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Vets Say the Demand for Providing Creatures Comfort is Growing

Have you ever wanted to be a veterinarian? Many young people do. Dogs and cats, friendly horses, the animals in zoos -- they're a source of wonder to people of all ages.

Yet for many, the dream of being a vet passes as quickly as it comes. For others, the dream becomes reality. A vet's work is changing these days, and it looks like there are more changes ahead.

"We used to say that medical doctors are people who couldn't get into vet school," says veterinarian Roger Voivim. "After all -- they only have to work with one species. We have to work with many species!"

When put in those terms, you start to realize how much vets really do have to know. Like medical doctors, they need training in anatomy, physiology, biochemistry and pharmaceuticals.

Now multiply that by the number of different patients they see. A horse has different needs than an iguana. A macaw won't respond the same way as a cat.

So vets try to limit their practice to one of two broad categories -- small animal practice or large animal practice. The local vet who gives your dog its shots or splints your cat's broken leg is a small animal practitioner.

Large animal practices are typified by the James Herriot books. They work with large farm animals like cows, sheep, pigs, horses or even llamas.

Some vets have mixed practices: they'll help out the family dog and then roll up their sleeves and aid a cow with a difficult birth.

And there are other specialties. Some vets work for zoos, local government, public health agencies, food producers or research labs. They may specialize in different types of medicine, like surgery, pathology, internal medicine or neurology.

Practice Makes Perfect

Suzie Gearheart has a small animal practice in Eugene, Oregon. "This morning I came in at 7 a.m. and had appointments to see a vomiting dog, give another dog a vaccination, and remove the ears from a cat who has skin cancer.

"But then someone came in with a dog who was hit by a car. I had to see it immediately. And then I had to deal with a cat in renal failure so the technician dealt with the others.

"That's what my morning has been like. Actually, it's been a pretty typical day. Things change from minute to minute," she says.

"It's not a 9-to-5 job. We work long hours, and we're on-call. People will call us at all hours about medication or surgery. I had someone call the other day at 2:30 in the morning. They said their cat had been sick for five or six days, but they didn't decide to call until 2:30 in the morning."

For large animal vets, the hours are also dictated by the animals. But there's a major difference. "You can't really bring a cow into the office, so you have to go to the cow," says Terry Hunt. He has a large animal practice. "You spend a lot of time driving."

Pulling out a stubborn calf is different from controlling a dog. "It's very physical work -- tough work, hard work," says Hunt. "And there's lots of long hours, so you have to have a pretty good sport at home.

"During calving season, you may work 12- to 14-hour days. We assist with the calving and difficult births, and a lot of cesareans. And you're not doing it in a nice clean office, so you have to be prepared to get dirty."

It's important for vets to be sensitive to people's feelings about an animal. An animal that is a beloved friend may get treated differently than one who is a source of livelihood.

"Large animal practice is based more on economics than emotion," explains Hunt. "That's not to say farmers and ranchers don't get attached to animals. They do.

"But in most cases, large animals are kept for specific reasons. Dairy cows are kept for milk, a beef cow to produce calves. It's a different way of looking at things and you can't ignore the economics and the profit involved."

Where the Profession is Going

Hunt says the business end might be difficult, especially for new graduates. "Now that there are lots of vets, it's tougher for an individual to start their own practice."

Their schooling is rigorous. They can expect years at university to get their veterinary medicine degree, yet they don't get the same pay that MDs get.

"Vets are overworked and underpaid," says Voivim. "Eventually, efforts have to be made for them to increase their fees."

The Good News

Some areas of veterinary practice are doing well. "Avian and exotics are growing," says Sharon Curtis-Bransco of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). "Bird ownership has grown quite a bit over the last few years, and people are specializing."

Curtis-Bransco thinks people should consider looking for work outside the traditional box.

"Veterinary medicine isn't just small animal practice. I don't think people value how diverse the profession is. There are jobs in public health, research, food animals, wildlife and zoo animal medicine."

There are research opportunities available at universities, as well as jobs working for government agencies and businesses. Some veterinarians work for the government in public health services and disease control.

Others work for the private sector in management, sales and marketing, and animal-related businesses such as pharmaceutical companies and pet food manufacturers.

Demand for veterinary researchers specializing in the breeding and raising of livestock, poultry and fish is expected to increase. Prospects look excellent for those with training in toxicology, laboratory animal medicine and pathology.

And many new opportunities are opening up for veterinarians who specialize in environmental issues, aquaculture and food-animal practice.

Where you live makes a difference in how well you fare. "Places where everyone wants to live, like California and Colorado, are very tough places to get into small animal practice," says Curtis-Bransco.


It's never too early to get some training. Vet programs look for people with experience with animals -- and owning a dog isn't enough.

"Get experience beyond your own personal zoo," advises Gearheart. "Work in kennels, or do wildlife rehabilitation, or get work at a vet's [office]."

Although there are many veterinary medicine programs in North America, according to the AVMA two students apply for every opening. The better your grades and the more experience you have, the better your chance of getting in.

"Take lots of math and science," advises Gearheart. "Then take any of the human resources classes that promote good communication and help you work better with people."

The school you end up choosing may be dictated by where you live. Some only accept students who are from their state. The AVMA says "the chances of being admitted are somewhat higher" for local applicants.

It's a tough life with long hours. You'll go through years of schooling in the sciences and receive a fraction of the salary medical doctors get. So why do it?

For Gearheart, the answer is simple: "When you can alleviate the pain of an animal, when you can send them away happy, that's the best part of this job."


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