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Meet Northern Ireland's very own supervet, whose treatments for ailing pets range from acupuncture to an underwater treadmill

Mum-of-three Siobhan Menzies (49) provides a full range of holistic therapies for animals at Earlswood Vets in east Belfast. She tells Stephanie Bell about breaking into what was traditionally a male-dominated profession, why she's passionate about complementary medicine for animals and her concerns that elderly cats could be in pain unknown to their owners

To her many grateful clients Siobhan Menzies is regarded as Northern Ireland's very own supervet - the first in her profession to bring pain relief to pets here using holistic treatments such as acupuncture and hydrotherapy.

A force of nature herself, she broke the mould to ease the suffering of all creatures great and small with her practice Holistic Pet NI, where she tackles the health issues of everything from horses to Rottweilers using acupuncture needles, hydrotherapy and physiotherapy.

Setting up an alternative medicine clinic meant running the gauntlet of a healthy dose of scepticism and for some time within her profession she was regarded as the 'voodoo vet'.

Yet it wasn't the first time that this dedicated professional says that she has had to face opposition to follow her passion.

Thirty years ago when she studied to become a vet, it was such a male-dominated profession that even her teachers tried to steer her down another career path. Back then she had to fight harder to win over farmers and other clients to prove that gender was no barrier to being a good vet.

Happily, that experience stood her in good stead when, in 2009, she opened her Earlswood rehabilitation unit - the first clinic to provide acupuncture, physical rehabilitation, therapeutic laser and hydrotherapy on an underwater treadmill to pets.

Siobhan's unique treatments for animals are in keeping with her views that there is one medicine for animals and humans - a belief held by TV supervet Noel Fitzpatrick, one of whose patients she has treated.

She is also passionate about the need for greater awareness of pain in cats and plans to launch a campaign this autumn to highlight the fact that over 90% of older cats are in pain, a statistic which many owners are not aware of as cats tend to hide their distress.

Today, as well as her own clinic, she provides her treatments through seven veterinary practices across the province and one in Kent.

Siobhan (49) lives in Donaghadee with husband Peter Massey (60), a business consultant, and three children Orla (20), who is studying history and politics at Edinburgh University, Cormak (19), a chemical engineering student who is also at Edinburgh, and Niamh (14), who hopes to follow her mum into veterinary medicine.

Originally from Co Tyrone, she grew up in a household full of pets and spent her summers surrounded by animals on her grandparents' farms.

She says that she knew from the age of four that she wanted to be a vet but wasn't prepared for the opposition she would encounter when she started her studies.

Siobhan explains: "I think I've always battled to follow my passion, often in the face of opposition.

"I wanted to be a vet from when I was four and at my grammar school the teachers sat me down and tried to persuade me to switch to medicine as it was a more appropriate career for a female, but I wasn't going to be deterred.

"I was awarded a Hans Sloane memorial prize for my A-levels and set off to the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies in Edinburgh in 1985.

"At that stage veterinary medicine was still very much a male-dominated profession.

"During my first job interview the boss told me: 'You're female, Siobhan, and I'm not sure how that's going to go down with the farmers here'.

"It was a mixed, mostly large animal practice with a substantial element of emergency work.

"There was only the boss and myself, so you worked every day until 7pm and were on call every second night and weekend.

"You were pretty much guaranteed to get called out at least once and sometimes three times a night and up to 20 times on a Saturday or Sunday.

"I was healthy and 23 and absolutely loved it. Nothing beats that feeling of driving back home at sunrise after a lambing or a calving.

"I was offered a partnership after 18 months but declined it and moved to small animal practice as I wanted to start a family."

She spent the next decade in small animal practice and studied homeopathy and acupuncture, taking a special interest in feline medicine.

Life as a vet is tough and around the time her youngest child was born in 2002 the long hours were beginning to take their toll on Siobhan's physical health, all of which helped her to make the decision to leave general practice and establish her new holistic clinic.

She explains: "It can be a tough job and as women and mothers you are trying to do your best for your families, patients and clients. Most of the time it works great but sometimes you struggle.

"I had stretched myself too thin and my physical health was beginning to suffer. I knew I needed to give my body a break. I studied homeopathy and met vets through that who were doing acupuncture, so I studied acupuncture and met other vets who were doing physiotherapy.

"Conventional medicine doesn't have all the answers and sometimes animals were getting sicker. I'm not against conventional medicine but believe that complementary medicine can work alongside it.

"Where complementary medicine comes into its own is when there is no conventional treatment or when an animal is suffering unpleasant side-effects of conventional medicine, or if the conventional treatment isn't working."

News of Siobhan's work spread very quickly through word-of-mouth and her business has thrived from day one, even though she did initially come up against some scepticism within the profession.

She says: "I was regarded by many vets as the 'voodoo vet' as I was the only vet using acupuncture in Northern Ireland. We now provide multimodal pain management clinics in seven veterinary practices here and one in Kent and I employ two other vets, Elsa from Spain and Esther, from Co Down. I am passionate about providing pain management therapies for small animals and making practitioners aware of chronic pain - the clinical signs and therapeutic options.

She describes herself as a bit of a "pain geek" and is determined to remain at the cutting edge of pain relief, easing the suffering of pets. Unsurprisingly, worried pet owners flock to her clinic. Most of her work is with pets suffering from age-related arthritis and dogs who have suffered sport injuries and ligament ruptures.

However, while most of her patients are dogs, she is aware that a lot of older cats are in pain, even though many owners will not realise they are suffering.

Siobhan explains: "Dogs are social predators and will rely on their two-legged pack to look after them and will let them know if they are in pain. Cats on the other hand are solitary predators and if they are in pain they would be more vulnerable to attack from a competitor, and for this reason are more likely to keep their pain quiet.

"There will be signs which an owner can pick up on. They will try to stay very still and not move around so much and they won't be able to jump up to their favourite places in the way that they might have been doing. Their pattern of activity will change and sometimes they might lick the painful spot to try and relieve the pain.

"There is a lot an owner can do to make life easier for a cat in pain. Like humans the pain kicks in mostly in the colder months so I hope to try and raise awareness in the autumn."

Although most of her own work is with domestic animals she has treated some horses with her complementary therapies. She is also delighted that the profession has changed and more women are training to be vets than men.

However, due to the long hours and nature of the type of person attracted to veterinary practice, it ranks as the profession with the highest suicide rate, a startling fact that causes her concern.

She says: "Ten years ago I went to a mental health conference and vets were ranked as having the highest rate of suicide and mental health issues.

"This year we had another conference and vets were still the top risk, so a lot is being done within the profession to create awareness and support.

"People who apply to become vets usually have a lot of empathy and are very compassionate.

"We also work extremely hard and wouldn't be the best paid.

"There are a lot of stresses and strains and it's hard to get a good work/life balance because of the long hours.

"Vets also tend to be perfectionists and if you can't fix something you might not have the safety net to support you as you haven't allowed enough time for family and friends.

"When I qualified you weren't expected to know everything, you just did your best, but nowadays you are much more on show and if you fail you could find yourself on Facebook."

As a nation of animal lovers, Siobhan sees the love and dedication of pet owners every day and it never ceases to surprise her.

She adds: "I have seen people come into the clinic that are themselves crippled with pain and would benefit from acupuncture, yet they are prepared to pay for it for their pets and not for themselves. In Northern Ireland a pet is not a luxury, but an essential item in people's lives. Animals give so much love - and their owners give it back."

Siobhan's clinic is at her home outside Donaghadee. For further information go to www.holisticpetni.com or tel: 0 7799 420 537. She also works two days a week at Earlswood Veterinary clinic in Belfast, one day a month at Clare Vets in Ballyclare and Garden Lodge in Holywood and two mornings a week at her own surgery outside Donaghadee.

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