Vet Talk

Is it Beauty or is it Disease?

It's hard for veterinarians to appreciate the simple joy of nature's creatures

Published: January 12, 2015

It can be tough to enjoy a sunset on the water when your entire life is dedicated to warding off shipwrecks.

Reflecting on his life as a steamboat pilot in his novel Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain wrote about the moment when he realized that for him, learning to read the water for information about the dangers that lurked beneath its surface forever took away the romance and beauty of the river itself:

“Since those days, I have pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beauty’s cheek mean to a doctor but a ‘break’ that ripples above some deadly disease? Are not all her visible charms sown thick with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or doesn’t he simply view her professionally, and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And doesn’t he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade?”

Not long ago, I was listening to this novel in audiobook format. It had been rolling merrily along with the author’s typical dry humor, and I was enjoying it immensely. When the narrator read the paragraph above, though, I had to stop what I was doing, pause the recording, bookmark that segment and listen again. It resonated with me a great deal.

After years spent in an intensive medical education that teaches us to look for problems in our patients in the name of early disease detection and prevention, it’s hard to appreciate the simple joy of nature’s creatures. Like the steamboat pilot, our job is to look for trouble that may be brewing just beneath the innocent-looking exterior. It's an occupational hazard.

We find ourselves warning new owners of Boxer puppies that dogs of this joyful breed are cancer machines, and that they must keep an eagle eye out for any lump or bump that may appear. Of course, it can be difficult to find a healthy companion because every breed of dog or cat, even mixed breeds, has some inherent problem.

We see the family full of optimism at having adopted a rescued dog that is hiding under the exam room chair, and we feel compelled to warn them of the potential for heartbreak and disaster because of the degree of anxiety we see in the body language of the frightened beast.

We drive past a horse in the pasture, but instead of seeing the majesty of this noble species, we see his subtly shortened stride and cresty neck; it makes us want to knock on the owner’s door and tell them about equine metabolic syndrome so they’ll do something about it instead of waiting until he’s obviously suffering. I see a palomino gelding like this near my sister's work. Every time we go to lunch, it breaks my heart knowing what's coming for that horse - he's a poster child for "in need of intervention."

We see an overweight cat whose owners describe her as “adorably fluffy” and we think of the twice-daily insulin they’ll have to administer once the cat develops diabetes because of obesity.

We see the limping Labrador whose owner believes he’s just got a little hip dysplasia, but we know that he’s been suffering with a chronic torn cruciate ligament in his knee just by the way he walks. We can see these from quite a distance, too; one of my instructors at veterinary school called cruciate tears a “parking lot diagnosis” because you can see them coming across the parking lot and know what's happening before they even get into the building.

There’s a sort of loss of innocence that comes with a veterinary education. Growling puppies on YouTube are no longer cute; the “drunken raccoon” on the funny video show isn’t so funny because we’re pretty sure he has rabies. We watch the local news adopt-a-pet segments while holding our breath as we can see disaster looming when these animals are placed in a television studio with fawning strangers and scary bright lights.

If it seems sometimes that we’re overly pessimistic individuals, I hope you good folks will cut us a bit of a break once in a while. Try to remember that like anyone who works in a medical field - human too - we see a lot of bad stuff. We see it often, sometimes every day, and we spend a great portion of our time trying to keep it from happening. We still see the beautiful face of a curious puppy or kitten exploring the world, and the lovely flush in a beauty’s cheek; it just makes us think about more than the beauty.

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