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Learning in veterinary school is a lot like trying to take a sip of water from an open fire hydrant. With the sheer volume of coursework, covering everything from biochemistry, dermatology and ophthalmology to dentistry and neurology — not to mention learning all the parasite life cycles for chickens, goats, horses, cattle, dogs, cats and pigs, it’s no wonder some things may get lost along the way.
I can't speak for everyone, but for me, it took years in practice, working with pets and their owners, to learn some of the most essential lessons.
In veterinary school, it was all about surgical skills, complex medical cases and heart-stopping emergency room moments. Of course, we learned about infectious diseases, but I learned very little about the incredible importance of preventive care, because there simply wasn’t time.
What I found after I started practicing is that a large percentage of a small-animal veterinarian’s job is preventive care. And with good reason: The long-term health and well-being of my patients depend on it.
Unlike the experiences many vet students have in veterinary school, the pet owner relationships in general practice tend to be long-term: Many veterinarians will see patients from cradle to the grave. When you work with these pets year after year, your focus changes from treating a one-time disease to helping prevent health problems from occurring in the first place. I quickly realized that the way to create a lifetime of wellness is through regular exams and preventive care.
Many pet owners are still under the mistaken assumption that the only reason to take a healthy pet to the veterinarian on a regular basis is for vaccines. While vaccines are a critical part of preventive care, there is so much more to the visit. Among other things, your veterinarian will evaluate your pet’s vital signs; look for any weight changes, signs of pain or mental health issues including aggression and anxiety; assess dental health, nutritional and parasite control needs; and so much more. A regular exam provides a WEALTH of information for the discerning pet owners who want their pets to live healthier lives. Regular exams help your veterinarian identify problems early, and course correct for the best quality of life, as well as reduce the risk of transmissible diseases between animals and people.
Interestingly, I did less pet owner education when I first started in practice than I do now. Of course, that was before pet owners had access to the mountain of information available from a split-second Google search. Many times, pet owners have researched their pets' signs on the internet before they come in and are able to ask informed questions, because they want to be more informed about their pets’ health.
At the same time, astute pet owners realize that much of what is available on the internet can be questionable, and they rely on me to steer them true in an ocean of information. I had NO IDEA when I graduated that my clients would rely on me to separate the good from the bad internet information, so they could make more informed decisions about their pets.
In veterinary school, I rarely witnessed euthanasias. The residents usually elected to perform them with the families alone. Obviously, this was not a time for veterinary students to observe, especially during a moment that can literally tear a pet owner’s heart in two. At the time, I could not have comprehended the privilege and responsibility of being part of a beloved pet’s last moments on earth.
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