Public relations company director Louisa McCarthy is a fixture on the London luxury scene, representing high-end companies, from Vertu to Audemars Piguet. Almost equally renowned in luxury, however, is McCarthy’s 11-year-old black pug, Nero, a sweet-natured and intelligent creature, even if, given the fashionable breed’s resemblance to a cut-up log, I often have difficulty working out which end of him is which.
McCarthy is devoted to Nero, and vice versa. But pugs can be high maintenance; Louisa’s battle to keep Nero on the road over the past few years, as he advances beyond his smell-by date, reminds me of the Sisyphean struggle I once had to keep a 1963 Mark 2 Jaguar in tail-wagging order.
Five years ago, Nero had his first serious health problem, an eye ulcer that manifested at the beginning of a bank holiday weekend. The vet said he needed a specialist centre, the equivalent of a teaching hospital, and the closest one was in Suffolk, near Newmarket, McCarthy recalls. “The place he suggested was called the Animal Health Trust, which I’d never heard of, and Newmarket was a huge trek, but I took him immediately.
“I had no idea what to expect or how much it might cost, but I’d already written off thousands of pounds in my mind. So we arrived at a small but beautiful stately home and, around it, there were modern medical buildings as far as you could see. It was a cross between an Ivy League campus and an exclusive private hospital. We were greeted as if we were coming into a private ER with a reception party of gorgeous-looking vets from all over the world. Nero was seen immediately by three ophthalmologists, including the head consultant. They were all very patient and didn’t make me feel stupid when I became tearful.”
A week later Nero returned to London, fully cured but, pugs being pugs, he has since been back to the AHT several times with eye and ear problems, including an abscess that required an ear canal to be removed. “He’s really been through the mill, but he bounces back because he’s fit, and the care they give him is unbelievable,” says McCarthy. “He has the best vets looking after him and, as a result, I’m told he might live to 16 or more, which would be very old for a pug.”
It turns out that the rural medical campus that cares for Nero is a global phenomenon in the veterinary world, but at the same time an institution unknown to many caring animal lovers. The British royal family use and support it energetically (Princess Anne is the AHT’s longstanding president); Olympic-level equestrians rely on it for looking after their horses; and it attends to the animals of some well-advised celebrities in the UK and abroad. But to the broad public, it only comes on the radar when stories occasionally appear in the press, such as when a pet chicken had a cancerous leg removed or when the legendary racehorse Mill Reef was treated for a fracture.
The AHT specialises in “companion animals” – principally dogs, cats and horses, for which those in the know regard it as one of the finest veterinary centres in the world. But it is also a non-profit, which ensures that the bills can be, a little counterintuitively, lower than at many run-of-the-mill commercial practices. Nero has had five major operations now, each involving a week or more of board, anaesthesia, treatment, drugs and round-the-clock nursing care, but the total bill, covered mostly by insurance, has been inside £20,000. McCarthy has contributed about £8,000 of this, although her premiums have risen from £15 to £165 a month.
Those familiar with the American health system will recognise a similarity here to the celebrated not-for‑profit Mayo Clinics, where some of the world’s finest medical treatment for humans costs less than might be expected. Like the Mayo Clinics, the AHT puts the money it makes from treating animals, plus legacies and donations – typically £14m a year – into research. As I discovered on a tour of the AHT where I met some of its 240 (mostly medical) staff, AHT consultants, who are among the global elite of veterinarians, tend to earn under £50,000. They could easily double that in private practice.
“Elsewhere I would earn much more and do a lot less out-of-office hours,” explains Claudia Hartley, an ophthalmologist who tended to Nero. “People don’t work here for the money. You need to genuinely love the animals and the science, and want to improve things at a world-class level. We are cutting-edge, and we attract that type of mind.”
The facilities are astonishing. I toured a pool where a team of animal hydrotherapy specialists were in the ninth month of painstakingly encouraging a Newfoundland St Bernard crossbreed with genetic elbow dysplasia to swim. The dog’s owner lives an hour’s drive away. “The great comfort here is knowing that if anything went wrong, there are highly skilled specialists on hand within minutes,” she told me. “It’s also very collaborative. My dog came here when he was young and was a handful; the staff worked incredibly hard with me to make the treatment work.”
Then I visited the AHT’s cancer centre, opened in 2013 after millions of pounds of fundraising. It is equipped like a dream human hospital, with MRI and CT scanning, a linear accelerator with laser guidance, chemotherapy, ultrasound, X-ray, operating theatres and, in the bunker with 6ft-thick concrete walls, a radiotherapy unit – all within a tranquil park setting, with gates everywhere to stop patients escaping, and a padded “knockdown room” for anaesthetising bewildered animals (“MRI-ing a horse can be a challenge,” said one of the multiple vets in attendance).
There comes a point in this story, of course, when questions do need to be asked. Advanced cancer treatment for cats? Dogs getting three weeks of daily radiotherapy? Long-term hydrotherapy for a genetically semi-viable puppy? Animals being routinely seen by seven or eight specialists and then kept in hospital for weeks?
While impressed and touched by the spirit of urgency and earnestness at the AHT, the thought struck that this does seem a lot of resources targeted on what, with the best will in the world, represents quite a small section of life. Louisa McCarthy is aware that some regard her devotion to Nero as eccentric, and even Dr Hartley admitted to me that she sees such high level of care as something of a luxury.
“My own parents have questioned this,” she said. “My uncle was a GP and I grew up thinking if we’re not making a difference to human life, we’re not really making a difference. And I share some of that, but for centuries we’ve used animals as a commodity for entertainment, trophy-hunting, blood sports, bull-fighting, and harvesting products. They’ve always served these needs of ours, and I strongly believe that this deserves some kind of reversal.”
Dr Mark Vaudin, a genetic scientist and CEO of the AHT, admits that people can have a problem understanding why anyone would keep sick animals alive at such cost. “But,” he says, “we have an incredibly large educational remit and we couldn’t do that without animals to treat. Also, what I’ve learnt to understand in 11 years here is that a lot of people will go to any lengths for their pets.”
My own conclusion, after initially smiling just a little at McCarthy’s saga of keeping Nero going, then later seeing the Animal Health Trust in action, is this. What the AHT does is an eloquent illustration of the advanced level of civilisation mankind has reached. Its work is a truly magnificent thing and needs to be better supported and better known among educated, humane society.