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Last October marked my 15th year since I started appearing on Good Morning America, and in those years I’ve met a lot of famous people. When I meet them and they find out what I do, I almost always get the same response: “I always wanted to be a veterinarian.”
Yes, that’s right: People such as George Clooney, Martha Stewart and supermodel Giselle Bündchen (not to mention a green room’s worth of Victoria’s Secret models) will tell you that they wanted to do the work I do, to be a veterinarian. But you know who questions their career choice a lot these days? Young veterinarians. And older veterinarians often say they wouldn’t recommend their work to their own children. I still would support a decision by either of my children to follow me into veterinary medicine, and I’ll tell you why after I tell you why so many of my talented, brilliant and hard-working colleagues would not.
One of the reasons, as you might expect, is money. More than half of veterinarians make $40,000 to $100,000 a year, which is a decent salary by any measure. Many of the veterinarians who make more than that aren’t caring for pets day to day — they’re researchers or other specialists for industry or government, executives in veterinary-related businesses or older, long-established owners of veterinary practices. (These statistics, by the way, are from my friends at Veterinary Economics.)
But most young veterinarians never see the high end of the $40,000 to $100,000 salary range. Again, even $40,000 goes a long way in many parts of the country, except for one staggering problem: Many young veterinarians carry massive debt from the student loans that paid for their educations. It’s not uncommon for newly minted DVMs and VMDs to carry $130,000 in educational debt — or more, if they specialize in something like veterinary oncology. This is a crushing burden that makes the normal middle-class life of buying a house and starting a family difficult if not impossible — especially if a spouse also carries educational debt.
The fact that so many smart young people know what they’re facing and still pursue veterinary degrees tells you how much passion we have for our profession. But the money problem? That’s nothing compared to the deaths we deal with every day.
Euthanasia for suffering animals is something we veterinarians believe in and are proud to do in a way that ends pain for animals and eases the grief of the people who love them. Too many times, however, we are asked to kill animals we could save, and that runs counter to everything we have been trained for and believe in with our hearts. Oh, and before you ask why we don’t save them anyway, remember: We can’t afford it, either.
I know that by now you are asking: Why on God’s green earth would you want this life for your own kids?
It’s because of those special moments only veterinarians know, the miracles of seeing an animal who can’t tell you where it hurts (as people can) and knowing what’s wrong and how to treat it, and seeing that treatment work exactly as you knew it would.
But there's more than that; there is also the joy and the privilege of seeing how much the unconditional love of a pet changes the life of a person. I am always talking about what I call “The Bond” between people and their pets, and it’s so real the abstracts of peer-reviewed scientific studies alone would fill the pages of dictionary-size book. And that’s just the things science can quantify. The things we know in our hearts alone are so many they can’t be counted. As a veterinarian, I see it every day.
Finally, of course, it's because of the animals. The kinetic mass that is a healthy, playful kitten, the loving wag of the tail of a sweet senior dog and everything in between. These animals are my life, not just my career.
How could I not recommend veterinary medicine to those I love? And everyone else besides, even if the challenges seem more daunting by the day. Were either of my children to chose my profession, I might be tempted to buy a lottery ticket on their behalf, even though I am not really a gambling man.
But even without such a windfall, the riches of the work we veterinarians do speak for themselves. Which is why I continue to speak for and believe in my profession every day.
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