Being a Veterinarian

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By: Dr. Jack Stephens

I can think of nothing more rewarding, stimulating and at times as frustrating as being a veterinarian. As a youngster I knew early that I wanted to be a veterinarian. I loved biology, the logic of science, animals, critters (bugs) and nature, so becoming a veterinarian was my only option from which I never deviated. For me nothing was more rewarding than being skilled and knowledgeable enough to help animals and to perform sophisticated surgery or perform medical detective work to arrive at a diagnosis and heal a pet. I would have done it for free if I could, but alas I had a family and mortgage.

But, early in my practice career, I found out that far too many pet owners simply could not afford or would not pay for needed care for pets. As a new graduate I wanted to heal and treat pets, not simply vaccinate, treat symptoms or put pets to sleep if their medical condition was chronic, serious or expensive. I wanted to utilize ever more sophisticated diagnostics, when needed, to accurately treat a pet’s medical condition and perform surgery if, necessary to restore a pet’s health. But good medicine can be expensive and pet owners had to pay for that care from disposable income, which more often than not was not available or budgeted. Every veterinarian, early in their career, goes “overboard” treating pets for less than it cost, at times for free or making whatever payment arrangements they can to treat a treasured pet, rather than put it to sleep. But reality sets in when you realize that you are losing too much money with your generosity. Unfortunately, many people learn of your empathy and “prey” on it, seeking discounts and waiving of fees when they simply do not want to pay for a pet’s care. Giving away services does not allow a veterinarian to pay decent salaries, pay for their education debt or invest in the business if insufficient charging and discounting becomes the predominant way of doing business. Every veterinarian gives away services, but there must be a limit if they want to stay in business. I always knew there had to be better options.

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So, the frustrating side of being a veterinarian is not being able to treat pets when they need treatment. Too often, people are either unwilling or lack the funds to provide for necessary care. Although my practice was in an affluent community, I found that many clients would ignore their pet’s health needs or put their pet to sleep (euthanasia) if a pet’s care cost more than they were prepared to pay. Putting pets to sleep when they can be healed is very frustrating and demoralizing to veterinarians, the veterinary staff and to pet families. But it was a hard and common fact then and even now it is a common negative alternative, when pet owners are not financially prepared for an accident or illness.

As pet owners, we are the stewards of our pets. Pets and domesticated animals depend wholly upon humans for their care and well being. Of course, if you are reading this, I know you are a good pet steward, and that you are committed to your pets care; otherwise you would never have even found me or our web site. Your affiliation with your pet springs from the fact that you have discovered the “human-animal bond”. That special feeling you have when you are with your pet. As a result of those feelings engendered in you by your pet, you are willing to provide for their needs. In future discussions, I will be sharing with you the many varied reasons why you and I feel the way we do about our pets and how pet interactions are mutually good for us, as well as good for our pets. There is an abundance of scientific evidence which demonstrates that the simple act of petting your pet improves your biochemistry and thus has positive effects on your emotions and even on your health. I hope my findings will help you express your feelings to skeptics, because they need to know about our “SECRET WEAPON” of pets.

We keep pets for a reason; in fact the canine and feline ancestors of our present day dogs and cats are thought to be the very first animals domesticated by man. Although we have kept dogs for maybe as long as 25,000 years and cats for 9,000 years, until recently we thought that we kept them for more rational or practical reasons, such as hunting, protection, herding, guarding and controlling rodents. To keep them for other reasons was either a sign of wealth or thought to be impractical. Keeping a household pet had to have a utilitarian reason, just like livestock or it was as sign of social stature to be able to afford and house an animal for strictly personal, non economic reasons. The societal norm was that animals had to have an economic value no greater than their replacement cost. Sadly, until a few decades ago that was the attitude and mind set of even the Universities that taught veterinarians. This attitude was due to the emphasis placed on domestic animals that spilled into the training of companion pet practice. The concept was that a pet was replaceable and as such, no one should ever spend too much on a pet, unless they were wealthy.

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This attitude of an economic value was instilled in my generation, as it had been for hundreds of years because of the utilitarian value of pets being viewed similar to livestock. I did not want to be a large animal veterinarian for that reason; I wanted to use my training and skills to a higher degree than that of the simple economics of an animal’s worth. Somehow that view still seeped into my psychic. But that’s another story- more on how a small dog changed me at a later time.

When I was a young boy, my dog meant a lot to me, but to my parents, bringing her into the garage or my father’s workshop in the cold of winter was a big accommodation. Dogs and cats belonged outside and they ate leftovers. Commercial pet food was still a novelty. As I entered veterinary practice I noticed that people had moved their pets from the yard to the house.

And in a few short years I saw commercial pet food become the norm and then special pet food, formulated with higher cost ingredients Pets in the house fulltime then became the norm. Then in even a shorter time span I witnessed pets sleeping on the bed with their adult owners. I remember the few times, as a child I slipped my dog into bed with me, it was done so at the risk of punishment. Now my wife and I feel lost if we don’t have 3 or 4 of our dogs in bed with us, under the blankets! In fact, we are so forbearing when it regards our pets that will tolerate an awkward position, before we will disturb our pets. I had one pet, Spanky who took over my pillow by sleeping inside the pillow case. My wife found it incredulous that I would endure loosing my pillow. Now, I hear more and more of pet owners preparing gourmet home cooking for pets.

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Did you know that expenditures for pets in the U.S. are higher than for toys and is growing at twice the rate as total consumer expenditures! Who would have imagined this level of spending and an attitude shift so swiftly in our society? What happened?

Was it simply that as a society we had become so affluent that we could afford to indulge our pets? If so why was spending for pets growing faster than our indulgence in toys for children? My bias towards a pet’s value changed later in my life, after my wife brought Spanky, a miniature pinscher into our household. And my attitude changed even more after a bout with cancer. Over those terrible months of treatment I witnessed the remarkable power of pets. I came to realize that a small dog could dramatically affect our lives. This experience caused me to look deeper into these changes in society and in myself. I will be sharing my extensive and compelling findings with you in future talks.

“A dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than he loves himself.”
Josh Billings

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