Why a Vet?

Why did I become a veterinarian? I cannot tell you how many times I have heard that question. The other common response when someone finds out that I am a veterinarian is “ I considered that profession.”   When visiting schools for career days or educational sessions, we often have more interest from students than other professions. What is the attraction? Why is this career so coveted by people around the globe?

I cannot say that I have any simple responses to these questions but wanted to share my story as one example. My farm background certainly contributed to my desire to be a veterinarian. At age 10, I told my parents I wanted to be a veterinarian. That was in 1972, and at that time there were very few women vets. My parents were always supportive, but I cannot say the same for other people in my life. Up to that point I had been caring for baby pigs, baby kittens, and horses. Whenever the vet came to our farm my dad would make a point to let me join them to observe. I was a 4-H and FFA member involved in showing hogs and meat judging during my high school years. I was a County and District Pork Queen and educated people about pork in Iowa and California. I never had the opportunity to work with a veterinarian prior to veterinary school but always knew I wanted to care for animals. I completed my undergraduate college course requirements in three years and applied to the College of Veterinary Medicine in the spring of 1984. I was accepted for the fall of that year and had all intentions of being a large animal veterinarian, since I worked with horses and hogs prior to college and had no fear of cattle or other food producing animals.

What caused the change of heart? Why did I decide to go down the path of small animal medicine instead? Many factors affected this decision. While attending veterinary school, you learn all species so at the completion of your education you can chose a number of different career paths. This leaves one to ponder all the opportunities that present themselves during these four years of veterinary school. Many only think about private practice when considering a career in veterinary medicine. What people do not realize is research, food safety, academia, government, animal welfare, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology, and military positions are other options that can be very rewarding career paths as well.

I recall during my senior year a cold winter night that I was on emergency duty and a male classmate returned from a cattle call. I asked him how it had gone delivering the unborn calf and he remarked, “I was stripped down to my jeans on the cold damp floor of the barn trying to reposition a calf in a cow that would not stand up.” My first thought was, I cannot do that. My second thought was, I hate the cold. That was when I decided I wanted climate controlled facilities to work out of and animals with fur and feathers that were not larger than myself. I also became aware of the physical side of large animal medicine and the challenges that would present themselves daily. I knew that one day I would want to start a family and working long hours would interfere. These are some of the reasons that I chose a small animal focus coming out of veterinary school. Now my kids have often asked why I did not take up zoo medicine or marine medicine since that sounds so much more exciting. I informed them that living in the Midwest the choices for those two areas would be limited. Especially, in regards to marine animals. I cannot think of the last time I saw a shark in Iowa.

In my years of practice I have been an associate, solo practitioner. and a corporate veterinarian. I have worked out of a new small animal hospital, a mobile home, a store front rental space, a PetSmart store, and seasoned mixed animal practice. In each and every one of these spaces I have gained more appreciation for the field of Veterinary Medicine. It is a challenging field because we do treat multiple species, but more important, we have to care for the owners as well. There is a bond that is formed between that animal and its owner. We have to figure out if we are a veterinarian or a pet pediatrician. Is this animal an animal, pet, or fur baby? If someone wants to be a veterinarian because they like animals but not people, they need to rethink their profession or consider something other than private practice. We do spend time with animals, but without our communication skills with their owners, we could not be successful.   I have encouraged high school students to come and shadow me when they are considering veterinary medicine as a career choice. I want them to get a view of what a day in the life of a vet can look like. I would have to say that I have encouraged as many as I have discouraged. Many view our day as playtime with puppies and kittens. I want them to see that being peed on, pooped on, snotted on, anal glands expressed on, bled on, and scratched and chewed on are all in a days work. More often than not when I return at the end of the day to my home, I get a favorable response from my dog, but my family says, “you stink.” I enjoy my job and am thankful for each day that is brand new and rewarding. Never will a day be routine or mundane. I want these students to see the pain and suffering of some animals as they come to us needing care. I want them to feel the joy when we are able to cure or fix the problem and return them to their grateful owners. I want them to feel the sadness as we assist owners in their final request with an aged pet that no longer has a will to live. I want them to feel the warmth of a tongue on their faces and the smell of puppy breath when that new owner gets their first pet. I want them to experience the reality that some people do not have the financial resources to fix the problem presented and the difficulty surrounding those moments for us as veterinarians and the pet owners. I want them to realize that Veterinary Medicine is a career full of emotions with successes and failures. We cannot fix everything for everyone or for every animal. We have days where we want to walk away because it is hard to tell someone their pet has passed. We have times when we rack our brains trying to figure out why a pet is not responding to our treatments. We have moments we wish we could forget about having to run a business and just do everything at no cost because of our love for animals. We restrain from tantrums when we have to give the flea speech one more time. Then someone comes and thanks us for our care or compassion or attention to their concerns and we continue on. Never forgetting those moments because if we stop feeling the good and/or the bad our effectiveness is gone. It is a constant balancing act within the walls of a veterinary practice.

So what advice would I give someone that is considering a career in veterinary medicine? Take as many science and math courses as you can during high school. Get involved in FFA or 4-H and learn as much as you can about the different species of animals. Volunteer or work in a veterinary facility or a rescue program to learn how to handle animals. Take classes in speech and communications so you are able to talk with people and make good eye contact. Once in college get involved with organizations that will expand your communication skills. Be attentive to your studies and get high marks. If you can manage to work or volunteer along side your studies and still get high marks that will be favorable when applying for veterinary school and or job hunting after college. Many employers, in numerous professions, are more interested in your people skills, communications skills, and your time management skills than your book smarts.

When applying to the ISU College of Veterinary Medicine the average GPA of those accepted into the program was 3.53. When looking at the financial committement annually for the four years of veterinary school, it currently runs $20,014 for in state tuition and greater than $44,000 for out of state tuition. Last year 63.5% of the class were out of state students and 36.5% were in state. Each class is approximately 148 students and currently 80% are women and 20% men. The average yearly salary in Iowa is $78,040 for all veterinarians. The range is $48,310 – $134,560 annually. A new graduate veterinarian making $48,310 annually calculates out to $23.23/hour. A medical doctor easily earns 2-3 times this amount annually with a similar debt after graduation.

After considering all of these factors about veterinary medicine, if this profession still sounds appealing to you, I encourage you to follow your dream. I am glad that I chose to become a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine 45 years ago. I will be celebrating 30 years as a DVM next year and cannot believe how fast this time has gone. Many things have changed during these years but one thing remains constant, people will always need someone to care for their animals, pets, or fur babies. That is job security and I am grateful to be able to work each day in a profession that helps promote the human-animal bond.



What to Do About Hacking Cats!

It appears I have neglected our furry feline friends as I review the different topics discussed over the last year. Therefore, today I feel compelled to discuss the ever-present concern about cats and hacking — why they do this and what are the causes are.  This topic comes up often in conversations with clients about their cats. It is never a fun one to discuss, since it can have some very undesirable side effects. The causes can vary, but a large percentage are related to excessive hair consumption associated with normal grooming behaviors.

A cat’s ability to groom themselves is an important trait to have. We are all amazed that they can get into something sticky and/or messy and after a few hours return to find everything cleaned up. Also being able to groom under their tail is an important attribute to have.  If your cat cannot clean under their tail or over the top of their back, it can indicate they are overweight or having arthritis, making it painful to reach those areas.  We also see cases where a kitten that was orphaned at an early age will not be the meticulous groomer that we would like. The grooming behaviors are learned from their mother at an early age, and if she is not present those kittens may never be good at self grooming.

If your cat is hacking there are important things to consider. We have a number of upper respiratory conditions that can cause drainage in the back of the throat which can lead to a hacking sound.  We have foreign body ingestion that can have a similar sound, but usually the continual attempt to dislodge the foreign body gives clues indicating the need to seek veterinary care.  We can have asthma-like symptoms that may have a hacking sound associated with environmental items such as smoke, dust, pollens, certain aerosol sprays, etc. The challenge is always to determine what the causes are and then work to treat or prevent them in the future. Most cats, if hacking is associated with hairballs, will eventually get the large, ugly, slimy, moist, tubular hairball vomited up. They may make one giant attempt to remove it or multiple attempts with small bile partially hair filled vomitus.

WHY do these hairballs occur? From my experience it appears that younger cats have more natural ability to keep the hair moving and not vomit up hairballs. Now, that also could be related to the increase in shedding as the cat ages, since we seem to be less likely to spend hours brushing and removing all the excess hair.  We have cats that groom not only themselves but other cats in the household, thereby increasing the amount of hair they take in daily. Bathing cats can help remove unwanted hair as well as doing a “Lion Cut” on long haired cats to help prevent matts.

We know that diet can affect the hair coat and increase or decrease the amount of shedding. If you are interested in finding a diet that helps decrease the amount of shedding, speak with your veterinarian. Many diets are not nutritionally complete and therefore skin and hair conditions are affected. When changing a diet it will take at least 6 months to notice a difference in the hair coat and shedding. Diets that indicate “hairball formula” often times will have an increase in fiber and/or omega 3 & 6 nutrients. These ingredients can have a beneficial affect on moving the hair through the intestinal tract and preventing hairballs.   The debate on whether canned or dry diets are better for cats continues, with many feeling a combination of the two is best not only for hairballs but the increase in moisture content as well.

WHAT should you do when your cat vomits a hairball? First, many homes are multi-cat households so you must determine who. This can be difficult, so sometimes it involves separation and evaluating eating habits and stool habits to determine who may be responsible. If that is not possible, it will not hurt a cat to be treated for hairballs if you decide to treat everyone. Often times cats having issues with hair will also have abnormal stools. The stools will be more round and small in size. They should be more like a “tootsie roll” if they have a healthy digestive tract. I realize it is not fun to evaluate stool, but one can learn a lot from what that stool looks like. Once you have determined who is responsible, take a good look at the cat’s hair coat. Are there matts, rough and unkept areas of body, shiny or dull coat, and excessive amounts of hair removed with petting, bathing, and/or brushing? If you see a number of these conditions it would be wise to speak with your veterinarian about the skin and hair coat. It is an important organ just like the liver or kidneys and needs special attention as well.  If the coat and skin appear to be healthy, then you need to consider ways to prevent hairballs.

Hairball prevention is best treated with diets that are complete and well balanced as mentioned earlier.  You may pay more for these diets, but it will save you money in the prevention of hairballs as well as other health concerns that develop over the lifetime of your cat related to poor quality nutrition. There are a number of lubricants that can be used to treat hairballs. The use of these products will help keep the hair moving in the digestive tract and avoid the “hacking up” of a hairball. The recommendation is to use daily for 3-5 days after a hairball has been presented and then use daily, every other day, biweek, or weekly as needed to keep them from developing. There is no exact science in these preparations. Many factors affect how often you should use them. For instance if someone bathes and combs their cat regularly, they will have less need to use the lubricants for hairballs. If the cat grooms themselves and other cats in the home then they may need it daily. The goal is to use these products as often as necessary to prevent hairballs.

I have often suggested adding canned food into a cats diet if hairballs are a concern. The additional moisture and oils helps lubricate the intestinal tract and keep the hair moving. Since elderly cats are more prone to hairballs, the additional calories daily can help weight loss issues and dental concerns as well. Some cats will refuse canned food since they are very cautious when something new is presented to them. It is important to warm the canned food if they do not like canned food after it has been refrigerated.   Purchase the proper sized can to avoid refrigeration after 4 days or more. Many canned diets become stale and undesirable to the cat when open for extended periods. If you find your cat refuses the canned food initially, you can cut back on the volume of dry offered each day to encourage them to eat the new diet. Mix a small amount with some of their dry kibble but make certain to discard any uneaten food since it will not keep until the next meal. Introduction of canned food at a young age can make it easier to offer canned food later in life.

Start early in life with combing and bathing your cat. A kitten can learn to tolerate baths and combing much easier than teaching an older cat to appreciate these events. The following video is Hemmingway, our Winterset Veterinary Center cat, who was brushed early on in his life since we knew he would be a long haired cat. As you will see by the video, he loves his grooming time and purrs during the entire session. It is so much easier to groom a cat that is content than one that is agitated or angry. Make certain you purchase a COMB if you own a long haired cat. Brushes have a tendency to brush the top of the cat but not remove the thick under coat that needs to be removed. The fuminator and zoom groom are two products that can be helpful in removing excess hair from cats.

Click to see video: Hemmingway at Winterset Veterinary Center

A professional groomer is trained to shave cats that have continual issues with hairballs or owners that want to reduce the household hair issues. We call it a “Lion Cut”. They have a very short body and a mane around the face and a tuft on the tail. Some of these cats are groomed like this twice per year and others are done annually depending on the owner. Often times the cats are sedated for this special cut to avoid cutting their extremely thin skin and preventing injury to the groomer.

Hacking cats can mean different things at different times. Always be aware of their eating and drinking habits since that can also give you insight to what may be causing the problem. The more information you can share with your veterinarian about your cat, the more they will be able to do to solve your “hacking” issue. Have a wonderful July 4th.

Is this all MY hair?


Years ago when I started to realize that all living beings have a time to live and a time to die, I started to process the loss of my pet cats, pet dogs, and the runty baby pigs that I so desperately tried to save. I would shed tears as I laid them into my pet cemetery behind the old garage. I would fashion a cross out of a few sticks that I could tie together with some twine. I collected large rocks to place around the location the body lay so not to disturb this ground the next time I had an informal burial. During all of my years I never had to say a forever good bye to any of my horses for one reason or another. That changed today.

In 2004 we moved to the Winterset area after over 20 years of marriage. During this time we were never able to live where we could have horses so after our 4 children were well on their way of becoming able to care for horses, we bought Junior. Junior was a 12 year old gelding that had belonged to a young lady going off to college and in need of a car. We met him in a pasture along I80 at the Menlo exit. Our oldest daughter, Jaclyn, had decided she wanted to have a horse that she could learn to barrel race on. We had already purchased one other horse named Morgan, that was hers for trail riding and he needed a companion. Since it is never fun to trail ride by oneself, Junior was the perfect fit. Both of these boys, I considered gentle giants. I never had to be concerned about the safety of our kids while spending time with them in the pasture or riding. Junior was never out of control when entering the arena to start his race. He was a proven pole and barrel horse that always took care of his rider. Jaclyn’s first year in 4-H she won both the barrels and poles in her intermediate age group. We spent many hours riding these two boys on our property through the years and he became a member of the family just like any dog or cat we had ever brought home. I know over the years he had heard more secrets and stories than he will ever let on as our kids grew into teenagers and young adults. He was always willing to be ridden with or without a saddle. He never showed any ounce of aggression or anger no matter what was going on around him. As with all good barrel and pole horses the years of racing took a toll on his legs. We retired him from racing and he became a second trail horse and a loving member of the Nielsen family. With “natural” hoof trimming he has done extremely well through his senior years. We always allowed him to run free when moving them between pastures over the years and were amazed at how he would kick up his hooves and run like the wind with his tail held high and mane blowing in the wind. It was always one of my favorite things to watch and will be the way I remember our Junior.

I reminisce about all that our kids have learned by having horses. The following link has been special to me since I have daughters that have shared my love for horses.

Because My Daughter Grew Up With Horses – Breyer Horse

We have so many wonderful memories of time spent with Junior that will give us great joy in this time of sorrow. It is never easy saying good-bye but when the suffering was great, and the twinkle was gone, it was time.

As a veterinarian, I am so accustomed to saving our furry friends that when it comes to my own family from 4 legged to 2 legged and I cannot stop the pain and suffering it takes on a whole new meaning. These moments tug and pull at my heart and mind and the tears come flooding through. Age is just something that I cannot turn back the clock on. Medical conditions start to deteriorate the body and sometimes, our pets show no response to treatment. When this happens there is no hope for quality of life. I want to protect my children from feeling this loss but I know that is not possible. If we have pets, there will be pain when these decisions must be made. There is such a mix of emotions surrounding this decision, from the peace that I know has come to Junior as he took his final breath, to the tears of sadness from my myself and my family as we said goodbye to Junior, to the joy of having him in our lives for the last 13 years, for the loss that Morgan has as he searches the hillside for his companion of 13 years. Death is difficult no matter what the circumstances are. In that circle of life as every living soul lives and dies we must find the peace within ourselves to be grateful for the years, days, hours, and minutes that we have shared together. Rest in peace Junior. You are forever in our hearts and minds.

By the edge of a woods, at the foot of a hill

is a lush, green meadow where time stands still.

For here, between this world and the next

is a place where heavenly horses find rest.

And on this beautiful green land JUNIOR will play.

He will have no pain, God takes it all away.

Junior will trot through the grass, without a care,

until one day he will stop, whinny, and sniff the air.

Suddenly he will see you, as you run to your old friend

One person and one horse, together once again.

And the sadness that you felt while you were apart

has turned to joy once more in both of your hearts.

1 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30