Vet Talk

What’s so Special about General Practice?

When asked what I want to do as a veterinarian, I give one of two responses depending on the audience

August 7, 2020 (published)
By Amanda McWreath

Amanda holds a puppy that was birthed by C-section. Photo courtesy of Amanda McWreath

To specialize, or not to specialize? That is the question. Many students struggle with this question as they try to find their place in the field of veterinary medicine. Entering veterinary school, I knew nothing about all of the different specialties and careers that a veterinarian can have outside of general practice and surgery. You can imagine my surprise upon arriving at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine where I was instantly overwhelmed with different specialties that I could pursue. I was incredibly impressed by the many doctors teaching our classes and working in the hospital who seemed to know just about everything about their fields of expertise, and part of me wanted to be like them one day.

As many of my classmates contemplated which of the many specializations they would pursue, I wondered if I was underachieving by wanting to “just” be a general practitioner. Being a general practitioner almost seemed like an easy way out since it required less schooling, and the people around me really seemed to value those extra letters behind their name. I felt pressure to reconsider my decision to be a general practitioner because I did not want to feel like I was selling myself short or being a slacker amongst my peers. It took me longer than it should have to step back from it all and reevaluate what being a general practitioner means to me, but I am glad that I did.

General practitioner is a term that can carry a lot of different meanings to a lot of different people. To many, it is simply the doctor that gives shots to their puppies and spays their cats. To others, it is a therapist and confidant who gets them through the impossibly difficult decision of euthanizing their best friend. To some, it is their only hope for saving their dog that was hit by a car because they can’t afford to take them to an emergency specialist. But to me, a general practitioner is a Jack-of-all trades who does the best they can with what they have to solve the everyday problems that animals and people face.

When people ask me what I want to do as a veterinarian, I usually give one of two responses, depending on the audience. The first is that I want to play with dogs all day, as I am pretty sure that’s what at least 60% of my friends and family think I will be doing regardless of how I respond. The second (and more complete) response is that I plan to practice small and exotic animal medicine with an emphasis on wildlife, which means I will be studying mixed animal medicine. The latter requires a bit more explanation of how the field works and where that fits into the cookie-cutter concepts that most people have about veterinary school and medicine in general. So, after around a hundred times of trying to explain all of that and having to clarify that I am not planning to become a zookeeper, I came up with a third response that is short and sweet but best captures my true goal as a veterinarian. I simply want to be able to help animals and people in need. That includes vaccinating puppies at the clinic, spaying feral cats, treating research gorillas in Tanzania, and rehabilitating injured wildlife found on the side of the road.

My goals are certainly a little broad, and perhaps even a little unrealistic, but I feel as though the best goals usually are.

Defining my goals as a veterinarian helped me realize something important about myself. I am a generalist by nature. I find value in having a broad skill set and knowledge base that allows me to connect with a variety of different people and inspires me to constantly try new things. I have never fit into just one mold, and I am proud that I am not easily labeled or defined by a single skill. That is why I want to be a general practitioner. I crave the broad knowledge that comes with seeing a variety of different patients and cases, and I strive to be able to extend my skills beyond the walls of a clinic. I am motivated by the challenge of finding ways to solve problems that no one else has encountered yet or creatively coming up with solutions to accommodate the needs of my clients. Most of all, I enjoy getting to know and working alongside my clients to come up with the best possible solution for whatever their situation may be. I want to be a part of the lives of the animals and people that I work with as much as they are a part of mine, and only general practice gives me the freedom to do that. The human component of veterinary medicine is extremely important to me, and I would not trade those interactions with clients for anything.

If there is one thing that the field of veterinary medicine has taught me thus far, it is that the patient’s well-being should always come first. This means that as doctors, we must be willing to put our pride and competitive nature aside to do what is best for our patient. Being a generalist requires a complex balance between having the confidence necessary to try new approaches to solving problems while still maintaining the humility necessary to recognize when you are beyond your own limits and need to reach out for help. As students, this is something that we constantly struggle with while we are learning the art of medicine, but it is a personal challenge that I welcome to help me grow as a student and as a professional.

I realize much of this seems like a defense of general practice, but it does not need defending. Generalists are vital to the success of veterinary medicine, as are specialists. Neither could function without the other, and I know that our patients would not receive the best quality of care if either did not exist. Despite the competitive culture that we seem to create (or imagine) in veterinary school that tries to rank some positions within our field above others, neither career path is “better” than the other. These are just different positions within our profession that allow us to fulfill our duties to the animals and people that we serve, and I think it is important to step back and appreciate how we as individuals can best serve society rather than serving ourselves.

I appreciate that as a general practitioner specialists are an incredible asset to my team, and I am already looking forward to catching up with my classmates who pursued specialties once I am in practice struggling with a difficult case. But I also know that they will call on me as well, and that is the beauty of veterinary medicine. At the end of the day, we all have different ways to contribute to the field, but we are all equally important to its success.

VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email

Information and opinions expressed in letters to the editor are those of the author and are independent of the VIN News Service. Letters may be edited for style. We do not verify their content for accuracy.