Many people aspire to become a vet. It is, after all, a dream job.
But how does the reality match up to the dream?
What qualities does an aspiring vet 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 the stresses of vetting 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 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?
Don’t Expect Baskets of Kittens All Day Long
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 being a vet looks like:
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.
And last but certainly not least, you need to have understanding family and friends.
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.