Irish TV vet Noel Fitzpatrick tells Keeley Bolger animals should be given the same options in surgical care as afforded humans
BRITISH people last year spent a whopping £4.6bn on looking after their animal pals, and it’s estimated the country’s pet population includes 8.5m dogs, 7.4m cats, a million rabbits and 19.9m indoor fish. Ireland may not spend quite as much, but an increasing amount is being spent on pet care.
So, it comes as little surprise that The Supervet, Channel 4’s documentary series following Professor Noel Fitzpatrick, the world’s leading neuro-orthopaedic veterinary surgeon, regularly attracts two million viewers.
Now, the professor is back with a new series, The Supervet: Bionic Specials, which will lift the lid on the science behind some of the advanced procedures carried out at his centre, using special 3D graphics.
“For me, this is a deeply personal series of films, which chart the evolution of thought, regarding techniques and implants, which have taken place for more than a decade,” says Laois man Fitzpatrick.
On that note, here is a taster of what’s in store...
As ever, the series shows the journeys the pets and their owners go through during the surgical process, with pets featured, including a nine-year-old king Charles cavalier called Molly, who suffers from a condition affecting her brain, and Archie, a four-year-old terrier whose left elbow doesn’t fit together properly.
This time, every episode has a different theme; there’s one on joint surgery, one on limb salvage, one on spinal surgery and finally, an episode on regenerative medicine.
Along the way, Fitzpatrick visits the factories building the prostheses he uses, and laboratories working on innovative stem cell therapies.
So, advanced are the procedures carried out at Fitzpatrick’s centre that some are world firsts. The vet is understandably effusive.
“The definition of bionic is having an anatomical structures or physiological processes that are replaced or enhanced by electronic or mechanical components,” he explains.
“Bionic limbs and regenerative medicine involving stem cells and three-dimensional printing of implants will be seen for the very first time by most of the audience. The implants and techniques are so advanced that it may be several years before some of them are available in human patients.”
On a wider point, Fitzpatrick, who founded the charity the Humanimal Trust, insists more should be done to help animals in need.
“I strongly believe that all animals should be given all of the options, all of the time,” he argues.
“Right now, in veterinary medicine, that often doesn’t happen, which is a shame. One of the major reasons is lack of awareness of the available technology, and lack of willingness to employ these technologies for the greater good of our animal friends.”
He believes we can all benefit from doing so.
“Many of the techniques demonstrated in this series are not available for human patients yet,” says the vet. “This should herald a wake-up call for human surgeons everywhere, that unless we move forward together, both human and animal medicine will be much worse off because of this lack of communication.”
With advances in technology — for example, Fitzpatrick can create 3D titanium implants to replace dogs’ and cats’ bones — his main challenge is more the ethical arguments surrounding progress.
“Many people both within and outside the veterinary profession believe we should not move forward with custom joint replacements and bionic limbs or spinal disc replacements and regenerative medicine in pet dogs and cats, because the current options of full limb amputation or euthanasia may, in their view, be kinder for the animal,” he says.
While the owners featured in the series are ecstatic Fitzpatrick can help their beloved pets, not everybody is impressed with his skills.
“I get some criticism for moving things too far in veterinary medicine,” says Fitzpatrick, who once had a practice in Co Cork. “And, yet, I can honestly say, hand on heart, that I would never pick up a scalpel blade and operate on any animal if I wouldn’t do it on my own dog, nor if I didn’t feel I could provide that animal with a reasonable quality of life in a reasonable time frame.”
Fitzpatrick says he knew from an early age he wanted to work with animals.
“All I ever wanted to do was make things better and find solutions where existing options were poor,” he says. “Looking back on the journey, I recognise the cost emotionally and financially... in the development of any technique or implant, one must do so for love.
“I hope that these programmes will go some way to countering any doubt that surrounds motivation for progress in medicine and explains to people the thought, the effort, and the love that goes into each and every implant and technique.”
He hopes the series will change perceptions of the work he does, too.
“What makes the journey deeply personal, is what I believe to be the unfairness and silliness of animals giving humanity all we need in terms of safe drugs and implants, but animals with those diseases not getting that same medical progress by way of return,” he says.
“I sincerely hope this series of programmes will go some way to prompting our social conscience to redress this balance. Then my life will have had some meaning in the overall scheme of things.”
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