What You Should Tell Your Kids About Becoming a Veterinarian

I love when families come in to the clinic and tell me their daughter or son wants to become a veterinarian. My parents used to do the same thing when we would go see our vet. And of course, I made my parents take me to every zoo that exists in Europe when we did our first European excursion at the age of 10. It didn’t end there; horseback riding, volunteering at the vet, etc. I even wrote in my little journal that when I grew up I wanted to be a vet – at the age of 5!

Enid CowbuttSo when these kids come in to the vet hospital and look at me with those wide hope-filled eyes, it gives me both a sense of joy and sadness. I wish deeply that their dreams come true. And some will. And others won’t…. It is a very difficult professional program to be accepted into and even the best students will have challenges getting in. The competition is as difficult as it is to get into human medicine or dentistry.

I always believe it is important to go after your dreams. But the other side of me believes it is equally important to have a back-up plan.

I always had one. There was a time when I thought I was almost more interested in my back-up plan than getting into vet school. I didn’t even apply to vet school until I was in my final and fourth year of my undergraduate program because I was enjoying it so much. In fact, I had just begun my master’s research the summer I got the call from the Ontario Veterinary College that I had been accepted.

When I got the call though, there wasn’t a moment of hesitation: “YES”!!!! I called my parents and my boyfriend (now husband) within seconds, crying. And I loved vet school. It was hard though. There were things that were frustrating. We were all a bunch of geeks, but we all shared one thing in common – we really did LOVE animals and wanted to help them be healthy and feel better.

The reason I feel a little sadness for these hopeful kids is complicated. It’s not just about the fact that they Enid Calfmay struggle to get in and not have their wish fulfilled. It is in part that I want them to know that if they do become a veterinarian they must have a really deep down CALLING for it.

This is a very tough profession. Once you make it through vet school, the real challenges begin.

You have such high expectations and you know that what you have learned is really going to help your patients. What you didn’t realize is that often people can’t or choose not to do things that could save their pet because of financial constraints OR in some very sad cases, because they don’t believe their pet is worth the money: “I can go buy another cat for less than that” is an all-too-common refrain.

I don’t think I ever expected it to be quite such an emotional career either. The emotional drain that is put on you every day is overwhelming. It is not surprising that we have a very high percentage of veterinarians who go through serious burn-out.

What other career do you know of where you will see the first months and last months of 70% of your patients?

Where you will be forced to euthanize a puppy because he was hit by a car and the treatments to save his life are upwards of $5000 and the family simply cannot afford it. Even though we try to find ways to make things cheaper, sometimes it is simply impossible to make things free. There is a cost to caring for your pet which some people cannot afford. This would all be so much easier if families had pet health insurance!

Enid TejaMy sadness also comes from knowing the reality of working very long hours only to earn less than 40% of what an MD does (as a general practitioner). Profit margins are so very small in veterinary medicine that few veterinarians make anything even close to an MD.

BUT I LOVE BEING A VET and wouldn’t change it for the world. It was what I was meant to be and I am so very fortunate to have seen my dream come true. Nothing is perfect, everyone will complain about their job or career choice at times.

I get to go into work every day and help our furry four-legged family members feel better, keep them healthy, and help them and their families on their journey through life.

What more could you ask for?

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7 Comments

  • I have pet insurance for my four cats… and out of four of them, 3 had near-death, life threatening health issues that cost us thousands and thousands of dollars. Pet insurance saved their lives – and ours. We would recommend it to anyone who has a pet. The life of your pet is worth the small investment of $20-$60 a month. Dr. Stiles, I can’t imagine what you go through when owners can’t afford to save their pets. It’s so sad that so few people know about it.

  • Although I do agree pet insurance should be right there on the list of things you need to do… if you need insurance for your car, you need it for your pet… your home? your pet… your life? Your pets life. It shouldn’t be one of those things on whether you need it or not, you do. If you own a pet you need insurance. However, with that said. Research your pet insurance carefully. Very carefully. They are insurance companies afterall and not to sound negative, they suck. They will gladly pay for a broken bone or something that is a quick fix, but if your animal comes down with something that will require years and years of continual care, good luck. You are still down the $1000.00’s that you pay into the insurace company and $10000.00’s you still have to pay out of pocket becasue this ‘disease’ is not covered. I say insure yourselves… if you have a pet, make sure before you decide on the breed/type you already have a slush fund of at least $1000.00 in a high interest savings account then add at least $20.00 a week of your savings into that account. In the event your furkid does require emergency medical care, there won’t be an issue of you not being able to afford it and the heart breaking reality of you vet giving you ‘that other choice’ because unfortunately they can’t afford to do it probono as the last 3 patients before you got that treatment.

  • Thank you for this article.
    I can certainly empathize with much of what you say as it is very similar to my path becoming a human doctor.
    The money part surprised me a lot though. I pay my vet 3x what I make from the provincial government for an office visit as a family doc. I am not disputing what you say, and I know that vets earn every last penny of their money and should earn more.
    I would find it so hard to face the things you mention – especially the people unable to care for their animal for financial reasons.
    Thanks for what you do.

  • What is being a veterinarian like on the financial side of things? As you mentioned, veterinarians make less than 40% of what an M.D. does, but how does that translate to real life terms, especially when it comes to dealing with a massive amount of student loan debt?

    • @Andawi: As a vet myself, the biggest reason that vets charge what they do and generally only earn between $50-80,000 a year (which is less than most executive secretaries I know) is that every veterinarian owns their own HOSPITAL.

      The costs of running an office in a highly visible building with 3-4 exam rooms that each hold an otoscope/opthalmoscope/sphygmomonometer and employing 1 receptionist is bad enough as a human doctor. Try doing that, then adding 1-2 onsite qualified nurses to monitor surgery, 3-4 kennel assistants to assist with holding 120lb biting patients, a full blood lab, high-end dental procedure machinery, digital xray, anaesthesia equipment for animals from 3lb kittens to 150+ Great Danes, surgical instruments for every abdominal, soft tissue, and orthopedic surgery possible for said multi-size patients… And EVERY vet’s clients feel that all these services should be available at EVERY clinic. They are unwilling to travel to one location for blood tests, then another for an xray.

      So there are no economies of scale. Fees could be drastically reduced if clients would be willing to do this – drive their pet to one central hospital for major surgeries/procedures, and then have small local “clinics” to do yearly health exams and minor medical exams… It’s my hope for the future that our clients will allow us to reduce fees and still feed our families by stopping the insanity of all of us buying $250,000 xray machines by just being willing to drive 10 extra minutes down the road… Sadly, instead, they choose to drive 10 minutes down the road to SOMEONE ELSE’S clinic who owns everything in one place! Sigh…