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Ask a Vet: Do You Ever Stop Thinking Like a Veterinarian?

An esteemed professor said, "After today you will never simply pet an animal again." She was right.

 |  Mar 4th 2014  |   5 Contributions


My first week of veterinary school in September 1996 was one of the most memorable weeks of my life. During that week I met several people who would become my closest friends. I learned my way around the town of Davis, California, and I moved in with new roommates. And I went through vet school orientation.

Vet school orientation consisted of many formalities. We new students learned the basics of how our lives would play out over the next few years. We learned how to navigate bicycle registration with the city of Davis. We were given tours of the campus and the teaching hospital. We posed for official class photos. And we sat through several memorable lectures.

Two of those lectures stand out in my memory. In the first, a professor admonished us to be careful with our reputations. Veterinary medicine, she said, was a small profession in which everyone knew or knew of everyone else. Be careful what you do, she said, because malfeasant behaviors will come back to haunt you. At the time most people in my class interpreted her statement as an admonishment not to sleep with one another. (That admonishment was largely a failure.) However, she was right in the larger sense: Everyone knows everyone in veterinary medicine, so it's important to act professionally.

The other memorable lecture was given by one of the most respected veterinarians in the world: Dr. Janet Aldrich. The esteemed professor of emergency medicine made a statement that seemed incredible at the time. She said, "after today you will never simply pet an animal again."

Photo of Dr. Eric Barchas by Liz Acosta

What she meant was that our knowledge base would make it impossible to interact with a cat without examining and assessing it. Animal health was to become our lifeblood.

In other words, she said we would never be able to turn it off. She was right. Being a veterinarian is not merely a job. It's a life.

This impacts me personally in two ways. The first is the way that Dr. Aldrich discussed. I cannot help but assess the health of every dog and cat that I meet. Yes, I notice whether the cat is friendly and beautiful. But I also note, instinctively, many details about the cat's health. I can immediately tell whether the cat's weight is ideal, whether her coat is unkempt, whether there is flea dirt in the hair, and whether florid periodontal disease is present. If the cat ambulates in an arthritic fashion, I cannot help but notice. Ear infections stand out like blazing neon lights. Cats can't simply be cats any more -- all of them are also patients of a sort.

This feature of my profession, when combined with my penchant for travel to developing countries, has led to no small amount of heartache for me. I wrote recently about the travails of dogs in developing countries. Cats, with their greater capacity for self-reliance, fare slightly better in such impoverished places. But that's not saying much. I've had my heart broken countless times by the sight of cats suffering from starvation, parasitosis, infection, or trauma on many continents.

Veterinary medicine becomes part of one's identity in another way. People often remember little about me other than my profession. In my younger days, when I regularly went to parties, many very casual acquaintances would remember me as "the vet." And I mean that literally. Many drunken people have staggered up to me over the years and said, "you're the vet, right?" That's all I was in their eyes.

The general public interest in veterinary medicine is good for me personally in many ways. People are curious about veterinary medicine. If I meet someone and reveal my occupation, he or she is almost certain to be interested about what I do. Conversation is easy.

But conversation sometimes goes off the rails. I have on many occasions endured hours on airplanes listening to every detail of every cat ever owned by the person sitting next to me.

And then there are the free advice seekers. Their legions are boundless, and the hypocrisy can be stunning. I once met a woman at an event and a conversation began. I asked what she did, and I vividly remember her reply: "I'm a lawyer, but you're not getting any free advice tonight." She then asked me what I did, and her eyes lit up. It turned out that her cat had been consuming more water lately, and did I have any insight into what might be causing such behavior?

Veterinarian examining a cat by Shutterstock.com

I love cats, and I love my career. But sometimes I want to be left alone. Fortunately there are tactics for finding such solitude. Several years ago I found myself seated on a flight next to a young woman whose cat was in a carrier underneath the seat in front of her. She kept opening the carrier to nuzzle the cat and speak to it in a baby voice -- a crazy baby voice. Had the cat been more skittish he might well have escaped into the cabin, and I wouldn't have blamed him.

The young lady was very chatty. She spoke with the person seated in front of her for several minutes. She repeated the process with the person seated behind her. She next spoke to the person seated at the window (I was in the aisle, and she was in the middle). Then it was my turn. The questions came at me furiously. Where was I from? Where was I going? Did I like to fly? Did I like United Airlines? This person exuded crazy from every pore in her body.

Finally, the inevitable question came: What did I do for a living? If I had told her the truth I wouldn't have had a moment's peace on the flight.

"I sell insurance. Cash value life insurance. I have many policy options that might interest you."

I enjoyed my book for the rest of the flight.

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