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What is veterinary surgery?
Veterinary surgery is defined in law by the Veterinary Surgery Act 1966. The term is defined broadly and includes the diagnosis of animal diseases and injuries; the giving of advice based on such diagnosis; the medical or surgical treatment of animals and the performance of surgical operations on animals.
Who can legally perform veterinary surgery?
The Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966 provides that, with exceptions, only veterinary surgeons registered with the RCVS may practise veterinary surgery in the United Kingdom.
The definitions are broad – how can I tell if only a veterinary surgeon can perform a particular activity?
If there is doubt whether a certain activity or procedure falls within the statutory definition it may be helpful to consider questions such as the following.
- is the activity or procedure something which any veterinary surgeon must have been trained to carry out?
- is it necessary to be a veterinary surgeon in order to understand why and how it is done and what the risks are?
- does it require a full assessment by a veterinary surgeon of the best course of action at the outset?
- does it require continuing assessment by a veterinary surgeon who can take the necessary action if something goes wrong?
- is differential diagnosis involved (distinguishing a particular condition from others that present with the same symptoms) as distinct from the simple observation that something is amiss?
- is there a potential for unnecessary or inappropriate management or treatment as a result of misdiagnosis?
- does it entail entering the body cavity of the animal?
- is there a potential for pain or stress to the animal if it is not done properly?
- is there a potential for spreading disease?
- does it involve decisions on the use of medicines?
Positive answers will tend to strengthen the case for saying that the activity or procedure in question falls within "the art and science of veterinary surgery and medicine". The questions are not, however, a checklist to be applied mechanically. One or more "yes" answers do not necessarily imply that the activity or procedure is the practice of veterinary surgery, and it may not be possible to give firm "yes" or "no" answers to all the questions. In borderline cases the conclusion may be that it is indeed the practice of veterinary surgery, but one which could be carried out by a non-veterinarian subject to appropriate safeguards.
What are the exemptions?
There are many exceptions to the rule that only veterinary surgeons can practise veterinary surgery. Thus, for example, the owner of an animal can give it minor medical treatment, and anyone can render first aid in an emergency in order to save an animal’s life or relieve pain or suffering. The owners of farm animals, and other people engaged in caring for them, can give them medical treatment and carry out minor surgery (not involving entry into a body cavity). Other exceptions include treatment given by veterinary nurses and student veterinary nurses [link to veterinary nursing section], veterinary students, procedures authorised under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, certain operations by registered medical or dental practitioners, and minor treatments, tests or operations specified in Ministerial orders (known as exemption orders).