Vet Talk

Checking Society's Vitals -- the Many Hats a Veterinarian Wears

In a closet full of hats, the only one the public usually sees is the “treat sick critters hat.”

October 14, 2013 (published)

Photo by Phyllis DeGioia

If you ask most people what they think a veterinarian does, you (at least in my experience) get some variation on “takes care of sick animals.” Poke that answer with a stick a few times, and eventually some other stuff will float out of the subconscious murk– usually from the same part of the brain that stores Trivial Pursuit answers. “Research.” “Ummmm… they inspect slaughter plants or something.” “I think I heard somewhere there are veterinarians in public health, but I don’t really know what they do. I mean, isn’t that for real doctors?” Usually, you get a few “I used to watch All Creatures Great and Small on PBS.”

The veterinary role in society is weird. Let’s wander into metaphor-land to look at a scenario:

Dr. C has this whole closet full of hats, but the only one the public usually sees is the “treat sick critters hat.” So one day Dr. C goes out wearing her “raw milk could make you sick” hat. Like a suspicious spouse, Mr. Public pounces. “Where did you get that hat? I’ve never seen you wear that hat before. You have no business wearing that hat!”

Dr. C gets panicky and a little defensive – and wants to check the mirror. “I’ve had this hat since graduation. They gave it to me when I said the oath. I swear. It’s been in my closet the whole time.” Then, because this is what happens when humans suffer hat attacks, Dr. C loses her cool. “This is my DON’T DRINK RAW MILK hat. So just don’t do it. I know best. I have the hat. Respect the hat!”

Nobody wants to be told to respect the hat. What if Mr. Public doesn’t like the style or the color? What if he is more of a fedora person and not so much a floral bonnet person?

An outsider might observe that it’s stupid to fight over a hat. And it may occur to the same observer that perhaps the whole debacle could have been avoided if Mr. Public had a better idea of what’s inside Dr. C’s hat closet – especially since she seems to be so attached to them.

I think both my undergraduate diploma and the one that officially declares me a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine are languishing in their original folders in a box that has yet to be unpacked since our move a few years ago. However, prominently framed on the top of my bookcase (in our house, bookshelf=shrine) is the oath I took at graduation.

Being admitted to the profession of veterinary medicine, I solemnly swear to use my scientific knowledge and skills for the benefit of society through the protection of animal health, the relief of animal suffering, the conservation of livestock resources, the promotion of public health, and the advancement of medical knowledge.

I will practice my profession conscientiously, with dignity, and in keeping with the principles of veterinary medical ethics.

I accept as a lifelong obligation the continual improvement of my professional knowledge and competence.

The American Veterinary Medical Association has updated that oath since the Dark Ages in which I graduated, and not every veterinary school requires the recitation of an oath at graduation, but for most veterinarians, the sense of those words is tattooed somewhere on our brains.

The “protection of animal health” and “relief of animal suffering” hats get the most public exposure, and, honestly, those are the hats most of us get paid to wear. But… there’s that pesky brain tattoo – the one that tells veterinarians that it’s our job to wear the other hats too. However, no one mentions until veterinarians are out in the real world,that our hats don’t always match society’s outfits. Sometimes our hats will clash with what our clients want to hear (and therefore with our paychecks). Sometimes our hats will clash with the livelihood of an individual patient. Sometimes our hats will even clash with our own emotions.

If the only obligation the veterinarian had was to each individual patient, this stuff would be a breeze, a zephyr even.

However, the veterinarian has obligations not only to the patient, but also to the patient’s owners, other animals in the household or herd, other animals in the community, other humans in the community, animals in any areas to which the patient may travel, humans who eat food that may have been or have come into contact with the patient, etc.

And, to top it off, the veterinarian does have some non-medical responsibilities – to his or her employer, to his or her family, and to the law. When you mash together animals, emotions, disease, economics, and ideals, you do not get a yummy trifle. You get a sticky and often treacherous mess.

Here’s the thing: there is no conspiracy between veterinary medicine and drug companies, pet food companies, big government, or the communist party. Heck, on most of these animal/social issues, you’ll find that veterinarians aren’t even always in agreement with each other. If your veterinarian takes a stance or suggests something that you find unpalatable, try asking for more information. If you feel that your veterinarian is judging you for the way you feed your pet, milk your goat, or where you walk your wallaby, communicate your feelings in as neutral a way as you can manage.

I’ll admit right off that I’ve been on both ends of some of these exchanges. In my younger days, I’m pretty sure that I did my fair share of “I am the expert” posturing. And I have heard other practitioners do the same thing. I do believe that it is the veterinarian’s responsibility to find out *why* a practice or medical notion is important to the client and to try to work with that client to maximally benefit human and animal welfare.

But I’ve also run into assumptions about the origins of my statements that are both unfounded and more than a little insulting.

I live in a town that embraces all things natural and so I’ve butted heads (so to speak) with friends on subjects ranging from raw goat milk to vaccination. No, I’m not being paid by BIG AG to recommend store-bought milk. I don’t even care if people have and milk their own goats or cows; in fact, as a former livestock practitioner, I’m all in favor of people owning livestock. I just don’t want the people I care about (or any people) to face the possibility of serious infection without understanding the risks and benefits of their choices. But when I get told that it’s none of my business if someone wants to drink raw milk, I’m torn. Because, you see, I have that hat in my closet…

1 Comment

November 16, 2013

You didn't bring up the hat that makes us Advocates of Human Health. Vaccinating for Rabies, Deworming pets so people don't get it, Decreasing Strays by offering discounted major surgery so fewer ringworm positive cats live as ferals, Behaviour answers for Aggressive dogs, Cats Urinating on human beds and YET people nickel and dime our services while driving in Toyota Hybrids

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