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So You Want To Be a Veterinarian?

Veterinarians always have at least two patients in the exam room. One human, one animal.

Understanding where our patients come from is often the key to treating the human, and therefore, the key to becoming an outstanding veterinarian.

We had a pre-veterinary student in the office today, asking if she could shadow our staff, because the Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine had rejected her application on the grounds that she “didn’t have enough veterinary experience.”

She had shadowed other veterinarians before, but Purdue wasn’t satisfied, and that’s why she came to us.

You see, this should be obvious, but veterinary school is not the right place to learn whether or not you actually want to be a veterinarian. That decision should be made long, long before you put in that vet school application.

On further questioning, we learned that our young student had volunteered at a wildlife rescue, a zoo, and a pet store, always taking care of the animals (feeding, watering – essentially kennel work) but hadn’t participated in any actual veterinary care or decision making.

Which by extension meant, Purdue knew she had never really asked herself, with proper eyes-open knowledge of the profession, if she actually wanted to be a vet in the first place.

This young student had never stepped foot in an animal shelter, never aided a euthanasia, never participated in the adoption process. It’s here, we decided, where her experience was truly lacking. Before she worked with us, she had to learn a few hard lessons first.

Countless numbers of little boys and girls enjoy the company of animals, and think enjoying their company naturally means they would similarly enjoy making these furry creatures healthy when they are unwell, as grownups. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the more you love animals, the harder it often is to create the emotional and intellectual distance necessary to accept, and treat, the harsher realities often involved in pet ownership.

For instance, our first recommendation was for our young student to spend some time at Indianapolis Animal Care and Control, and learn first hand just how many healthy pets are euthanized each year for lack of space, or after abuse or neglect, or because behavioral problems make the pet unadoptable. We have noticed that many young hopefuls can’t make it past Animal Control. Many leave the profession after realizing pet overpopulation, pet behavioral problems, neglect and abuse, are all distressingly prevalent, nearly unsolvable issues that we nevertheless are forced to face every day.

Once our young student comes to terms with the fact that not every pet is adoptable, and that some perfectly adoptable pets will simply never find good homes, there is still more to learn.

At that point, it’s important for her to realize just how many kind and well-meaning pet owners have found themselves living with the wrong pet. Either a pet who is too large, or sheds too much, or barks too loud, or hates other pets, or might pee on the furniture, or needs a lot of exercise or it goes crazy, or has no bite inhibition and might bite a child… the list goes on and on.

In our opinion, the most important work of a properly functioning Humane Society, animal shelter or rescue, should be to appropriately match humans and animals to maximize the human-animal bond and ensure a lifelong home. And yet, even though many of these organizations are full of great pre-screened pets who need homes, and professionals dedicated to making those matches happen, many people still find themselves living with pets who weren’t purposefully and thoughtfully matched to them.

Between well meaning but poorly administrated “rescues” with little to no oversight, shady breeders selling on Craigslist, pet stores selling puppy mill puppies, or pets found stray, or given away by friends and family, many humans find themselves living with pets they didn’t put much rational thought or adequate research into owning. Without the appropriate due diligence in matching properly prepared humans to carefully chosen animals, the human-animal bond inevitably suffers. And the suffering continues for the entire life of the pet.

Or, something changes in the life of a once perfectly matched human-animal pair. Marriage, children, changing cities, buying a new home, all of these lifestyle changes can seriously and negatively impact an owner’s relationship with their pet. Maybe the pet doesn’t like your new husband, or your new kid, or your new additional pet, or your new house, and reacts in ways you could never have expected. It’s not always the fault of the shelter when a lifestyle change causes new behavioral issues.

Regardless of the cause, a good portion of what a veterinarian ends up doing all day then, is counselling these humans who live with the wrong pet, or the right pet at the wrong time, and all involved are trying to make the best out of bad situations.

As a next step after Animal Control, therefore, we told our young student it’s equally important she also spends time at the Humane Society of Indianapolis watching and learning how adoption specialists decide which humans best match with which pets.

That way, when future clients inevitably enter her exam room with inappropriately matched pets, or appropriately matched pets with new lifestyle problems, she will be better prepared to emotionally counsel those owners.

By the end of our meeting with this young hopeful pre-vet student, probably for the first time in her life, she got a taste of what it actually might mean to do the job of a veterinarian, and some of the things Purdue was trying to tell her that she had to learn about life, before she was ready to learn from us.

Only after she has learned how very few behaviorally and physically sound pets make it through Animal Control without being euthanized, end up on the adoption floor at Indy Humane, and are properly, professionally matched with an appropriate human, will she understand exactly where our patients come from, and how a large portion of what causes stress in a veterinarian’s day is treating those humans and animals who ended up together for all the wrong reasons.

Then, we told her, if you make it that far, can handle the pain of euthanasia, and the tragedy of pet overpopulation, can understand the heartbreak of inappropriately matched humans and animals, the suffering of behavioral problems, and worst of all, how distressing it is when you have to tell a perfectly rational, kind hearted human that none of these problems have a solution, you’ll understand just about all there really is to know about modern veterinary small animal practice.

After that, medicine and surgery are a cake walk.

Treating pets is easy. Treating people is hard.

So we told our young student to volunteer at Animal Control, then at Indy Humane, then call us if she’s still interested in joining our noble profession.

Truth be told and given proper internal reflection, most people just don’t have the guts for it.

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