Five Truths About Being a Veterinarian

November 18, 2013

Most people have a vision about what it’s like to be a veterinarian (that vision probably involves your veterinarian wearing a gleaming white coat, being nuzzled by a sweet, fuzzy dog, simultaneously accepting loving licks of affection while painlessly administering vaccines.) The reality: your veterinarian’s white coat was soiled within 5 minutes of arriving at work, that cute dog isn’t “smiling” but growling and baring its teeth, and the fuzzy land shark screams like a banshee when the vaccines are administered, causing everyone in the building to wonder why the vet is abusing a dog in exam room one. There are certainly a lot of myths about how we spend our days; here are some of the absolute truths about being a veterinarian.

The myth: If you don’t like people all that much, maybe you should be a veterinarian.

The truth: Every dog and cat we see comes attached to a person! We talk to people all day long, on the phone and in person. More time is spent educating, consoling, remembering, laughing and crying with owners than we ever spend with their pets. Once of the best parts about being a small animal veterinarian is culturing longstanding, meaningful relationships with clients, some of which last decades. The best veterinarians are good with animals and great with people!


The myth: Veterinarians play with puppies and kittens all day.

The truth: Sometimes I get to play with puppies and kittens (yay!) That’s probably only about 5% of my job, however. The other 95% is spent examining sick and healthy patients who may or may not expel bodily fluids onto me, repairing wounds and performing other surgeries, avoiding getting bitten and/or scratched by my patients, interpreting radiographs, bloodwork, biopsy and cytology results, speaking with specialists about referred cases, researching treatment options for complicated cases, performing euthanasias while helping clients say goodbye to their beloved pets and talking with clients about their questions and concerns.

The myth: Veterinarians are rolling in dough.

The truth: Most of us are not rolling in dough. We may be rolling in bodily fluids on occasion, but very few of us are drawn to this profession for the money. We are veterinarians because we have a passion for animals, medicine, science and developing client relationships. The average graduate from veterinary school departs her alma mater with over $130,000 in debt; yet, the average starting salary for a veterinarian is less than $60,000 a year. Since the economic collapse in 2008, there are fewer jobs available, despite increasing numbers of veterinarians graduating from domestic and foreign schools. The New York Times recently highlighted some of the economic struggles that new veterinarians face upon graduation.

The myth: Veterinarians have extensive knowledge of human medicine.

The truth: In veterinary school, we learn about dogs, cats, horses, cows, sheep, goats, camelids, chickens, pigs, rabbits and assorted “pocket pets”. We do not learn about humans, however! A few lectures in veterinary school are devoted to zoonotic diseases (those that can be transmitted from animals to humans) and it is our responsibility to inform clients if their pet has a disease that is potentially contagious to humans. That is the extent of our human medical knowledge. If you have a rash, or a cough, or questions about your own medications, it’s really best you check with your MD, not your VMD!

The myth: The hardest part of being a veterinarian is performing euthanasia.

The truth: Euthanasia is certainly difficult, but watching a patient suffer unnecessarily is even more so. Most veterinarians are strong advocates for euthanasia. (See my recent blog post on this topic.) Euthanasia is a unique gift that veterinarians are empowered to offer our clients and patients. We can relieve suffering in a way that no other profession can. To me, the hardest part of being a veterinarian is losing a patient unexpectedly, particularly a young patient. (Getting bit in the face by an angry dog might be a close second.)

The final myth: Veterinary medicine is a job.

The final truth: For me, veterinary medicine is a passion and a calling, not just a career. So many wonderful clients and patients over the years have made my days joyful, varied and challenging. My day does not end when I leave the hospital: I worry about my sick patients, I research their cases, I attend lectures and conferences to keep current, I take emergency calls from worried clients in the wee hours. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.