Many kids dream of becoming veterinarians, but few actually will. Animal-loving kids, though, can become great pet owners and clients if veterinary medicine does not turn out to be the right path for them. Three veterinarians sound off on what kids and teens get right (and wrong) about what it means to work as a veterinarian.
Kids need to really, really want it.
People become veterinarians for lots of reasons, but Sarah Wooten, DVM, says when she thinks back to her own journey, there were hurts that that she hoped to heal and things she hoped the career would win her.
“[As a child,] I spent most of my time with animals because I had a huge imagination and a lot of social anxiety—people didn’t really get me, but animals did,” Dr. Wooten says. “Unlike most vets, I didn’t know I wanted to be a veterinarian my whole life. But being a veterinarian seemed to be the road to financial stability and social status and respect—two things I lacked as a kid and really wanted above all else.”
Today, as she bops around her work life and children’s lives, she encounters different kids, and many of them seem to have a clearer idea than she did way back when about what the job entailed.
“My best friend’s daughter is high school age and wants to become a veterinary surgeon,” Dr. Wooten says. “She spends her free time watching YouTube videos on surgery and is super driven and clear about what she wants.”
She talked to her friend’s daughter about how expensive veterinary school can be and how that compares to starting salaries, but it didn’t make a dent. “Good,” she thought.
“She would not be swayed, which means she really, really wants it—and to be a good veterinarian who sticks in the profession, you need to really, really want it,” Dr. Wooten said.
If kids can manage the cleaning up, the blood and the euthanasias…
Melissa Detweiler, DVM, was around animals from day one as a kid. But in third grade, her veterinarian’s euthanasia of her sick family dog almost put her off the career.
She says the reality of euthanasia and the behind-the-scenes work is something that turns off some teens with summer jobs at her veterinary practice today.
“The high school kids help clean kennels and help with boarding dogs,” Dr. Detweiler says. “They apply for the job because they think they want to be veterinarians, but it’s no glamor role.”
Of the ones who leave the job early, Dr. Detweiler says some decide they want jobs in human medicine. Another high schooler realized she couldn’t get over the sight of blood.
She and the rest of the team joke that the biggest red flag is when the first words out of an applicant’s mouth are, “I just want to do this because I love animals so much.”
“So much of the job is bad smells, weird fluids and a fair share of ‘gross,’” Dr. Detweiler says.
Some children (and adults) who gravitate to jobs in veterinary medicine also like animals more than people, “but pets don’t come in by themselves,” she says.
“I counsel the kids on learning how to communicate and being comfortable with people,” Dr. Detweiler shares. “If that’s not an introvert’s natural tendency, it’s not that it can’t be done, it just takes work.”
Death is also a rough part of medicine for young employees—something especially hard on idealistic animal lovers. TV shows from Animal Planet and National Geographic glorify the fun, joy and excitement of saving lives, but the harsh reality is, sometimes animals can’t be saved. And that’s hard for some animal lovers to swallow.
In Dr. Detweiler’s rural Kansas town, a lot of the kids who seem to understand the reality of life and death the most are those with an agriculture background.
“Kids from farms kind of understand the bigger picture of the profession,” she says. “Maybe they’re not as emotionally vested in every case, and they have a healthier boundary; a healthier viewpoint.”
“These kids from rural and semi-rural communities love and appreciate pets,” Dr. Detweiler explains. “But they don’t get as frustrated with clients who don’t follow all the recommendations. They don’t take it personally if clients don’t accept the best, most expensive treatment plan.”
Dr. Detweiler doesn’t try to talk kids out of veterinary school, but she tries to share the good with the bad.
“It sounds weird, but of the teenagers who leave their jobs early in my hospital, maybe we save them,” she says. “Let’s show the cool surgeries to them, but also not hide the ugly parts of the job. I don’t want to see people give their lives to a profession they’re not suited for.”
“There are many ways for animal lovers to live lives invested in animals and caring for them without going to veterinary school,” Dr. Detweiler shares. “A rich life full of pets, farm animals, rescues and fosters might work fine for some.”
Don’t waste teachable moments!
When Chris Carpenter, DVM, surveyed practicing veterinarians, 65 percent of them said they’d decided to become animal doctors before they were 13. That means the elementary, middle and high school students who come to his website, www.vetsetgo.com, to learn about becoming veterinarians might not have all the information about the career path, but they’ve got lifelong passion to make it happen.
Dr. Carpenter considers it a gift when a young, aspiring doctor winds up in a hospital and a veterinarian is there to make the most of it.
“Don’t lean on bland advice like ‘study science and get animal experience.’ Instead, invite interested tweens or teens to shadow you for a day. Handle this encounter right, and you’ll gain their parents’ goodwill for life,” Dr. Carpenter says. “And, you might be training the next generation of excellent, thoughtful pet owners, too, who understand the issues of animal medicine, even if they don’t choose a career there.”
“While some of them will become animal doctors, most will not,” he says. “However, they will all become something else: pet owners. If we reach out to them today, build a strong connection with them, and educate them on animal health, we will have well-educated future clients with a close connection to our profession.”
For those whose dream is to doctor animals, veterinarians like Drs. Wooten, Dr. Detweiler and Dr. Carpenter welcome them aboard. +