Ah, the days are getting shorter, the nights are getting longer, and soon the traffic will be getting heavier as the bumble-bee colored school busses start taking over the morning commute. The kids probably aren’t looking forward to it, but the parents certainly are. There is a set of students, however, who undoubtedly count the days until the beginning of the school calendar, and those are the college students. College is always an exciting time— the first taste of independence for many young adults and a chance to study something they actually are excited about (as opposed to memorizing the dates of the major battles of the Revolutionary War and diagramming sentences).
For the five veterinarians at our practice, veterinary school was the opportunity to fulfill a dream. The sweat and strain of competition, achieving the highest GPA, taking the standardized tests and submitting to veterinary college interviews was all past. Now the concentration would be on learning as much as possible and getting the most out of the four-year program. Most veterinary students have completed an undergraduate degree, although it is possible to apply after only three years of undergraduate if all of the veterinary school’s requirements are met. The classes at veterinary schools are small — most are around 70-120 students. The students spend all four years together, taking the same courses for the most part until senior year. In their first year, the prospective veterinarians get grounded in the basics — anatomy, physiology, embryology, immunology and the like. At North Carolina State, where I went to school, we had the TAU — Teaching Animal Unit. It consisted of herds and flocks of farm animals. Many of my classmates had very little experience with animals other than dogs and cats and this was an opportunity for them to learn about working with the big animals — cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and horses. It was kind of fun sitting in the library studying and then looking out the window at a herd of Holsteins, contentedly grazing in the field. If you’ve never had the experience of running twenty head of somewhat annoyed angus steers through a chute and catching them in a head gate, be assured it’s not as easy as it looks. It takes timing, quick reflexes and just a little bit of moxie. Those beef cows have big heads that can knock you out if you’re at the wrong place at the wrong time. Still, getting out of the classroom and into the field helps break up the day and it was one of the favorite classes, even for the city kids.
The second and third years of veterinary school involve more specific training — internal medicine, pharmacology, and pathology as well as anesthesia and surgery. Twenty years ago, when I attended veterinary school, all the students took classes in all the species — small and large alike. Most schools now offer “tracking”, where students interested in small animal medicine can take courses geared towards dogs and cats while students interested in large animals can concentrate on the farm species.
In their fourth year, which starts the day after the third year ends, so it’s a full twelve months, students take their clinical rotations — actual time in the hospital seeing real clients and patients, performing and assisting real surgeries and getting a feel for what life will be like when they are released into the world of real practice. The hours can be very long (I once was up for sixty straight hours, albeit with a one hour nap, when I was on my equine rotation), and the work intense. The cases brought into veterinary school hospitals are often ones that are very complicated and are referred in by local veterinarians. The staff of the veterinary school clinics is made up of a senior clinician — a veterinary specialist who leads the department, other clinicians who are usually board-certified specialists, residents, who are in training to earn their board-certification, interns, who are usually recent graduates, the students on that rotation and the veterinary technicians. The advantage for the patients is that they generally have a number of veterinarians all evaluating them and giving their input. The veterinary schools are the places where most of the cutting-edge technology and procedures are available. Radiation therapy for cancer, Kidney transplants in cats, prosthetic limb replacements and bone marrow transplants are just some of the things offered at veterinary schools and a few specialty practices. Much of the research that has made these advances possible was conducted at veterinary schools around the country.
Once students have made it through the four years (and not all of them do), they still face a National Board Exam and the state exams for any state in which they want to practice. Once that is all accomplished, many young veterinarians join a private practice. Some will go on to internships and residencies for specialization. There are also opportunities in industry (often pharmaceutical research), public health and shelter medicine. I have a classmate who is a veterinarian at the Oregon Zoo and another who heads the large animal department at a veterinary school and lectures at many major veterinary meetings.
Education does not end at graduation. This field is constantly changing, with new medications, procedures and diseases being discovered all the time. Continuing education is a must and we all attend conferences and seminars all during the year to keep up with the latest information.
If you’d like to learn more about veterinary school, come visit our waiting room display this month, which highlights veterinary and veterinary technician training. You also can check out bios of all the veterinarians and technicians at the practice. Feel free to ask any us about our experiences as students — with a total of over sixty years experience between us, you’ll get quite a lot of interesting and entertaining stories. It’s a career we all chose because of a love of animals, medicine and the desire to never have a dull moment at work.