What Planet Are Veterinarians From?


Dr. William Wheat

Have you ever wondered who veterinarians are, what are the qualities that make a good veterinarian, why we chose this profession, and just what makes us ‘tick’ (pun intended)?

Author John Grey eloquently spelled out the differences between men and women (how we think, how we feel, and how we react to situations) in his book ‘MEN ARE FROM MARS WOMEN ARE FROM FROM VENUS’. Accordingly, he contends we have been predestined by our DNA for certain traits at a very young age. I believe that veterinarians also contain unique characteristics that lead us to the profession of animal care. One study actually supports this belief with results showing that veterinarians choose their career at a much younger age than any other profession.

By understanding who we are and why we do what we do, perhaps it could be a valuable component in choosing the right doctor to provide health care for your beloved pet. More importantly, it could help build a better relationship between you, your pet, and your vet.

Perhaps the answers to many of your questions is best achieved by first dispelling some common myths about our profession, while also acknowledging some obvious things we all share.

The first myth is that we choose this profession because we like animals more than people. Granted, it would be hard to continue for any period of time without a truly inherent love for the animals we care for. For many of us, the initiating factor in our decision to become a veterinarian was driven by the love of a personal pet. Love of animals would seem to be a prerequisite, and I believe that it is; however, there is something more to it than that. After 33 years in veterinary practice, some of the most profound moments were not with the animals but with the owners themselves. The truth is that every dog and cat comes attached to a person! We talk to people all day long on the phone and in person, we educate, console, remember, laugh, and cry with owners. We build long lasting and meaningful relationships with our clients. I believe a good veterinarian certainly must love animals but equally important they must love and be great with people as well.

The second myth is that working with animals has to be the more fun job possible. Yes, we cherish moments of playing with puppies and kittens (yay!). In reality the profession is much harder and more serious than that. Most of our day is spent doing things like working with sick animals, diagnosing diseases, interpreting lab reports, counseling owners about end of life decisions ,writing in medical records, etc, etc, etc. Veterinarians are challenged with a huge communication barrier – you know – our patients can’t talk! Its kind of like a TV episode of CSI-VetClinic. We look for symptoms and signs of disease, listen to owners, and try to solve mysterious illnesses. We are called on routinely to use our five senses in extraordinary ways. We diagnose by smells, sounds, sights, feels, and sometimes even tastes. Jokingly, if we were to build scented candles to describe the SMELLS we encounter, there certainly must be a ‘wet dog variety’, or an ‘anal gland aroma’, or even better a ‘parvo potpourri’. We use SOUNDS, like the ear piercing pitch of a pot belly pig, the warning of a hissing cat, and the beautiful tune that a newborn puppy resonates when taking their first breath of air. We use our sense of TOUCH to feel the softness of a bunny’s coat or palpate a mass in an abdominal cavity, and sometimes we are unlucky to be the recipient of the fangs of a scared angry patient. And of course, there are the SIGHTS. How can we not be touched by the sad eyes of an abandoned injured dog hoping for the comfort of someone’s assistance, or the exuberation on the face of a child with their first puppy cuddled in their arms, or the sadness of the tears as an owner says their last goodbyes to their cherished loved one. And yes, sometimes even our sense of TASTE has been put to the test. More than one unlucky veterinarian has been on the wrong end of a stomach tube relieving a bloated animal. Successfully providing service to our patients requires a keen development of these senses and more. We use our broad training to become a wide variety of specialists unparalleled by our human doctor counterparts- – -like pediatricians, gynecologists, dentists, radiologists, surgeons, ophthalmologists, dermatologists —- and the list goes on. We work with many different species of animals that have unique qualities and vast differences. Our patients come in a variety of sizes and shapes, and make completely different sounds. Some bear feathers, some fur, and some fins. All the above create challenges to us animal doctors, but in reality, that actually does add a fun component to our job. Certainly it is never dull!

The last myth is the idea that veterinarians make lots of money. The truth is very few of us were drawn to this profession for the money. We graduate from vet school with huge debt loads (today’s average is $180,000). Combine this with starting salaries in the low $60,000 range makes loan payback difficult in many cases. Owners of veterinary clinics also face huge challenges in running a business. High start up costs with land, a building, medical equipment, drugs, employee costs, insurance, etc. A recent study concluded that compared to most other professional businesses that veterinary clinics have the lowest margin of profit. Unfortunately, spending money on health care for pets is listed in the discretionary income part of most budgets. Understandably, prioritization must be given to things like education, food, housing, and human health care. In turn, veterinarians are constantly trying to maximize health benefits to our clients while minimizing costs. We work with clients offering choices, while trying to to provide the best care to our patients. In many cases, the limiting factor for working up cases is not the knowledge or medical technology, but the financial constraints. As gratification for our work, we depend on more than just the financial rewards. Making pets well, preventing diseases, and happy clients are essential to our well being.

Now let’s look at some qualities I believe elevate our profession and make me proud to be a veterinarian. I truly believe that veterinarians are some of the most compassionate people on earth. Veterinarians routinely take in homeless animals nursing them to health and adopting them out. We work with humane organizations and shelters for adoptions and provide sterilization procedures at or below cost to reduce pet over-population. We often work with indigent pet owners providing pet care at low cost and many times free of charge. We support many organizations within our community with sponsorships, donations, and the investment of our time. Veterinarians go to great lengths to meet the needs of the families we serve including making house calls, visiting sick patients outside in the owners car, and staying late to see sick patients, sometimes to the detriment of our own family. We are humble in nature and don’t hesitate to get down on the floor in exam rooms to greet our patients. We even make some rather embarrassing noises mimicking animals in an effort to communicate. Our work ethic is simply and accurately described in the latin origin of the word veterinarian—it comes from the word “veterinae” which means, ‘working animal’. Other qualities, like a keen sense of observation, honesty, integrity, patience, a good sense of humor, and good communication skills make us worthy to earn your trust in providing health care for your pet.

Ok then, from what planet do veterinarians originate? Not being very astute in astrology, my answer is most certainly speculative and not based on any scientific facts, but perhaps it is ‘Pluto’. In 1930, Walt Disney animated a mixed-breed brown pup named Pluto that was in the business of making the viewers smile, making us happy, and thus improving our quality of life. I hope that by making animals healthier, and clients happier we as veterinarians can do the same. So, yea, I think it’s the planet ‘Pluto’.

Veterinarians are from Pluto!!

William Wheat,DVM