Students performing mock veterinary operation

Every spring, our veterinary schools and colleges send another class of young veterinarians out into the world. Although my graduation from the Washington State College of Veterinary Medicine was more than 30 years ago, I will never forget how I felt that day — a mix of excitement and nervousness, of knowing I knew a lot but that I would never know it all. And like most of my colleagues, I’ve never stopped trying to learn more.

While much of what I’ve learned in the last 30 years is new information from the bleeding edge of medicine, some of what I’ve picked up is more about common sense. And while I suspect those lessons are the kind of thing only time can teach, I want to share the three things I most wish I’d known when I graduated.

Veterinarians Are Not Clairvoyant

Veterinarians should approach every new client on equal terms and never assume knowledge of the depth and breadth of The Bond people share with their pets. Early in my career, I fell into the trap of making assumptions about the love people had for their pets, how responsible they were as pet owners and how much they were willing to invest in the pet’s health and well-being based on the breed of pet (purebred vs. mutt), where they lived (there’s always a poorer part of town and a more affluent one) and how the pet owners were dressed or groomed.

To my surprise and delight, I found that many of the people I thought wouldn’t or couldn’t do the best by their pet did. Conversely, to my dismay and disappointment, those I would have sworn could lavish time and money on optimal pet care often didn’t — or wouldn’t.

It wasn’t long before I stopped making assumptions about pet owners and began to practice by the adage "I’m always going to recommend the highest level of care, and only the pet owner can decrease that level, not me. I’m a pet advocate in the exam room."

Pets Feel Pain, Too

I was taught in veterinary school that animals didn’t feel pain the same way humans did, and if they did feel pain, it was good — yes, good — because they would be less likely to reinjure themselves after surgery if it hurt to move. Eventually, veterinary researchers showed that animals have all the same neural pathways we do and that they experience pain to the same degree as humans. They just couldn’t tell us when and where it hurt.

Or could they? Veterinarians began to notice that pets in pain vocalized; limped; refused to play; lost their appetites; stopped running, jumping and climbing; became aggressive; and stopped grooming themselves or using the litterbox. One integrative medicine specialist, Dr. Narda Robinson of Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, taught me to look at where animals were licking or rubbing themselves, or feel for areas of increased temperature, a sign of inflammation.

Veterinary medicine eventually cracked the code on detecting pain. Now we take aggressive steps to prevent and alleviate pain and discomfort. These days it’s best practice to give pain medication before, during and after a surgery or dental procedure. And it’s not “just” to ease suffering: Pain causes stress, and that slows healing. After all these years, I have become an advocate of pain management for pets, because I believe it’s good medicine.

Preventive Care Counts

When I graduated from veterinary school, I assumed that my work would consist of detecting illness or injury and fixing what was wrong. I soon learned, though, that it’s much less expensive for the pet owner, and much less debilitating for the pet, to prevent problems instead. Daily oral care can prolong the time between professional cleanings and possibly prevent extractions. Regular parasite control is much less stressful than deworming or treating flea allergy dermatitis or a tick-borne disease. Bathing pets more frequently is less expensive than treating chronic ear infections from environmental allergies.

Caring for the “pet ecosystem” is about more than just preventive care; I think of it as stretching from pre-cradle to post-grave. It starts with helping people find the right pet for their situation and lifestyle (that’s the pre-cradle part). It’s about helping with nutritional counseling, preventive care, treatment for accidents and illnesses, socialization and behavior training, senior pet care, and, finally, saying goodbye and bereavement counseling (post-grave). By orchestrating the entire ecosystem of the pet, I can minimize problems, maximize benefits and save the pet owner money without shortchanging the pet.

Some of my new young colleagues will pick up these essential lessons sooner rather than later and will go on to be the leaders of the next generation in veterinary medicine. I look forward to learning what they’ll be sharing with the newly minted graduates three decades from now.