must listen to those who would bear the burden of Fortress Britain’s turrets near their homes or else, to borrow a phrase, Brexit will be a threat to our national security, our economic security and your family's security.

Séamas O'Reilly is a writer and musician. He tweets @shockproofbeats. His website is shocko.info.