Loving animals: Our profession’s secret weapon or its Achilles heel?

Today’s veterinary students are entering the profession because of a love for and desire to work with animals

Back in January, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) reported the results of a study that compared student debt levels with the number of animals students were financially responsible for throughout their veterinary school tenure. Not surprisingly, the results correlated higher student debt with greater animal responsibilities.

Whether we spent more on our animals or spent less time working sideline jobs as a result of our teeming households, the findings implied our pets contributed adversely to student financial health. Those with more pets relied on more debt, effectively accepting longer-term consequences, such as stress, credit worthiness, and the ability to make major purchasing decisions.

It’s a cautionary message, to be sure, but it also speaks to the unique pressures of a veterinary education. When presented with needy animals and an expensive means to care for them (i.e. veterinary teaching hospitals), students tend to spend what funds they have available to them.

It’s a perfect illustration of just how much we love animals. The irony, of course, is that the more we adore them, the worse we fare financially. Clearly, quantifying debt in this way serves as an elegant teaching tool for first-year students: Keep your brood small—your entire financial future depends on it!

Still, I couldn’t help wishing the study had examined animal-keeping by veterinary students over a longer period of time (perhaps another soon will). Wouldn’t it be interesting to compare the pet-keeping habits of past and present veterinary candidates by decade?

Evolving student mindset

If I had to guess, I suspect veterinary students decades ago did not engage in extreme adventures in animal-keeping. Not only did students have less access to funds than we do in today’s credit-consumed culture, but it seems current students have a greater affinity for animals in general, a notion that almost invariably correlates with more animal responsibility overall.

You can call me presumptuous, but from my vantage point as a mid-career veterinarian, I’ve observed my early-career colleagues appear to enjoy more animal-centric lives than late-career veterinarians, which only makes sense. Here’s how I see it:

Given the higher cost of a veterinary education than in decades past, coupled with lower incomes relative to our sister professions, the desire to work with and for animals seems the overriding reason to pursue a career in our field.

Gone are the days when offspring would happily follow their forbearers into a career in veterinary medicine for tradition’s sake, parental expectations, and familial sentimentality. By contrast, surveys and anecdotes inform us that today’s veterinarians are way less likely to hope their children pursue a veterinary education. Discontent and disillusionment within the profession, fueled by feelings of being undervalued and undercompensated, are regrettably all too pervasive among today’s veterinarians.

Those who apply to veterinary school are increasingly aware of these pitfalls. Indeed, it’s hard to find a candidate who’s not cognizant of current veterinarians’ profound frustrations and how they apply to their own financial prospects. Ergo, it’s not about the money—it’s the work that matters.

Now, this may well be an eyes-wide-shut kind of case, one in which bourgeoise teenage naiveté trumps real-life considerations. But if that’s so, it’s only because animals are such a draw. They’re in good company, too. After all, there’s a sizable contingent of veterinarians who claim they can’t imagine doing anything else. Despite the perils, they have no regrets (few, anyway).

I count myself among these. While I’ve hit plenty of snags and stumbled more than a little bit on the road to financial stability and practice ownership, I’ve never thought seriously about quitting. Mountains of debt, a decades-long low credit score, and an innate inability to cull my herd found me close to bankruptcy more than once. But what does that matter when I get to go to work and do what I feel I was born to do?

Countering cynicism

Unfortunately, it seems that few of us who feel this way are speaking out as much as we once did. The cynics unwilling to recommend this career to anyone they love currently outnumber those of us who do. And they express their frustrations frequently.

They argue veterinary students go all glassy-eyed over animals and their love for them is precisely what primes them for disillusionment and burnout when their hopes for a brilliant career prove financially unrewarding and fraught with too many “human” considerations to make it worth the effort. And they have a point.

To be sure, those who enter the profession because they hope to avoid human interaction should be strongly dissuaded (unless they really like radiology or a research lab setting). But to discourage others because they might feel inadequate sitting next to a golf-buddy physician who makes twice as much while working half as hard is a monumentally selfish endeavor. In other words, financial considerations shouldn’t trump all.

After all, we deserve to choose our own quality-of-life tradeoffs. For example, if I prefer to work myself to the bone and suffer daily client inanities doing something truly demoralizing, I should be respected for my choices. No one gets to decide my life as a veterinarian is lesser than the life of the management consultant I went to business school with and easily makes 10 times what I do (in an off year).

The way I see it, comparison is at the root of most of the evil that bedevils our veterinary thinking. Sure, the profession has a lot of uphill challenges and they must be addressed, but condemning it because it’s not a lucrative financial opportunity relative to other professions holds no water with me. If that’s how you feel, go be a dentist already!

This profession is decidedly not what your grandfather’s was. Heck, it’s not even your mom’s anymore. Veterinary medicine today is another thing altogether, one I’m absolutely sure I don’t like as well as I might without consolidation, corporate practices, and skinny-ass profit margins. But the animals keep me going, as they do for all those doe-eyed beginners vying for a seat in a veterinary program… and yet another stray kitten.

And thank God for them! Because without an army of Pollyanna puppy-huggers competing for veterinary school admission, I shudder to think what our profession would look like. Sure, they’re rife for disillusionment, but with adequate screening and a moderate amount of counseling, they’re just perfect. In fact, they’re our profession’s secret weapon!

Patty Khuly, VMD, MBA, owns a small animal practice in Miami and is a passionate blogger at drpattykhuly.com. Columnists’ opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Veterinary Practice News.

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