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From Parakeets to Palominos

Veterinarians are doctors whose patients are pets and wildlife. They perform many different services and may treat their patients at animal clinics, zoos, aquariums, or farms. In North America there are nearly seventy thousand practicing veterinarians.

Household Pet Doctors

Most veterinarians are general practitioners, which means they typically work with common pets such as dogs and cats. Many others also treat birds or small animals such as ferrets, guinea pigs, and hamsters. Dr. Rebecca Campbell is a general practitioner vet who owns Symphony Veterinary Center in New York City. One of her patients is a four-year-old Dalmatian named Oakley. During one visit, Dr. Campbell treated the dog because he had swallowed his ball. When she operated on him to remove it, she also found that he had swallowed a guitar string! Oakley did not learn his lesson, however. One month later he swallowed another ball and his owner again took him to the clinic. As Oakley shifted around in his cage, Dr. Campbell could hear the ball squeaking in the dog’s stomach. She performed another operation to remove the ball, and Oakley recovered just fine.

Veterinarians often work daytime hours, but many animal clinics also provide twenty-four-hour emergency care. Dr. Andy Sokol is an emergency vet who works at Grady Veterinary Hospital in Cincinnati. He sees pets of all shapes and sizes, and he has treated everything from broken bones to breathing problems. Many of his cases involve dogs that swallow objects such as bones, balls, and gobs of string. Dr. Sokol has also treated dogs that have eaten Christmas tinsel, screwdrivers, socks, blankets, and entire loaves of bread.

Exotic Pet Vets

Some veterinarians specialize in pets that slither, scamper, or hop. Dr. Gregory Mertz, who has a Massachusetts practice called the Odd Pet Vet, specializes in exotic pets such as snakes. He also treats iguanas and shiny lizards called skinks, as well as a variety of spiders, turtles, rodents—even alligators. One of his patients is a yellow and white, seven-foot-long python named Slick. During one visit Dr. Mertz treated the fifteen-pound snake for a respiratory infection. On a different occasion he performed surgery on a python that had eaten a pair of its owner’s underwear.

Because of his unique specialty, Dr. Mertz is always prepared to face the unexpected. One man brought in his tarantula because it lost a leg when a book fell on it. Another brought in a pet daddy longlegs spider that was infested with mites. Dr. Mertz has treated turtles with mouth sores, salamanders with infections, and iguanas refusing to eat. A panicked woman brought in her son’s frog after she had accidentally washed it in the washing machine. To the mother’s relief, Dr. Mertz was able to treat the frog, and she took it back home.

Down on the Farm

Just as people depend on veterinarians to take care of their pets, farmers depend on them to keep their farm animals healthy. These doctors are often called large-animal specialists or livestock vets. They travel to farms and ranches to care for horses, cows, pigs, goats, sheep, and other animals. Their visits may be routine, or they may provide emergency treatment.

Dr. Janice Posnikoff is an equine veterinarian, which means she specializes in treating horses. As a young teenager she had a horse named Beauty. The horse developed a life-threatening leg disease, and a veterinarian saved its life. After that experience Dr. Posnikoff decided to become a veterinarian. Today she operates a mobile clinic in California and drives from stable to stable to treat her equine patients. She says the best thing about being a veterinarian is seeing the results of a job well done: “Surgeries that go off without a hitch, watching a once-lame horse trotting around… and foals that are born healthy and happy. Thinking about the thank you cards and pictures my clients send me brings a tear to my eye.”1

Cages and Fish Tanks

Another type of large-animal veterinarian is one who treats zoo animals. Zoo veterinarians treat elephants, rhinoceroses, giraffes, tigers, lions, and all the other wild animals that live in zoos. Dr. Jim Rasmussen, a veterinarian at the Minnesota Zoo, is known as “Dr. Zoolittle.” He has treated snapping turtles, grizzly bears, and dog-sized, South American rodents called pacas. One time Dr. Rasmussen needed to remove a stuffed animal from the stomach of a Komodo dragon named Doni. A child visiting the zoo had accidentally dropped her toy cat into Doni’s cage, and the huge reptile swallowed it.

Zoo animals do not necessarily cooperate when they need medical treatment. Often they get angry with the veterinarians who examine them and remember their anger for a very long time. According to Dr. Mary Denver, a zoo veterinarian in Baltimore, a polar bear held a longtime grudge against her. She once checked the animal because it had a mark on its nose. It did not appreciate the examination. Ever since, whenever the bear sees Dr. Denver, it starts jumping up and down on two legs as it spits, drools, and growls.

Aquariums also need veterinarians to take care of fish and other aquatic creatures. One example is Boston’s New England Aquarium. It is home to more than seven thousand varieties of aquatic wildlife such as fish, penguins, seals, sharks, and sea turtles. Veterinarians who work for the aquarium’s medical center specialize in aquatic wildlife, and they care for all the aquarium animals. They also treat sick or injured creatures that have been rescued. One of their patients was a young male seal named Barney that was stranded on the beach. He suffered from bite wounds on his flippers and an infection of his gums. As soon as Barney had recovered, he was released back into the ocean.

Animal Specialists

Just like doctors for humans, some veterinarians specialize in a particular area of medicine. For instance, those who specialize in allergies and skin diseases are called veterinary dermatologists. Veterinary oncologists specialize in cancerous growths. Veterinary surgeons perform many types of surgical operations, and veterinary cardiologists focus on heart problems. There are also veterinary dentists who care for animals’ teeth and gums.

To treat animals suffering from eye problems, there are veterinary ophthalmologists. One of these specialists, Dr. Sam Vainisi from Wisconsin, has performed eye surgery on a nine-thousand-pound elephant, a Siberian tiger, a horned owl, an orangutan, and a large, slow-moving mammal called a three-toed sloth.

Veterinarians may treat dogs and cats, or large wild animals such as elephants, giraffes, and bears. They may care for livestock on a farm, or treat fish and other creatures that live in aquariums. Whatever their specialty, and no matter if their patients bark, whinny, scamper, slither, or swim, all veterinarians are important. Anyone who loves a pet, owns a farm, or loves nature and wildlife, depends on the valuable health-care services that these professionals provide.

1 Quoted in “I’m an Equine Veterinarian,” Young Rider, July/August 2001, p. 28.

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