Being the Bad Guy
Ask anyone involved with veterinary medicine why they got into it, and the answer will always contain one of the following:
"I love animals!"
"I enjoy helping animals!"
"I want to save lives!"
Rarely will you hear:
"I like it when dogs quiver when they see me!"
"I love the sound of hissing cats!"
"Putting animals to sleep is my favorite!"
Another thing you don't often hear from many who are first getting into the field is, "I LOVE PEOPLE!"
It is often a rude awakening for the bright eyed animal lover in their first semester of vet tech or veterinary school when a veteran instructor informs them that animals cannot drive themselves to the veterinary clinic. I remember audible gasps in my Anatomy 1 class when we were informed of this. Lots of animal lovers have had problems with human beings. It's hard to talk to people. People can be hurtful. It's not hard to talk to the animals.
A veterinarian mentor early in my career once suggested that every person you meet working in a veterinary clinic, at some point in their lives, decided that it was easier to relate to animals than people. There was something about animals and their complete lack of judgement that appealed to all of us...um, slightly odd?...folks, and we bonded. We felt safe with them. They loved us unconditionally and we fell in love with them. We decided we wanted to help and save animals.
I came to love the people part of veterinary medicine almost as much as the animal part, but for me a lot of the personal reward still comes from helping animals and seeing them feel better.
I have come to realize, after 15 years, that a big part of helping animals feel better is causing them short term discomfort or fright. I have also annoyed the heck out of hundreds of animals. It takes a while to learn how to deal with that. Pets don't understand, "This will only hurt for a second." All they know is that someone just stuck a needle into their jugular vein/bladder/thigh muscle while someone else has them in a headlock, or that someone is pinching their toes for the fiftieth time. To be a good guy, sometimes you have to be the bad guy.
Puppy exams were always a little hard from me. You're on the floor, delighting in that puppy breath smell while you drown in kisses, the tail hitting you repeatedly in the face, all of that loose puppy skin, and then you pick them up, put them on the table, stick a piece of plastic in their butt for a stool sample and have to deal with a puppy cry and those big brown eyes meeting yours asking, "WHY?! WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT?!"
Cats are always interesting. The only animal that ever sent me to the ER was a tiny little kitten who unbeknownst to me had the ability to rotate her head 180 degrees. I had her by the scruff and she turned and had a field day sinking her needle teeth into my hand. I worked at a clinic that had a cat stuck in the ceiling for a week after it leaped from the top of a cage through a ceiling tile. It ran throughout the clinic in the ceiling until it was finally hungry enough to come out. He was very upset about being neutered!
You are never prepared to put any animal to sleep. You always want to try. Sometimes, with strays, there isn't the option to try. I have held and comforted owner-less animals in their last moments, hoping they did have someone out there who loved them, and hoping that those people didn't agonize over wondering what happened to their pets. I have watched colleagues tearfully euthanize boxes of kittens because they were infested with parasites and there wasn't anywhere for them to go.
My least favorite moments were lying to animals. Every so often in veterinary medicine animals are euthanized and you don't agree with it. It might be behavioral reasons, or a terminally ill owner doesn't want to worry about what happens to their old dog, or the animal has an illness and the owner doesn't want to deal with it. You don't have the option to disagree, it's not your pet and it's not your place to say anything. That doesn't mean it's not hard to do. These situations are infrequent, but they are the hardest.
Most of these patients knew something was amiss.
I found myself shedding silent tears into their fur while hugging and telling these pets, "It will be ok."
It will NOT be ok. But I'm telling the animal, "It's ok. You're alright."
Sometimes I sensed that they believed me.
And the next thing they knew, they were dead.
I was never able to get used to that, but I wanted to be there for them in that last moment. It's impossible to prepare for those moments, and those are not the types of things you envision when you imagine yourself working with animals. It is, however, a part of it, and something to consider when looking into a career in veterinary medicine.
Even with the heartache and the fear I've occasionally wrought, there is so much reward. My favorite situations are when an animal who once cowered from me gives me sugar or gently nuzzles me to say "Thank you. You're still kind of scary but you helped me feel better." When I worked in cardiology and at the rehab center, it usually only took a visit or two before the fearful, anxious patient actually looked forward to seeing us. I have tried to make it a point throughout my career to treat every patient with respect and kindness, even if I was pinching their toe or sticking my gloved finger in their butt. I respect the animal's right to growl and try to bite me while hoping the owner respects my need to muzzle that patient for my safety. Sometimes, if you work for it, that patient may eventually not need a muzzle anymore! That is also gratifying.
I love veterinary medicine. I love being a certified veterinary technician. I love being a certified canine rehab practitioner. I could make twice as much working with people but I love animals too much to switch. The money is not where it's at for me, or for any of us...it's a labor of love. I didn't get into it to be the bad guy, but I've learned to embrace the bad guy.
I'm ending this post with a humorous video that a creative veterinary staff put together several years ago. They imagine what it would be like if a human got an ear cleaning at the vet. I always say that part of the reason veterinarians are so amazing is that they treat multiple species and don't speak the same language as any of them. Humans also generally don't require restraint...!