So You Want to Be a Veterinarian? Here’s What You Should Know.

Read my lesson plan first before running toward the admissions office of your local vet school.

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Want to be a veterinarian? Vet school is a big challenge. Photo: Lindsey Turner

My experience as a veterinary technician saved my bacon when I finally made it to vet school.

When I walked into that first job as a baby veterinarian, my experience as a vet tech was invaluable as I faced the early years in a tough profession.

When you start working at that first big veterinary hospital right out of school, they will try to eat you alive. I’m not talking about your patients.  You can learn to muzzle them.

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No, it’s your co-workers and your clients who will be out to get you. They want to see what you’re made of. They want to test your skills in the real world.

People can be very mean indeed.

Do You Really Want to Be a Veterinarian?

Let’s go way back to when there weren’t so many women vet.

That’s when I decided I wanted to be a veterinarian, a notion that would put myself and my husband at tremendous financial risk.

We had no money and no monetary family backing. And that’s before I got pregnant with twins. (Great timing!)

There was only one way to discover if veterinary medicine was a pipe dream or a career choice grounded in reality. I needed to get hired as a vet tech.

There was a cute little storefront vet hospital right around my corner in Philadelphia. I walked in and asked the doc if he was hiring. He said no. I told him I was willing to work very hard and didn’t know anything.

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To this day I still don’t know why he hired me. I’m still grateful.

Soon I had 2 part-time jobs at 2 wonderful vet hospitals right in my South Street neighborhood. That was when funky city neighborhoods were still cool and not loaded with designer boutiques selling the same pocketbook for $800.

I immersed myself in all facets of these great little hospitals and loved every minute of it.

Dr. Debora Lichtenberg
That’s me and the twins, South Philly, 1980s. Photo: Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD/Petful

I opened up in the mornings and took care of the hospitalized patients by myself. I was the surgical tech in the morning and helped with appointments later in the day. I worked weekends and helped with emergencies.

By the time I entered vet school, I had already been to the school of hard knocks.

If I was going to dedicate many years of my early adulthood and many thousands of dollars to becoming a vet, I wanted to be sure I would be a good vet and love my career.

The Penn Years

Accepted into Penn Vet on my first application, I  think they thought I could fill their oddball demographic quota.

I was an older student with an MFA degree, no science major and the mother of nearly 1-year-old twins, and the admissions committee took a big chance on me.

A great deal of veterinary school is spent in the classroom: anatomy, physiology, neurology, dermatology, oncology.

You learn a lot of “-ologies” but not a lot about being an on-the-job veterinarian. They want you to figure that out on your own.

Learning in school during the day, and working at a real vet hospital on occasional nights and weekends, I was better prepared for the clinical part of vet school — the part where you actually touch sentient animals.

As a student, you follow the real vets around the university vet hospital and hang on their every word as they attend to their patients. (Think of this as the animal version of those medical shows on TV, where the doctors treat the interns like poop and try to show them how stupid they are.)

This is how it goes in vet school. You rotate through different services as a vet student, just as in medical school. Hence, the name rotations: surgery, internal medicine, radiology, ophthalmology and so on.

Veterinary students take care of the patients in the hospital on that particular rotation. If you get a lot of hospitalized animals on your current rotation, you need to check them, do their treatments and report back about their progress at rounds.

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The Challenges of Rotations When You’re Working to Become a Veterinarian

A nasty cat who needs blood drawn every 2 hours can be a taxing patient.

The nurses don’t help you. They want to see what you’re made of. Your fellow students are busy with their own cases.

I recall using tourniquets on the leg and towels over the face and whispering, “Nice kitty — I just need 2 drops of blood. Be a good kitty. Love you, kitty. Please don’t scratch my eyes out, kitty. I respect you, kitty.”

After the 3rd or 4th blood draw, Mildred Fierce, the calico terror, had my number.

On my dermatology rotation, I drew the short straw for caring for a 75-pound dog with a deep, severe skin infection.

The dermatologist admitted the dog to the hospital and wrote orders for 2 therapeutic whirlpool baths daily, before and after regular hospital hours. When I asked him who would be around to help me load her in and out of the tub, he smiled a self-satisfied grin and said, “Nobody.”

Scabby (my pet name for her) was the sweetest dog in the world. She knew I was trying to help her as I struggled to get all her Gordon Setter feathers and flailing legs in and out of that extremely high and user-unfriendly tub without hurting either of us.

By the end of the week she had learned to balance her front legs on the side of the tub, let me towel off half her body, and then we made the hoist to safety on to dry land again.

Scabby recovered, and I was happy to rotate out of dermatology and into oncology.

Scabs and I decided our spa week wasn’t so bad after all.

Big Animals Included

I felt compassion for my fellow classmates who came into the wards with little practical experience.

They were at a disadvantage in what could feel like a hostile hospital environment.

My time came due when faced with my large animal rotations. I grew up in Queens, and the closest I ever came to a horse was waving to them in the St. Patrick’s Day parade.

I didn’t know the difference between beef cattle and Holsteins when I started field service, and I wanted to bring the baby pigs home as pets.

Knowing I would never be working on farm animals, I tried to treat my large animal patients with respect, finish those rotations as quickly as possible, and get my diploma with all my teeth in my head and my legs not pinned to a wall in a horse stall.

So if you (or your teen) think you want to become a veterinarian, I highly recommend getting a job working in the field first.

This veterinarian, for one, learned her best lessons as a vet tech.

become a veterinarian
Want to become a veterinarian? That means getting up close and personal with many different types of animals. Photo: YamaBSM

What Does It Really Take to Become a Veterinarian?

This section of the article was written by Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS.

Many people want to become a veterinarian. It’s a dream job, after all.

But how does the reality match up to the dream?

What qualities does an aspiring veterinarian need to possess to stay sane and meet their patients’ needs?

An Addictive Occupation

Like a drug you can’t give up, for many in the profession, vetting is an addiction. Not to “vet” means losing part of your identity and reason for being.

And yet, huge numbers of vets leave clinical work every year to seek jobs outside the profession. This is because the mismatch between the dream and reality is too great.

Compassion fatigue sets in — and for many people, the stresses of being a veterinarian simply aren’t worth it.

Students work so hard to become vets and incur huge debt along the way. When they graduate, there’s a risk that the real world of anal glands, abscesses and clients with unrealistic expectations means the job falls short of their hopes.

So what qualities should the prospective vet possess to ensure they stay the course?

When You Become a Veterinarian, Don’t Expect Cute Kittens All Day

The reality of the job is one of bad smells, being peed on and long hours.

This was brought home to me this week when 4 patients in 1 clinic needed their anal glands expressed.

Don’t get me wrong — I take a bizarre sense of satisfaction in emptying anal sacs. But it so happened the first dog had particularly liquid contents that squirted up my arm and onto my tunic.

Result?

I stank of anal glands all day. And to rub salt into the wound, the bad smell reminded people their dogs’ glands needed doing. Step forward, Pippa, with yet another rubber glove.

Veterinarians pull long days because work is done not at a particular time but instead when all the patients are seen and cared for. Photo: wilkernet

You Need Patience When You Become a Veterinarian

In first-opinion practice, patience is most definitely a virtue. An impatient person will quickly find their blood pressure rising to danger levels.

An example is history taking. This is where the vet questions the client to flesh out the picture of what’s wrong with the animal. However, some people are notoriously “unfocused” when answering.

  • Vet: “When did Luther go off his food?”
  • Client: “Oh, I think that was around the time my Jane went on holiday. I remember saying as much to my neighbor, when I bumped into them in Costco — I don’t normally shop there, but the previous day, someone had bumped my car so I had to get the bus that day. It was about $300 worth of damage. Would have been more, but Jeff, my husband’s brother’s boy, recommended this great body shop…”

You get the picture. A simple “Luther stopped eating last Tuesday” would have been great.

Patience is also crucial with the animals. You have to be prepared to take your time and let the pet settle before diving into a physical exam.

This sounds easy enough, but when the clinic is short on time, the waiting room is packed and people are complaining, it’s easier said than done.

You Need Empathy When You Become a Veterinarian

On a similar vein to patience, it helps to be empathetic.

For example, take the otherwise-rational client’s refusal to book their pets in for important surgery. Take the time to dig a little deeper, and it transpires the dog sleeps on the bed and has never been away overnight.

  • Adopt a “Don’t be silly, it’s just for 1 night,” attitude, and the client is unlikely to change their mind.
  • But understand the importance of the bond between dog and client, and you can make a special dispensation to admit the dog early and discharge them late the same day. That way, the dog gets their surgery, and everyone is happy.

You Need Detachment When You Become a Veterinarian

Conversely, from time to time, it’s essential to distance yourself from the patient and their circumstances.

It might be the pet is the last link to a deceased parent with all that this implies.

But if that pet is sick and suffering, it’s essential to put the pet’s best interests first — even if that means recommending euthanasia.

A good vet is sympathetic to the client but has sufficient detachment to be objective about the care the pet needs.

Dearly loving animals is just one of many requirements of being a veterinarian. Photo: Kaz

You Need Tact When You Become a Veterinarian

People skills are essential.

While the odd client will respond to the direct approach, “Wow, that’s the fattest dog I’ve ever seen” is more likely to put them off.

The art of balancing the truth with tact is an invaluable skill to master. Diluting the truth (“Your dog is a bit too cuddly for their own good”) isn’t about fudging the issue but instead engages the client so they don’t close down and stop listening.

Winning the client’s confidence with a tactful explanation of why too many layers of love are bad for the dog is more likely to get everyone pulling together for the pet’s good.

You Need Mental Resilience When You Become a Veterinarian

Many vets are sensitive people. They care and care deeply about their patients and their clients.

So if a case doesn’t go well, there’s a tendency to blame yourself in a bizarre form of mental self-torture.

It takes a special sort of mental resilience to acknowledge that the outcome wasn’t what you’d hoped for, but you did your best, especially as things are often genuinely outside your control.

But this thought can be hard to hold on to when a grieving client is looking for someone to blame — and you’re the obvious target for them to shout at.

You Need Physical Endurance When You Become a Veterinarian

A typical working day can start at 8 a.m. and go on until gone 7 p.m. During this time, you work until things are finished. This means skipping meals and even comfort breaks. Be prepared to feel physically and mentally shattered at the end of a shift.

And the killer is, it doesn’t matter how busy the day’s been. If an emergency walks in as the clinic’s locking up, you can’t walk away — you have to stay until the job is done and then turn up for work on time the next day.

Here’s a sneak peek at what becoming a veterinarian looks like:

You Need Natural Curiosity When You Become a Veterinarian

Another beneficial quality is a natural sense of curiosity.

For example, the previously stable diabetic who suddenly starts losing weight; it may be they have a complication with the diabetes.

But before engaging on expensive tests, it’s good to think laterally. Perhaps the client recently changed the dog’s food, and they’re simply not feeding enough of the new brand.

You Need an Understanding Family When You Become a Veterinarian

And last but certainly not least, you need to have family and friends who understand what you’re going through.

You will be late for your kids’ school play or have to cancel anniversary dinners because a last-minute emergency walked in the door.

All the best vets have the understanding (and long-suffering) support of their nearest and dearest; are patient, and empathetic; have great people skills; and are gifted at animal handling but smile in the face of pee, poop and vomit.

Does this sound like you? If so, you’d be a welcome addition to the field.

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This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD, with contributions from Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. This article was last updated Dec. 19, 2018.

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Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD

View posts by Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD
Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD, is a small animal and exotics veterinarian who has split her time between a veterinary practice in Pelham, Massachusetts, and her studio in New York City. Dr. Lichtenberg is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine with 30 years of experience. Her special interests are soft tissue surgery and oncology.

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