His career has led Dr Ray Ferguson from a small town in rural Victoria to an Order of Australia for his services to the veterinary profession. By Shane Conroy
Dr Ray Ferguson spent his early childhood in a small town in country Victoria. His dad was a grocer and his mum was a school teacher, and he recalls plenty of time spent on his uncle’s farm. The family moved to southern NSW when Ray was 11, and after completing primary school, he left the family home to attend Yanco Agricultural High School near Leeton.
“I remember those years very fondly,” he says. “The school is set on a farm on the Murrumbidgee River, and I was there boarding with a bunch of country kids. We took turns weeding the veggie patch, milking the cows and feeding the chooks. And we were all footy mad.”
But Dr Ferguson didn’t just love footy and sport. He also showed aptitude in the classroom and won a commonwealth scholarship to attend Sydney University. He planned to follow his mum into a teaching career—until a chance meeting with a home-town friend.
“I was back home and I got chatting with the local solicitor at a party,” he says. “I told him I was going to study teaching, and he suggested veterinary science. It was outside my paradigm really. I wanted to get my teaching degree, go back to Yanco and coach the first 13. But veterinary science would open up more job prospects, and that got me thinking.”
Vets in the city
So Dr Ferguson switched from teaching to veterinary science and left home for the big smoke. Once again, he found himself among a group of country kids all enjoying their first adventure in the city.
“I really enjoyed university life. There were about 90 of us doing the course and I stayed at Wesley College, which was a well-balanced lifestyle because it was co-ed,” he laughs.
But his scholarship didn’t cover all his bills, so Dr Ferguson took a government cadetship to see him through his degree. After uni, he went to work for the Department of Primary Industries as a veterinary officer in the export abattoirs.
“I got to travel around the place and worked in Dubbo, Blaney, Lismore, Casino and Sydney, but after a few months it started to wear thin,” he says. “I resigned and came back to northern Victoria where I went into dairy practice.”
That meant 80-hour weeks as well as weekend footy, but Dr Ferguson was content to work hard and develop his clinical skills. Then came a trip to an equine reproductive conference in Queensland.
“I met a lot of my contemporaries who were doing wonderful things, and that really opened my eyes,” he says. “I thought, ‘Well, what are you doing, Ray? You’re down there delivering calves and treating milk fever’.”
Doing it for the dogs
But wonderful things were certainly around the corner for Dr Ferguson. He took a job at a veterinary clinic in Cranbourne on the outskirts of Melbourne for 18 months, before moving closer into the city in East Oakleigh. After much hard work, Dr Ferguson became a partner in the practice and built it into a thriving clinic. Now operating as Monash Veterinary Clinic, the practice has enjoyed many years of success and has an impeccable reputation across the country for innovations in the breeding and treatment of sporting and working dogs.
“My interest in greyhounds goes right back to my student days,” Dr Ferguson explains. “I worked in Dr Harry Cooper’s practice, and he would talk about greyhounds with a degree of science. In those days, trainers used a lot of lay mumbo jumbo that didn’t make a great deal of sense. I became intrigued by the lack of science in the industry.”
Dr Ferguson founded the Australian Greyhound Working and Sporting Dog Veterinarians Group in 1985, and he was instrumental in eradicating anabolic steroids in the greyhound industry during the late 1990s.
“Leading up to the Sydney 2000 Olympics, the governing bodies wanted to ban injectable anabolic steroids in NSW. Some vets were thought to be supplying gyms, and they wanted to keep injectables away from human athletes.”
It was an unpopular decision within the greyhound industry at the time, and Dr Ferguson found himself face to face with more than one enraged racing identity.
“The ban on injectables gave me an opportunity to start having sensible discussions about how we could get anabolics out of racing all together,” he says. “I remember going to a meeting of greyhound trainers in Sydney. They were furious and I almost got run out of town. Thankfully, these days the power has been transferred away from the trainers and to the stewards and administrators.”
Finding the fountain of youth
By the early 2000s, Dr Ferguson had built Monash Vet Clinic into a nationally renowned specialist in the breeding and treatment of sporting and working dogs. But that was set to explode even more after he received a phone call from Professor Richard Boyd at Monash University around 2007.
The university was studying the use of stem cell therapy in dogs and wanted Dr Ferguson’s help. Following a range of studies and tests, Dr Ferguson injected stem cells into the knees of five lame dogs.
“And you know what? They all got better,” he says. “It was incredibly exciting. We thought we had discovered the fountain of youth.”
While follow-up studies and trials revealed limited results in the treatment of other illnesses and conditions, Dr Ferguson and the team at Monash University had nonetheless developed a powerful treatment for lameness and arthritis in dogs.
“It was reported in the Brisbane papers, and suddenly I found myself talking about it on all the TV stations,” he says. “The phones at the practice went absolutely crazy. Clients were coming in from all over the country.”
Now in his early 70s, Dr Ferguson continues to pioneer the use of stem cell therapy for lameness and arthritis in dogs. He says the treatment is still not in mainstream use, and more long-term trials, evidence-based studies and data-sharing between vets is required.
“I presented a paper at the AVA conference in 2010 on this topic,” he says. “It hasn’t turned out to be the fountain of youth. But it certainly is another useful tool.”
Work is its own reward
Dr Ferguson’s contribution to veterinary sciences was recognised in early 2020 with an Order of Australia. But the ever humble boy from country Victoria almost missed out on the award.
“I thought it was a scam,” he laughs. “I got an email and there was a phone number at the bottom. So I rang it, quoted a reference number, and they confirmed I was in the mix. Two weeks before the ceremony, they told me I had got it, but I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone until it was announced on the day.”
COVID-19 restrictions put a damper on the celebrations, but that didn’t matter much to Dr Ferguson.
“When the pandemic is over, we’ll dress up and go to Government House and get the medal,” he says. “It’s a recognition of the work I’ve done, and I’m flattered. I’ve heard from a lot of old friends, which has been nice. I’d like to think that the Australian Greyhound Working and Sporting Dog Veterinarians Group will continue after I drop off the perch. We’re slowly getting bigger and better, and hopefully the award will bring some more attention and interest to it.”
Dr Ferguson sold his partnership stake in Monash Vet Clinic a few years ago, but he continues to treat dogs suffering from arthritis.
“I carry around some frozen stem cells with me,” he says. “I still go into the practice one day a week, and I’ll continue to do so for as long as I can. I still love going to work.”