From Nose to Tail: Females in Veterinary Medicine

nosetotailDr. Becky Richardson, associate veterinarian at Cascade Animal Medical Center, once heard a saying in school: “A DVM [Doctor of Veterinary Medicine] is an MD that is not limited to one species.”

    Like an MD, a DVM needs a bachelor’s degree and four years of veterinary (versus medical) school. Unlike most MDs, however, Dr. Richardson—and each of the 15 female vets practicing in Rochester—treat their patients from head to hoof, performing everything from dentistry to surgery on every species from bobcat to potbelly pig.  

A calling to care

For many, an interest in veterinary medicine began with a childhood love of animals. When Dr. Laura Toddie, partner veterinarian at Heritage Pet Hospital, was a second-grader she told her parents, “I am going to be a veterinarian and there’s nothing else I’m going to be.” For the past 20 years, her skills and devotion have helped thousands of animals and made her one of the best (named Rochester’s Best Veterinarian in 2008).

    Shelly Strusz, certified veterinary technician (CVT) at Zumbrota Veterinary Clinic, grew up on a farm, wanting to be a veterinarian. She never knew there were other opportunities in animal care, such as a CVT, until her parents encouraged her to try it. So, she earned the associate’s degree in veterinary technology she needed, and, over the last 22 years, has done everything in veterinary medicine except diagnose patients, prescribe medicines and perform surgery (activities restricted to DVMs). This year, she was named the Minnesota Veterinary Technician of the Year.

Tell me where it hurts

Success in veterinary medicine takes more than a love of animals or science. “If you are choosing to be a vet tech because you don’t like the human aspect of medicine, you are in it for the wrong reason,” Dr. Kimberly Rowley, instructor and program leader for the Veterinary Technology program at RCTC, tells her students. “All animals have a human that goes with them and the human relationships are more important than the animal relationships.”

    Fostering that human relationship is vital to treatment. As Dr. Eve Richer of Cascade Animal Medical Center explains, “getting a history [of the animal’s illness and behavior] from the owner is a huge part of diagnosis; that history is dependent upon how well you ask questions and the owners answer.”

    After Dr. Richer and her tech gather the history, they thoroughly examine the patient from nose to tail and conduct any necessary tests, such as x-rays or lab work, to complete the diagnosis. Dr. Richer and her tech then educate the client on how to care for the pet to return it to health.

    “It’s all about client education,” says Dr. Toddie. “It helps them in caring for their pets. With it, you get a better practice and animals end up living a lot longer.”

Balancing act

Animal illnesses, like human ones, do not take weekends off, as Dr. Cody Hankins, a first-year veterinarian at Banfield Pet Hospital, knows very well. “One drawback for me is the long hours,” says Hankins. Unlike some veterinary offices that
close at 5 p.m. on Fridays, Banfield is open all weekend, making it a challenge to balance home
and family.

    It is a task many of her colleagues have faced and will continue to face as the number of female vets increases (80 percent of veterinary school students in 2010 were female, compared to 50 percent in 1986).

    For Dr. Toddie, becoming a partner at Heritage allowed her to create a schedule that fit her practice and suited her family’s needs. For Dr. Richer, the decision not to become a partner gave her the greatest flexibility. Dr. Rowley found the right fit when she sold her veterinarian practice and became a vet tech instructor at RCTC.
    So is it all worth it…10 hours of surgery every Friday, crazy schedules, constantly rotating who picks the kids up from daycare?

    Dr. Richardson, the eighth-year vet who keeps this schedule, thinks so. “I love being able to make a difference in a pet’s life, have the owner see that difference and acknowledge it.”

Marlene Petersen is a freelance writer who lives in Rochester.