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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Seeing God In Science

Ready for another controversial post?  I'm sure this one will generate thought and comments, as it's another "hot-button" topic.  

I'm not shy about my Christian faith, but I also make a point not to shove it down anyone's throat.  But since it's an integral part of who I am, and because this blog is as much about the personal life of a vet as it is about the profession, I don't avoid the topic when it comes up.  When I've discussed Christianity in the past it has usually been because a reader has asked me a question, as happened in a recent email from Milly...

I just stumbled upon your blog whilst looking up all sorts of science-religion questions. I'm a Vet Nurse and also studying Zoology and Biology at University and the more I've been studying the less and less I've found reason to believe in God or any religion. Not due to an aversion to religion, I was raised a Christian (I'm now 24), but just from the evidence presented to me I find it hard to detach humans from animals and our evolutionary history. It just seems more and more like we are just animals that live and die and that this whole universe was just one happy accident. I hate this outlook on life as it makes me feel like it is meaningless and now death petrifies me - I don't want to use religion as a crux for this fear though, I want something tangible to help me feel comfortable in my belief (that is, I don't want to be a Christian just because I'm too scared of the alternative, that is I will just die and that's the end of that). Whilst I understand having Faith is a huge part of what it takes to be religious, I know you will understand my viewpoint as a Scientist in questioning some of these things! Strangely enough too, the places that I research these questions (what is the point of life? why are we here? what are the differences between humans and animals? etc etc etc) it is the Atheists that come across more adamantly than any religious person; atheists for some reason feel the need to aggressively remind everyone that there is no God so I was hoping to find someone else's opinion for once. 

Sorry again, I know this is more of a personal question and not something necessarily related to your veterinary work but I'm yearning to speak to people who are educated and intelligent and not just blindly following a religion (please don't think I'm being disrespectful) - in your work in Science have you found ways that your faith and your understanding of science can be harmonious? Do many others in your position have a personal God?

Buckle up, folks, as this will be a long one.

I have a unique perspective as I wasn't always a Christian.  I grew up Lutheran and went through confirmation in the church, but it didn't really mean much to me.  We prayed over meals and sometimes for each other, but God wasn't a central part of my life like it is today.  By the time I got to college I had become very agnostic and explored other aspects of religion, thinking that no one religion was right.  During that time I received my Bachelor's in Biology, my Master's in Ethology, and my veterinary degree.  When I was 28 I had a serious experience and was "saved", giving myself to Christ.  Since then I have committed myself to following God.

I only mention my religious background to point out that I didn't always see the world and science through a Christian lens.  Because of my education I took for granted all of the things taught about evolution and held that at my core.  I was decidedly against the Biblical view of science, animals, and humans.  But becoming deeply Christian actually took my blinders off.  I started looking at the evidence and both sides of the arguments with open eyes.  And I found my perspective changing.

I'm not going to convince many die-hard scientists and those who are skeptical of religion.  But the more I've learned about science, biology, and astronomy, the more it has supported and deepened my belief in God.  The sheer detail and intricacies of creation are amazing, and the more I look at those details down to a subatomic level the harder I have believing that it all happened by random chance.  In fact, the odds are beyond belief.

"But it must have happened that way.  After all, we're here now, aren't we?"  That's not real science or analytical  thinking.  This is assuming that a certain way is true because of where it ends up, rather than looking at the process.  How exactly do we go from inorganic chemicals to multicellular organisms?  We must have done so, right?  Yet there are numerous problems with the process, namely that it hasn't been completely explained.  "Well, given enough time sheer random chance is going to allow it."  Really?  If you look at statistics at some point odds are so astronomical that they are effectively impossible.  For example, look at the odds of Jesus fulfilling 48 Old Testament prophecies as he did.  This has been calculated as a 1 in 10 raised to the 157th power.  Okay, 1 in a bajillion is still a chance, right?  Put that number perspective.  10 to that many power is approximately the number of electrons in the known universe.  So Jesus fulfilling 48 prophecies is equivalent to someone reaching out in the entire universe, picking a single electron, and it being the right one.  Oh, and Jesus actually fulfilled well over 300 prophecies about the messiah, so do the math on that one.

Also keep in mind that odds are per instance, not cumulative.  When you flip a coin, you have a 50% chance of it landing heads.  Flipping it 100 times doesn't increase your odds that a single flip will land heads.  When you flip the coin, there is a 50/50 chance of landing on heads, no matter how many times you try.  Now switch that to molecular bonds.  Let's say that a molecule has a 1 in 1 billion chance to bond differently to another molecule.  If you give it 100 million years, there is still that 1 in a billion chance every time the two molecules come together.  So the whole idea of enough time allowing anything at all to happen isn't necessarily true.

What about life on other planets?  Are we really that special?  I do follow astronomy to some degree as well and there has been a lot of talk about Earth-like planets being found that may be able to support life.  But it's not as simple as being a certain distance from a sun and having liquid water.  Each type of sun gives off different amount of heat and radiation.  The rotational speed of the planet and its axial tilt is vitally important.  The presence of other planets and their gravitational pull and radiation also matter.  Believe it or not, but the location within the galaxy is also a factor, as planets closer to the center of the galaxy are exposed to more radiation.  Put all of that together and the fact that our little globe exists at exactly the right location within the solar system and galaxy, as well as the right tilt and spin are all rather astronomical odds.  "But with about 300 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, the odds are good that there are at least a few planets capable of developing life."  Yes, that seems to make sense, but go back to the discussion on odds and that doesn't seem to be as likely.

There is a magic and wonder to nature, and to me that only grows as you look deeper and deeper into the details.  Let's go from galaxies to molecules and look at the intricacies of photosynthesis.  Here are a couple of images that describe and show the process of taking sunlight and converting it into oxygen and glucose.

I'm sure many of you are looking at this and completely lost.  I'm a zoologist, not a botanist, so this is even boring to me.  However, the details of the process down to the single electron are incredibly complex and intricate.  There is so much complexity that I find it hard to not believe that it was created by God!  The idea that two inorganic molecules can somehow over time bond and then bond again to get to the above is absolutely incredible and unbelievable to me.  And it's also unbelievable to some molecular biologists (more on that later).  So to me, the more I know of science the more my belief in God is strengthened!

All of this is just scratching the surface, and since entire books have been written on each of the above topics I'm certainly not going to cover all of it here. It also isn't all of the story, as we're talking about "head knowledge", not "heart knowledge".  Christianity isn't about a list of proofs as part of a scientific theory.  Though there is certainly an incredible amount of such proof, that's not what it's all about.  Christianity is about a personal, one-on-one relationship with Jesus.  It's about loving him and being friends with him, something that facts can't completely define.

Can you list everything that makes you fall in love with someone?  Sure, you can say that they're attractive, share the same likes, are funny, and so on.  But at some point there is an indefinable "something" that goes beyond any list.  Even in friendship this is true.  I have a friend that was one of my groomsmen, and he and I couldn't be more dissimilar.  He's tall, dark-skinned, athletic, and a very driven, focused business person.  I'm short, very pale, a bit out of shape, and don't think the world is all about Rolexes and BMWs.  Somehow we became friends though you couldn't point to many things we have in common.  A relationship with Jesus is very similar.  And that's where science can't go as it is about feelings and emotions which are not easily quantifiable (if it's even possible).

Milly, I completely agree that Christianity shouldn't be seen as "fire insurance" or a "Get our of Hell free" card.  We should have some concern about where we will end up after death, but Christianity is about hope and love, not fear.  It's about understanding, inclusion, and forgiveness, not condemnation (despite what you may hear from some radical groups such as Westboro Baptist Church and others).  And when you read the Bible you will find the answers that science can't give, the very ones you mentioned.

To answer your last questions, Milly, my faith in God and my understanding of science are 100% harmonious and my passion for science only strengthens my passion for God.  In fact, my detailed knowledge allows me to appreciate God in a different way than my wife who studied English and Drama in college.  And there are many, many people who share my view.

Let me give you some resources for further research and study.

Christian Veterinary Mission:  Veterinarians who use their profession to help people world-wide while sharing God.  I've been involved with this ministry for years and would love to go on a mission trip with them one day.
Darwin's Black Box (Michael Behe):  A biochemist's analysis of the molecular processes of living things and how it is impossible for them to have happened by chance.
The Case For... (Lee Strobel):  A journalist who set out to disprove Christianity, Strobel ended up coming to  faith in Christ as he actually found incredible evidence for the Bible and Jesus.  To tie in with this current discussion I would specifically recommend The Case For Christ and The Case For A Creator.  These are incredibly approachable and easy-to-read books and part of a whole series.
Evidence That Demands A Verdict (Josh McDowell):  McDowell is another author who was determined to disprove Christianity and in his research ended up having his mind and faith changed.  This book is for the scholarly-minded as it is very dry, but has an incredible amount of detail and evidence.
The Privileged Planet (Guillermo Gonzalez & Jay Richards):  Addressing the cosmological side of things, this book describes how truly special Earth is in the universe and how it seems to be perfectly created for intelligent residents.

Milly, I hope this helps in your search!  I'll keep you in my prayers.

Best Blogger?

I've been writing on this blog for nearly five years, and have enjoyed it so far.  I'm not making money on it, so this is pretty much just a personal blog about life as a vet, with some pet education thrown in from time to time.  But apparently I'm gaining a reputation on the Internet.  Time will tell whether or not that's a good thing!

In any case, I popped up on a list of "The Top 50 Veterinary Bloggers of 2013".  That's a very cool honor, though I have no idea how the list was determined, and for all I know there are around 51 veterinary bloggers out there so it may not mean much.  Also, 2013 is only half over!  Still, I'll admit that it strokes the ego a bit to be recognized in any small way.

There are some other great bloggers out there, and I know many of my readers have their own blogs related to the profession, some of which certainly deserve to be on that list.

Now I'm just waiting for Good Morning America to give me a call.....

Friday, June 21, 2013

Me On TV

Over the last couple of years I've been blessed to have media appearances, including radio and television.  Many of these have come through this very blog, and though "fame" isn't something I've sought out, I also find it interesting.  Not long ago I was contacted about doing a video interview that would be used by various media sources.  It all stemmed from a blog post I did in 2012 after having seen a pet that had pierced ears and earrings.  After emailing a couple of times a video shoot was set up.

While I've been in TV studios this is the first time I've had a taped rather than live interview.  We couldn't work it out to come to my office so we did it in my home.  There was a single videographer, a single camera, and some lighting, but overall it was pretty simple.  There were set questions sent by the person who arranged the interview, so I had them ahead of time and was able to prepare some answers.  The interviewer read the questions as written and the whole process from setup to finish took a little over an hour.  

After that I didn't know what to expect and never saw the edited result.  Based on a recommendation from the arranger I set up a Google alert to inform me when my name came up on the internet.  Last week, I received my first alert, with me on the CBS station in New York!

Here's the article, with attached video that was broadcast on the TV station.  If you've ever wanted to see what I look and sound like in real life, this is your chance!

There are several things I find interesting about the process.  First, these clips are only a fraction of the approximately 20-30 minutes I spent talking on video.  There were lots of topics I covered extensively, and many questions I was asked, yet only a tiny part of that made it into the video.  

Second, it looks like I was interviewed by this TV station, yet I never left my home and had no idea where the interview would appear.  From what I've now gathered there are professionals who tape such things on a given topic and then make them available to media outlets.  For all I know, none of this was filmed through the local station.

Third, it's interesting how they edited the clips.  In the section where they're showing the dachshund who had skin removed after extreme weight loss, I appear to be commenting on that very case.  However, I had never heard of that dog before, and in fact I was talking about a time many years ago when I almost removed skin from one of my cast who had lost a lot of weight.  In a way it makes me realize just how potentially misleading media reports can be.  They took me talking about a completely different situation, clipped out the part that was appropriate to the story, and made it look seamless with the case being discussed.

Oh, and that's my living room and my dog, Yvaine, you see in the video.  Because we couldn't film at my clinic I'm doing an exam on her on my couch.  Yes, I realize that looks a bit odd.

I really enjoy doing TV and radio interviews.  I wouldn't mind that turning into more of a career.  Though that's not too likely at this time, I wouldn't rule it out in the future.  In fact, I saw a huge increase in hits on my blog beginning the day the story came out.  I've been averaging around 1100-1600 daily views of my blog.  On the day the story ran it jumped to 3500, then 5700 on the next day, and continuing up from there to a peak of 7800.  After June 18th it has started decreasing again, but it was very interesting to see people looking me up after the story appeared on TV and the internet.

If fame comes knocking, I'm ready to answer the door!

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Veterinary Conference Dilemmas

This week I have been at a continuing education conference.  For those who don't know, in the US most licensed professionals are required by state law to addend a given number of hours of continuing education per licensing period in order to keep their license in good standing.  For veterinarians this is typically 15-20 hours per year.  At any decently-sized 3-4 day conference an attendee can get at least that much.  So for most of us we go to one conference per year.  And I've averaged that for the 16 years I've been in practice.

These conferences can be generalized for all veterinarians, as have been the ones I attend, or they can be more specialized on surgery, dermatology, and just about any other topic.  Most of the time is spent on sitting in lectures, starting at 8-9am and finishing up around 4-5pm.  "Wet labs" (hands-on experience with patients or cadavers) give practical experience, but because they are an extra cost I don't sign up for those.  Registration is normally around $400-500, and then when you add hotel expenses, travel, and meals, it's easy to have a single conference cost over $1000.  Thankfully this is tax-deductible or will be reimbursed by the employer.

I've always enjoyed the conferences because I'm a bit of a science and medicine geek.  Why else would I be in this profession?  Each year I learn something that will allow me to be a better doctor, which of course is the point of these events being required by law.  However, I've been finding less and less new and interesting as the years have gone one.

That certainly doesn't mean that I know everything about being a vet.  Far from it!  But I try to keep up with current topics in journals and text books, not relying on a few days per year to advance my knowledge and skills.  Many of the lectures at the conferences are refreshers on things we may have forgotten since vet school, mixed with some updates.  Because certain things like ear infections are something we see daily in practice, these topics are common at conferences.  But how many updates do I need on these things when there hasn't been anything earth-shattering since the last time I learned about them?

I also run into the problem that some speakers just aren't that interesting and I find myself falling asleep as they're talking.  Or the material they cover is different enough from the lecture title that I feel a little misled.  Occasionally you'll get a biased speaker, such as one I had this weekend.  The lecture topic was "The Most Commonly Misdiagnosed Diseases".  Okay, that seemed like something that would be interesting and very relevant to my job.  The first problem I noticed was that this speaker worked for Idexx, a large company that makes diagnostic equipment and tests, some of which I have in my clinic.  Okay, not much of a problem there as companies often sponsor a speaker, and I actually like Idexx's products.  However, the lecturer spent about 15 minutes talking about a specific blood analyzer from Idexx that I likely will never have in my clinic, and all of his cases used certain data from this machine that you couldn't get from other equipment.  That was rather useless.  Then the first two cases were very straight-forward diagnoses with no discussion on how they might be misdiagnosed.  Huh?  I had planned on attending that lecture series all day, but after the first one decided to skip the others and attend different topics.

Situations like this one can make it hard to have fun at a conference, or even learn much.  Which lectures do I attend?  Which ones will I actually get good information from?  Which ones are going to cover material I already know?  Many times you simply don't know the answer until you're in the room.  Most people don't want to leave in the middle of a lecture as it might be perceived as disruptive or rude, though I did walk out one time when I couldn't stand it any longer.  Now I've taken to sitting towards the back of the room so I can either leave or play on my phone if the topic or speaker are useless to me.

And these uncertainties lead to another problem.  Many of these conferences are at popular vacation spots, such as the beach or mountains.  The one I've been at this week was in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, one of my family's favorite places to visit.  Of course, my wife and kids were with me, going to the beach or pool while I was sitting in the lectures.  And when I get bored I start thinking about how much more fun I would have with them than sitting in a dark room trying to stay awake.  Then my mind wanders to thoughts of simply skipping lectures and having fun.

That happens more times than it should.  To a large degree continuing education is on an honor system.  States don't have the resources to examine every veterinarian's information each year, so there are typically random audits.  I've never been audited, so up until now I could have gotten away with never attending any conferences in my career.  However, I'm honest enough and scared enough of an audit that I couldn't imagine completely ditching this important part of my job.  I also know that I've learned many, many things in conferences that I never learned in school and that have allowed me to be a better doctor.  

Still, the temptation is there.  And I did give in a bit this week.  My state requires 30 hours of continuing education every two years, and I'm in the first year of that cycle.  So I could get no CE this year and do all 30 next year, or any combination.  The conference I went to had a maximum of 23 hours of lectures, and I attended 15 of those.  Next year it will be easy to get the other 15 hours I need, I avoided some uninteresting speakers and topics, and I got to spend some well-deserved time with my family.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Removing Both Eyes

Today's post is about a Siberian husky named Diesel.  He's a sweet six-year old boy that first began having problems in late 2012.  At first there was just some inflammation noted in his eyes, which we treated and it seemed like everything was okay.  Two months later, in December, he came in for more eye problems.  It didn't take long to determine that his eyes were painful and his eye pressure was very elevated.  A rather simple diagnosis:  glaucoma.  In his case there was still some inflammation within the eye (uveitis for the medically-minded) and I suspected that the glaucoma happened secondary to the first problem.  Whatever the cause, it needed to be treated and quickly.

I sent him to a local veterinary ophthalmologist the next day and she began treatment with multiple medications.  Over the next several months we slowly got his glaucoma under control with a few setbacks here and there.  The owners hated having do use 4-5 different eye drops every day, but they were willing to do so if it helped him.  Unfortunately he stopped responding as well, which brought us to May.

He made another visit to the specialist a couple of weeks ago and it was determined that his left eye had lost all vision and the right eye had only minimal vision along with a displaced lens.  The left eye was not salvageable, and the best thing to do was to remove it.  However, the right eye was mostly blind and the ophthalmologist gave it a guarded prognosis at best.  He could only see shadows to a certain degree and there was a high likelihood that the "good" eye would fail at some point in the future.

This situation led to a discussion between me and the client.  It was obvious that we needed to remove one eye.  But there was a strong justification for going ahead and removing the other one at the same time.  Both eyes were causing pain and discomfort.  He also did not like the multiple medications used to even somewhat control the glaucoma.  This was a lot of hassle, time, and expense for something that wasn't completely helping the problem.  We began to talk about doing a bilateral enucleation (fancy medical words for "removing both eyes") since there was a good chance that in six to twelve months we'd have to remove the other one anyway.

This was not an easy decision and I'm sure it sounds radical to many readers.  But in circumstances like Diesel the eyes are more of a problem than a benefit.  Neither of them was functioning well and he was effectively 80% or more blind already.  We think about it in our own terms and can't imagine not having our eyes.  Even if we were blind, removing such an important organ makes us cringe.  But with Diesel removing the eyes would be helping his comfort in the long run, and given that he is only six years old he still has a lot of life left in him.  The client thought long and hard and finally decided to go ahead with the surgery.

Here he is before the surgery.  You can tell that he is squinting his eyes more than a normal dog would, and that's due to the pain from glaucoma.

Here is a close-up of the left eye.  It's a little difficult to tell from this photo, but the eye is very cloudy and the pupil is dilated.

I've performed enucleations before, but this is the first time I've removed both eyes on the same pet.  As far as the technical aspects of the surgery, it went very well and without any complications.  In this kind of surgery we remove the eye, muscles, and tear gland (along with the associated third eyelid membrane).  We cut the edges of the eyelid and then sew them together so that there is no longer an opening.  Some specialists may place an artificial eye in the socket just to maintain a more normal, rounded appearance, but this is purely cosmetic and doesn't affect the surgical outcome.  It's also something I don't do.

Here he is immediately post-operatively.

The initial recovery period was a bit rough, despite extensive pain medications.  But he started coming around and relaxing.  My entire staff kept talking to him and when they were available would open his cage and pet him.

By the end of the day he was ready to go home.  He even wagged his tail as we walked him out to his owners!

I have known other dogs who have had double enucleations.  They actually do very well and learn to cope well with their new life and lack of vision.  They can still have a great quality of life and be very happy.  While I only recommend doing this radical of a procedure in extreme circumstances I also feel that this is not unfair to the pet and really is helping them.

Diesel and his people will have an adjustment period.  He will have to learn to get around without any sight or light at all.  The owners will have to learn to be patient and not move furniture around a lot.  But once he heals from the surgery he will be pain-free and will no longer have to deal with the hassles of eye drops.  We anticipate continuing to see him for many years to come.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Jury Duty

I'm 43 years old and for the first time in my life I was summoned to jury duty.  It was an interesting experience, and not quite what I expected.

For those not familiar with the US system (and I'm not sure how this works in other countries), when someone goes to trial there is a presumption that the defendant is innocent.  The prosecuting attorney is responsible for proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty, so the burden of proof is on the accuser.  Other than in a military tribunal or a small claims court, guilt or innocence is not determined by a judge or panel of judges.  A defendant is convicted or acquitted by a jury of his/her peers, meaning average people.  The judge is there to make sure that the attorneys try the case appropriately and according to the law, but it is the jury that has the final decision on the defendant's guilt.

About a month ago I received my summons letter.  Residents of a county are randomly chosen and then sent announcements requiring them to appear for jury duty.  Previously this was done based off voter registration, but apparently they use drivers' license records, utilities, and other things so no citizen is safe.  I was actually a little excited, as I had never served on a jury before.  I also strongly believe in a citizen's responsibility to fulfill certain civic duties, and know that our democracy and court system strongly depend on citizen volunteers and participants.  So I was ready to do my duty and serve my community.  But this is also legally required, so I could have been in trouble if I didn't show up.

I arrived at the courthouse along with around a hundred other people.  Thankfully this fell on my first of two days off, so I didn't have to rearrange my schedule.  However, my first surprise was that this was a week of jury duty, something not stated in the summons letter.  I was fine with using some of my days off in this capacity, but didn't want to have to reschedule my clients and surgeries.  So I began to worry that I would be surprised and end up on a lengthy trial.  I also have a veterinary conference starting this coming Sunday, and that registration fee is non-refundable.  Yes, I began to fret a bit.

The first day was all about telling us what was going on and splitting us up into groups.  Two of those groups were assigned to trials and the rest of us were dismissed by noon.  I had to call an information number that evening, and found out that I had to be back the following day to be interviewed for a trial.  If it wasn't for my having to work I wouldn't have had a problem with this, but I didn't want to reschedule my clients a the last minute.  I spoke to the clerk of courts before leaving yesterday and explained the situation.  She was very understanding and said that she would try to work with me.  Which is why I was a little surprised to have to go back for a trial.

Today I arrived and the jury interviews began.  It took about an hour as the prosecuting and defending attorneys asked questions to the group and certain individuals, trying to find out our positions on subjects related to the case (a driving while impaired charge).  They recessed for about 15 minutes and when we came back in the courtroom several members of the group were excused, bringing us to six jurors.  Yes, I was one of them. 

At this point I had a little hope as the defending attorney had said during the interview that he expected us to be done by the time court dismissed for the day.  That may be why the clerk of courts put our group on the trial, knowing that if I was chosen the case would be over before I had to go back to work.  So I decided to enjoy the process and learn something from the experience.

We came back from lunch and were seated to begin the trial.  As soon as we sat down the defense asked to approach the bench.  After speaking with the judge for a minute or two we were informed that they needed to discuss "legal matters" and we were escorted into the jury deliberation room to wait.  About thirty minutes later we were called back and I noticed that the defendant was no longer in the courtroom.  It didn't take long to learn that at the last minute the defendant had changed his plea to guilty, meaning that a jury was no longer needed.  We were dismissed and no longer had to report for the week.

There are a few things I learned from the experience.  First, there was a lot of "hurry up and wait".  Second, this was a bit of an inconvenience, something acknowledged by the judge and clerk.  I wish they had let us know that it was potentially a week-long service so I could have planned better.  That part of it ended up turning out fine.  Lastly, there is a great appreciation for regular citizens being part of juries.  The clerk, judge, and both attorneys mentioned several times how much they appreciated our service and working through any inconvenience to us.  The judicial system understands how much they rely on citizen juries, and how important we are to the process.  Despite the hassle and potential disruption to my life and work, I personally appreciate jurors even more.

This kind of judicial system isn't perfect, but it's pretty darn good.  I'm proud of America, even with all of our problems and failures.  And I'm glad to be a part of the process.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Become A Vet Tech Or Not?

Alexa writes me with the following......

I'm planning on attending a university in the fall that offers a four year veterinary technology degree. I know you can be a vet tech without having a four year degree, sometimes even without having a two year degree, but I really feel that a four year degree would be better, just in case. Anyways, on to my question. 

I had orientation a couple weeks ago and was shocked at the number of students majoring in veterinary science to go onto vet school. I understand that some will drop out, not make it into vet school, ect., but the number of students majoring in vet science greatly outnumbered those majoring in vet tech. It made me wonder if I was missing something. I've done a lot of research. I know the salary isn't that great (do you think I could potentially get paid more because of a four year degree? I want to work with horses or at a zoo, some sort of wildlife facility), and that it can be a rough job. But I love animals. I've been riding horses since I was three, always had an abundance of small animals that I've loved. I wanted to be a veterinarian since I was in 6th grade. A surgeon, as of more recent years. I've watched a couple on horses and am so fascinated with it. I did a lot of research, though, including reading your blog posts about upcoming veterinarians and decided it was just a bad time. The debt, the low salary, the low employment outlook. But vet techs have a rising employment outlook, potentially increasing salaries. 

Do you think being a veterinarian technician/technologist is better than becoming an actual veterinarian right now? 

All of the people I ran across were just so confident there were going to become vets. Granted, when I pointed out things I had read on your blog/read elsewhere, they seemed like it was new information to them, but some knew and just didn't care. I want a job when I graduate college, not to go to school for eight years and then end up in a ton of debt with no job. But am I getting myself into an even bigger mess with becoming a vet technologist? 

I don't have much longer to figure this out. I keep debating my decision, thinking I'm positive I'll be happy as a vet tech and then wondering if I'm going to be content not actually being a veterinarian. I know they deal more with the science, and vet techs with the animals, but I love both. With the current situation, it'd be better to become a vet tech, right? I think so. But I'm in desperate need of another opinion.

The first thing you need to do is consider how much your education will cost and how much you'll be making.  I don't know the specific data on whether or not veterinary technicians are an increasing job market.  You're looking at an average starting salary of $20,000-$30,000 per year.  With a lot of experience and the right opportunities you might end up making $40,000 or more per year.  That's not a very promising salary with a four year degree, and if your education costs that much to acquire, it may not be worth the expense.  

I'm also not entirely certain how a veterinary technology degree takes 4+ years, at least in the US.  Typically this is a two-year program and will give you an Associates Degree.  You don't need an undergraduate degree before going into vet tech school, and having a four-year degree isn't going to improve your job opportunities in this particular field.  If this is the route you want to go for your career, I would recommend stick with the two-year program as you'll incur less debt and have just as strong of an education and job prospects.

Vet techs are a very important part of the veterinary team, with much more advanced training and better skills than most veterinary assistants.  In some states they can do things that non-certified assistants are prohibited from doing, such as drawing blood and placing catheters.  However, most of the people who work in veterinary offices are trained on-the-job and have no formal training.  With enough years of experience one of these people can be as skilled in the basics as many certified/licensed techs.  In my own clinic I have five assistants and none of them are licensed technicians, though one of them is currently going through school to get this training and certification.

Certainly having your certification and license will open many more doors than an average assistant, especially to more rewarding and well-paying jobs.  Veterinary colleges won't hire someone unlicensed, and most specialty facilities strongly prefer a certified tech.  These are the jobs that have higher salaries and are more interesting, so opportunities are certainly greater.

I would recommend talking to people who are working as techs and asking them the pros and cons of getting licensed.  You should also check out, as they have a lot of resources on technician training programs, salaries, etc.  As usual I welcome comments from vet techs and others in the profession who might have advice or differing opinions on Alexa's situation.

As an aside, the people who simply don't care about the job prospects, salaries, and debt load of a newly graduated veterinarian are in for a very rude awakening.  While it would be nice to say "money doesn't matter" and simply follow your passion, the reality of the world is that money does matter and you can't pay your bills with love.  No matter what your profession or education, you need to seriously analyze your job prospects, salary, and ability to repay loans and other debt before you make the jump into that training.

I'm not sure if any of this helps your decision, Alexa.  I wish you the best of luck!

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Financial Help For Pet Owners

Has it really been a week since my last blog post?  Wow, I'm starting to slack off! 

Today's discussion is a popular one, and I was given a great resource by a reader.  A common topic around veterinary medicine is how to pay for care, especially during a crisis situation.  I continue to 100% stand by my opinion that if you can't afford basic vaccinations, exams, heartworm prevention, and flea medication, you do not need to own a dog or cat.  Pets are a privilege, not a right, and you must be able to care for the basic needs in order to be a responsible pet owner.  It drives vets crazy when someone gets a new pet and then can't afford even the simplest, most bare-bones care.

I also recommend keeping a savings account of at least $500 (or your country's equivalent) specifically marked for your pet's care.  While this won't cover major surgeries, it will cover most immeidate care, basic blood tests, x-rays, and so on.  And it's certainly better than telling your vet you can't afford any kind of diagnostics when your pet is vomiting and lethargic.

But the reality of the world is that not everyone is in a financial situation to set aside for emergency care.  Most vets won't take payment plans because we get burned by the clients more often than not.  I've discussed it several times before, but every vet can tell you more times that a client promised to pay a bill and ended up in collections than they can tell you times that a client paid back an overdue bill.  For this reason it's not possible or even smart for most veterinary clinics to extend credit.  More times than not we're going to lose money, and we can't keep our business open if we can't pay our own bills.  Our creditors don't care if the clients aren't paying their bills.

So what do you do?  You're a pet owner who is doing a good job with preventative care and you have $200 in your bank account that you could spend if absolutely necessary.  Your cat sneaks outside when a door is left cracked open, and ends up getting hit by a car.  The pelvis is fractured and needs surgery, though she is otherwise in surprisingly good shape.  Your total bill is around $2000, but she can be perfectly normal afterwards.  What do you do?

Melanie sent me a link to a website that lists many different companies, groups, and organizations that exist to help people out in situations similar to this.  Some of them I'm familiar with, such as Care Credit (which we offer at our clinic), while others I've never heard of.  I present this as a list of options and can't personally attest to any of them.  It's also important to keep in mind that a person many not qualify for a given option, so in some cases there simply may not be any help.  But there appear to be some great resources at this link, so they are worth checking out.

In the end keep in mind that your vet has bills to pay, a business to run, and employees to pay.  It is not the vet's responsibility to make sure that your pet gets the care they need.  It is your responsibility as that pet's owner and caretaker.