The career of a veterinarian is among the short list of jobs that kids imagining their futures often dream of. To be sure, stepping into the shoes of Doctor Dolittle has many rewards, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Here are a few insights that veterinarians have gained from their years of experience.
1. THE JOB IS A LOT MORE DANGEROUS THAN SOME PEOPLE REALIZE.
A lot of people go into the veterinary profession planning to care for pets and cute, furry critters, but the job is not all purrs and wagging tails. “Any dog will bite you if you put them in a position where they’re frightened,” says Sue, a veterinarian in New Orleans, who explains that even with normally gentle dogs, vets and staff must use caution at work. Even cats can be dangerous, particularly because it is difficult to read their body language. “Cat bites can be nasty,” says Sue. “A bad one to the hand could end your surgical career.” And that’s to say nothing of large animals like horses, exotics like monkeys, and infections like rabies or plague. “If a monkey spits in your eye, it can be really bad news,” Sue says. “Some carry a strain of monkey herpes that is lethal to humans.” In addition, vets encounter all kinds of things that are both hazardous to health and really gross—like maggots and open wounds.
2. IT’S ALSO UNPREDICTABLE.
Being a veterinarian involves a tremendous amount of variety, both in terms of situations encountered on a daily basis and different animal anatomies. While the vast majority of patients encountered at a regular vet clinic are dogs and cats, vets also see their fair share of rodents, birds and reptiles. This sometimes means that a lot of creativity and problem-solving ability is required. “Once a hamster came in with a broken leg and needed a splint,” Sue says. “We ended up making one out of a syringe.”
3. OWNERS SOMETIMES REQUIRE AS MUCH TREATMENT AS ANIMALS.
Since the patients cannot speak for themselves, veterinarians spend a great deal of time communicating with their human owners. “To an extent we’re treating owners as much as patients,” Sue says. Talking to owners who are very attached to their animals requires a lot of tact, as does laying out treatment options to those ill-equipped to afford them. “When owners are short on money, it is tough,” Sue says. Dr. Eleanor Acworth, a mobile veterinarian based in Dutchess County, New York, adds that it can be very difficult “convincing (owners) to do what’s right for their animals. Some people don’t listen,” she laments. “They would rather pay for a fancy cellphone than to get their cat neutered.”
4. VETS KNOW WHEN YOU’RE LYING.
“If you say that your dog only eats x cups of food, but he looks like an ottoman, we know you’re not telling the truth,” Sue says. “No, he’s not just big-boned.”
5. BUT THEY ARE NOT PERFECT PET-OWNERS THEMSELVES.
“I’m a much worse pet owner since becoming a vet,” Sue admits. “Before vet school, I was maybe a little overprotective. Now I've probably gone the other way because I'm like, ‘Oh well, I'll just put him back together myself if he gets broken.’ My dog started coughing recently and I thought ‘oh, kennel cough.’ I didn't even do an exam on him, I just kept him home from the dog park until he stopped coughing. But,” she stresses, “I'm a professional with the experience to recognize when things are about to get out of hand and the skill to intervene—this is not what I would recommend to clients.”
6. THEY DEAL WITH DEATH FREQUENTLY.
An unfortunate part of being a vet is euthanizing animals who are old, sick, or whose owners simply can no longer afford their medical treatment. “I have worked shifts where I didn’t have a single patient walk out alive,” Sue says. That sort of circumstance would be unimaginable in human medicine, and it can understandably be very hard on vets, who can suffer compassion fatigue and burnout.
7. EVEN VETS HAVE THEIR FAVORITE ANIMALS.
Acworth says that her favorite animals to work with are cows, which is probably good since she sees so many of them. She cautions, however, that “de-horning them is the worst.” She is not a big fan of llamas, however, because of their tendency to spit, sometimes on the vet caring for them.
8. DOGS LOVE TO EAT PANTIES.
People leave all sorts of things lying around that are hazardous to pets. “Don’t leave your panties lying around,” Sue says. “Dogs love to eat them, and they can cause a gastrointestinal obstruction or lead to surgery. Same thing with tampons. Dogs also love eating marijuana.” But just like owners who bring in fat dogs, people who bring a stoned dog into a clinic often lie. “I’ve had owners bring in a dog who is acting in a really bizarre manner,” Sue says, “but when I suggest that he may have gotten into someone’s weed, the owner says ‘Oh, I would never have that around.’” Once again, vets know when you’re fibbing!
9. “EXOTIC” IS RELATIVE.
“Pretty much anything that is not a dog or a cat is considered exotic,” says Sue. However, that landscape can change pretty quickly in the realm of farm or zoo veterinary medicine. Acworth, for instance, deals with a lot of farm animals in her daily rounds, including llamas. “Llamas do count as farm animals, not as exotics,” she says. “They give hair, and they serve a purpose.” Without question, though, the kangaroos Acworth works with at area petting zoos count as exotic. “They are such cool animals,” she says. “Their tails are solid muscle—really almost like another limb.”
10. SURGERY CAN RAISE AN APPETITE.
Sue describes performing cosmetic surgery on a cow and using a cauterizing knife to remove a wart. “It smelled like beef,” she says.
11. THEY DON’T MAKE A LOT OF MONEY.
Many vets graduate with high amounts of debt, often upward of $100,000, but often don’t make that much money, particularly when compared with their human doctor counterparts. (According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 2014 median pay for a veterinarian was $87,590, compared to $187,200 for physicians and surgeons.) But for many veterinarians, the profession is a lifelong passion. “I pretty much wanted to be a veterinarian my whole life, like most of us,” Acworth says.
12. THEY DEPEND ON THEIR SUPPORT STAFF.
Vets cannot get through the day without their dedicated techs and assistants. As Sue says, “we depend a lot on our support staff to help us do our jobs safely. It's a team effort, and we couldn't do it without them. The receptionists have one of the most difficult jobs in the vet clinic in handling the front desk, as they are the first line of people interacting with clients that may be very emotional. Behind every good vet is a team of hard-working, caring individuals invested in the task of helping people help their pets.”
All images courtesy of Getty