5 Things I Didn’t Learn in Vet School
Learning in veterinary school is a lot like trying to take a sip of water from an open fire hydrant. With the sheer volume of coursework, covering everything from biochemistry, dermatology and ophthalmology to dentistry and neurology — not to mention learning all the parasite life cycles for chickens, goats, horses, cattle, dogs, cats and pigs, it’s no wonder some things may get lost along the way.
I can’t speak for everyone, but for me, it took years in practice, working with pets and their owners, to learn some of the most essential lessons.
Regular Preventive Care Is Incredibly ImportantIn veterinary school, it was all about surgical skills, complex medical cases and heart-stopping emergency room moments. Of course, we learned about infectious diseases, but I learned very little about the incredible importance of preventive care, because there simply wasn’t time.
What I found after I started practicing is that a large percentage of a small-animal veterinarian’s job is preventive care. And with good reason: The long-term health and well-being of my patients depend on it.
Unlike the experiences many vet students have in veterinary school, the pet owner relationships in general practice tend to be long-term: Many veterinarians will see patients from cradle to the grave. When you work with these pets year after year, your focus changes from treating a one-time disease to helping prevent health problems from occurring in the first place. I quickly realized that the way to create a lifetime of wellness is through regular exams and preventive care.
Many pet owners are still under the mistaken assumption that the only reason to take a healthy pet to the veterinarian on a regular basis is for vaccines. While vaccines are a critical part of preventive care, there is so much more to the visit. Among other things, your veterinarian will evaluate your pet’s vital signs; look for any weight changes, signs of pain or mental health issues including aggression and anxiety; assess dental health, nutritional and parasite control needs; and so much more. A regular exam provides a WEALTH of information for the discerning pet owners who want their pets to live healthier lives. Regular exams help your veterinarian identify problems early, and course correct for the best quality of life, as well as reduce the risk of transmissible diseases between animals and people.
Owners Want to Take an Active Role in Their Pets’ HealthInterestingly, I did less pet owner education when I first started in practice than I do now. Of course, that was before pet owners had access to the mountain of information available from a split-second Google search. Many times, pet owners have researched their pets’ signs on the internet before they come in and are able to ask informed questions, because they want to be more informed about their pets’ health.
At the same time, astute pet owners realize that much of what is available on the internet can be questionable, and they rely on me to steer them true in an ocean of information. I had NO IDEA when I graduated that my clients would rely on me to separate the good from the bad internet information, so they could make more informed decisions about their pets.
It Is a Privilege to Help with EuthanasiaIn veterinary school, I rarely witnessed euthanasias. The residents usually elected to perform them with the families alone. Obviously, this was not a time for veterinary students to observe, especially during a moment that can literally tear a pet owner’s heart in two. At the time, I could not have comprehended the privilege and responsibility of being part of a beloved pet’s last moments on earth.
When I perform a euthanasia, I care for the pet owner as much as the pet. I walk the owner through the process; I reassure him or her that it is essentially painless for the pet; I comfort, and hug, and hold hands, and connect with grieving people on almost a spiritual level. When I euthanize a pet, I feel like I am a hospice caregiver, providing love while eliminating pain. It is an incredible privilege to be able to provide that kind of care and comfort for my patients and their owners.
Just the other day, I sent a sweet older Shih Tzu over the rainbow bridge in the presence of her family, including a 9-year-old girl who is the same age as my youngest child. Although it was heartbreaking, I felt thankful to be able to act as a liaison between life and death.
I am able to share love and connection with people when they need it most, and I am glad to care for people and pets in this sacred way.
Veterinarians Protect Human Health, TooWhile I went into veterinary medicine to care for the health of animals, I ended up caring for the health of humans as well.
A decent portion of my job as a veterinarian is keeping families safe from diseases that their pets may unknowingly harbor. From ringworm to intestinal parasites and other disease-causing agents, I keep my eyes, ears and other senses tuned for diseases that might affect humans when I see your pet in the clinic. You might not even know it, but your veterinarian is doing the same thing. For example, every time you purchase heartworm preventives from your veterinarian, many of these medications also help protect against internal parasites that can infect humans, especially children.
In Colorado, we have a wealth of zoonotic diseases, which can be spread from animals to humans, including rabies, plague and tularemia. Veterinarians here have to be on the lookout to help protect human health. We also have a large beef industry, and veterinarians are hard at work protecting your food supply, so you don’t get sick from food-borne diseases.
Reducing Pet Stress Leads to Better CareIn veterinary school, we didn’t talk much about the detrimental effects of fear on pets. At the same time, many pets, especially cats, did not receive vital veterinary care, because transporting fearful pets to the vet was stressful. And pet owners were often embarrassed and couldn’t understand why their normally well-behaved pet was out of control.
Since then, due largely to the Fear Free movement and the pioneering work by Dr. Sophia Yin, creating a low-stress handling environment in veterinary hospitals has changed the way many of us practice medicine. By focusing on reducing fear in pets, veterinarians are able to provide more care in a less stressful manner, which helps boost overall animal health.
Veterinarians may even have to consider pet owner fear, because pets often feed off the emotions of their favorite people. While it might seem strange that veterinarians care about both human and animal fear, it’s actually part of the One Health Initiative. This worldwide movement encourages collaboration between human physicians, veterinarians and other scientists involved in health care and the environment to advance research and improve knowledge. Doctors and veterinarians are working together to save millions of lives.
When you think about it, we really are all connected. By reducing fear and improving health care for animals, and caring about the anxiety and health of the pet parent, veterinarians are also enhancing human health. Pretty cool, eh?
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