Clipping Dog Nails
I learned to do all kinds of things in vet school. I learned to collect semen from a 2,000-pound bull, take the temps of bratty racehorses at all hours of the night, sit through eight consecutive hours of lectures, and somehow survive the extremes of sleep deprivation throughout.

Unfortunately, not everything I learned was something I could put to use in the normal course of my work life — nor was it all I might have hoped to learn.

Gaps in the Curriculum

Here are seven examples of things I didn’t learn in vet school.

1. How to hold a cat.
It might surprise you to hear that Handling Animals 101 is not on any veterinary school curriculum I know of (at least not back when I graduated), nor are many really basic behavior-related techniques. Walking a fearful dog on a leash, reading a horse’s expression (preferably before sticking that thermometer in), knowing which cats need an especially light touch — they’re all learned on the job.

2. How not to get bitten, scratched, kicked, clawed, stung, butted or gored. Though most students I knew managed to avoid serious bodily harm in veterinary school (sadly, I can’t include myself here), few received any formal instruction in the art of not getting maimed. Thankfully, this also can be learned on the job.

3. How to clip nails. I never learned to express anal glands either. It’s the simple things that tend to get short shrift in veterinary programs, which probably explains why most veterinary schools won’t even look at an application unless the student is armed with some serious experience in the field.

4. How to handle rejection. When you consider your own pets’ reaction to a veterinary environment, you might understand. Since pets don’t always love their veterinarians, I had to learn early on to handle rejection. And it’s not just pets who give veterinarians the cold shoulder. Their owners sometimes shut me down, too: “That dental is too expensive.” “Those drugs have too many side effects.” “I’d rather try X, Y, Z first.” All that and clients sometimes “divorce” their vets, too.

5. How much I should charge for a spay. Vet school didn’t teach me to hire and fire people, to start my own business, to find a decent accountant, or how much to charge for my services. But veterinarians who choose to accept the challenge of practice ownership figure it out eventually.

6. How to cope with compassion fatigue. Euthanizing animals is a skill that can be taught in school, but learning to deal with the emotions around that act is something I had to do on my own. The skills needed to cope with compassion fatigue from working with sick or suffering animals or heartbroken owners aren’t truly teachable. Veterinarians have to make their own way through the morass of personal feelings that inevitably arise when confronted with others’ angst, fear and grief.

7. How to treat humans. Yes, humans. Contrary to popular opinion, companion animal veterinary medicine often requires more people skills than animal skills, which is why it’s so surprising that we’re not required to take two or more semesters of practical human psychology.

But, when I really think about it, even a lifetime of study wouldn’t have been enough preparation for what awaited me after graduation. So why take time away from the scientific fundamentals to instruct future vets in the less-exacting arts included above? In fact, maybe the reason it’s called "practicing" medicine is that some skills can’t be taught but require a lifetime to learn well.