As vet students, one of the main distinguishing characteristics that we use to describe ourselves is what species we are interested in working with in the future. You’re either a “small animal person” or a “large animal person.” Small animal is generally only cats and dogs, but if you’re interested in wildlife / exotics you can identify yourself with one of those groups too. Large animal is typically divided into horses and cows / other ruminants (for example goats and sheep are ruminants like cows because they all have the same digestive system). If you don’t have a general group of animals that you want to work with, then you’re either a “research person” or a (much rarer) “mixed person.”
I’ve been hearing for years that the whole idea of mixed animal practices is fading into the past. People talk about how veterinary medicine is getting more specialized due both to client demand and the fact that there’s so much more knowledge than there used to be that it’s hard to be well versed in everything. People will take their cat to a general small animal practitioner because they will assume that she knows more than a mixed animal practitioner who works on several other species as well.
I get the impression that at Cornell (I can’t speak for other vet schools but I suspect many others might be the same), we take the idea of specializing to a whole new level. For example, you can want to be a small animal general practitioner … or you can want to be a small animal surgeon or internist. Or maybe you want to be a veterinary ophthalmologist or cardiologist. All of these specialties require extra schooling after vet school — typically a one year internship and a three-plus year residency. I’ve always felt that the school encourages specializing because that’s how you make a name for yourself and that’s what they want to see from their graduates. It’s much easier to be a famous veterinary cardiologist than a general practitioner. No one has ever explicitly said this though, so maybe I’m just getting the wrong impression. Regardless, around halfway through our time as students we pick a “track” where we choose to focus our elective studies on a particular grouping of animals.
So to summarize — we segregate ourselves (mentally, at least) into groups, and the school encourages this separation. Furthermore, internships and residencies can be extremely competitive, so people tend to have an idea early in vet school if they might want to do one so they can spend breaks and summer doing externships in their chosen field of interest. I have to say that this system works well for me. I like to know things in all of the detail that there is to know about them, and it frustrates me to have a more shallow understanding of a broad range of topics. I would prefer to know everything about one thing than a lot of little things about everything — I also learn better when I’m given detail on why things work the way they do than when I’m told to memorize broader facts.
However, I recently attended a guest lecture by Dr. Ahmed Tibary, a world renowned theriogenologist (a veterinarian who works in reproduction) who is currently a professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Washington State University. Dr. Tibary has worked internationally with a variety of animals, from cows to horses to camels. His lecture was about how he was able to figure out how to properly manage camel reproduction (a multimillion dollar industry in parts of the world) only because he had considerable experience with a variety of other species first.
This made me realize that I think we’re starting to grossly undervalue the importance of comparative work in veterinary medicine. We talk a lot about the concept of “One Health” in which multiple disciplines encompassing both animal and human health work together to better the health of the planet. Veterinary medicine is supposed to have an especially important role in One Health because it already deals with several different species / fields and therefore knows how to integrate disciplines, which gives us a unique vantage point when analyzing problems of public and global health. But how can we reconcile this with the the level of specialization that we also encourage? If we learn to specialize in vet school, doesn’t that take away the multidimensionality that we boast of and make us the same as every other health profession out there?
I’m definitely starting to think about stepping out of my comfort zone and not closing the door on opportunities that I may initially have discounted because they involved animals that I didn’t think I would want to work with. That being said, this is probably a concept that I’m going to develop a much deeper understanding of as I progress in my career, and a topic that I’ll probably revisit again in this column sometime in the next couple of years.
Nikhita Parandekar graduated from Cornell in 2011 and is a second-year veterinary student in the Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hoof in Mouth appears alternate Fridays this semester.