Posts Tagged Veterinary Science

All Creatures Great And Small

As Christmas approaches spare a thought for your long suffering veterinarian. Of all the times over the years that I have been called to emergencies perhaps 10% were genuine. A dog that has been coughing for three weeks probably does not need to be seen at 11 o’clock at night. If you have a bitch on heat and your male dog is whining and has a whitish discharge from the end of his penis, he is probably behaving like a normal dog. Unfortunately it is hard to determine over the phone if you are dealing with a genuine emergency or not. The one time you successfully put off a client will probably be the one time you have a dead animal the next day.

For genuine emergencies we will of course drop the Christmas turkey and attend to it. Genuine emergencies usually come on suddenly e.g. snake bite, hit by car or a twisted stomach because someone took their large dog for a run right after a big meal. Non-genuine emergencies tend to have been grumbling along for some time, such as our dog with a cough. That is not to say that something that has been dragging on for a while could not now have become a genuine emergency, but it would have been better to have had it seen to before it reached that stage.

And don’t even think about grumbling over the bill after you have dragged your veterinarian out of bed or away from Christmas dinner. Veterinary medicine has an incredibly high attrition rate (and suicide rate) attributable, at least in part, to working long hours (try finding a mechanic that is open at 7 pm, or even a GP) along with the relentless stress of making life and death decisions, all for relatively little remuneration. A 1996 North American survey found that the average income of an experienced veterinarian aged between 40 and 49 was $53,500, compared with $110,000 for dentists, $124,100 for physicians and $101,700 for lawyers ( Consider your average GP whose overheads comprise an office and a stethoscope and compare that with a veterinarian who has to pay off the $20,000 X-ray machine, the $5,000 anaesthetic machine and a few thousand dollars worth of cages. Consider also that human medical procedures are heavily subsidised by the government. While repair of the anterior cruciate ligament in a dog may set you back $2000, the equivalent surgery in a human can cost up to $50,000. As the government subsidises these sorts of procedures and many people have private health care the actual out of pocket expense for the surgery on a human is about $2000 ( So please stop complaining about vet bills and use some common sense when deciding if Fido needs to be seen before or after the turkey.

Dr. F. Bunny

, , , ,

Leave a comment

Do No Harm

I am reminded of an old joke: What’s the difference between God and a veterinarian? God doesn’t think he’s a veterinarian.

Before we deify ourselves and pontificate about how much we have made things better, we need to ensure that we haven’t made them worse instead. Do no harm. It should be easy. After all we all became veterinarians because we want to help not hinder, fix not destroy, help not harm. Unfortunately, even with the best of intentions, it’s not always that easy.

Veterinarians are not, in fact, God, or anything approaching it. For starters, we actually exist. And we’re human. And humans make mistakes. The trouble is when the plumber errs the toilet might rupture and flood the bathroom. When a veterinarian falters someone could possibly end up dead. How much worse it must be for the medicos who have to withstand the full fury of the victim’s family. Still, trying to explain to someone that you just killed their beloved pet, their million dollar racehorse or that endangered species is no laughing matter either.

I find it difficult to determine how much good I’ve actually done. I once knew a zoo keeper who judged the skill of a veterinarian by how readily they could take a blood sample from his animals, because this was something he could measure. Anyone can place a stethoscope on a chest and pretend to hear the heart, when all the while they are desperately trying to buy time because they actually have no idea what’s going on. But a blood sample or an anaesthetic dart fired at an animal produces a tangible result. Success or failure, for all to see. I wish it was that easy with diagnoses and treatments. How do I know that my treatment was successful? Many conditions resolve without intervention, or despite it.

It’s quite possible that up to 80% of the cases I have seen would have had exactly the same outcome regardless of the treatment regime I selected. Of the remaining 20% I like to think that half improved or recovered directly because of my treatment. Unfortunately the remaining 10% quite possibly got worse or died because of my intervention. Not a very cheery figure but then I did read somewhere that up to 60% of statistics are made up.

With such ambiguous outcomes is it any wonder that veterinary medicine has such a high attrition (and suicide) rate? There are some cases, mostly surgical, where I am convinced that I was a force for good, and I cling to these as justification for what I do each day, but there are probably just as many that cling to me where I just as obviously killed my patient. Fortunately it doesn’t happen that often and I always hope desperately that the post mortem will reveal some underlying pathology. So often it does not. I’m not sure how I manage to pick up the pieces, collect myself and carry on. I do know it gets harder every time it happens. I knew a colleague once who was a veterinary dermatologist. She chose that route because there are no emergencies in dermatology and animals tend not to drop dead unexpectedly from skin complaints.

I almost did not complete my veterinary degree because I knew that, as a new graduate, my skills would be found wanting and I would make mistakes, possibly with disastrous consequences. But I persisted, believing that eventually my positive outcomes would outweigh my negative ones. After over 20 years in the profession I certainly hope they have.

Dr. F. Bunny


Leave a comment