Today, April 28, marks World Veterinary Day. It honors the work performed by veterinarians all over the world and gives us the perfect opportunity to speak with Dr. Jerry Klein, Chief Veterinary Officer for the AKC, about some of his experiences over his more than 35 years of practice.
AKC: What made you want to become a veterinarian?
Dr. Klein: Like most veterinarians, it began with a deep-seated love of animals. I think it is a very common aspiration for children because it is such a cool field, but those that actually do go on to become veterinarians do so because they are so passionate about it that nothing deters them.
I was not from a “doggy” family. I was one of those nagging kids who asked repeatedly for a dog growing up until my parents finally gave in and got me a dog for my twelfth birthday. I remember piling into the car and driving across town to a pet store, because back then we didn’t know any better, and I chose a Wire Fox Terrier named Skippy. Later, I saw an ad in the paper for a dog show and urged my parents to take me.
Nobody, not even me initially, expected me to become a veterinarian. My father was a doctor, and so the medical background was there, but the truth is I just never got tired of animals. I got involved in veterinary medicine partially through dog shows and breeders. Over the years, this involvement with the AKC and the American Kennel Club Canine Health Foundation has made me a better veterinarian.
AKC: What is the most rewarding part of your job?
Dr. Klein: Without a doubt, it’s been working Emergency for 35 years. You know that probably every day you will save a life, and that during every shift you are making animals’ lives better. Sometimes it’s exhausting, and for young vets, it can be both exhausting and stressful due to student loans, but what brings you back is looking at the animals who are reaping the benefits. Looking at them and knowing you’ve helped keeps you going.
AKC: What is the most frustrating part of being a veterinarian?
Dr. Klein: It really varies. For young veterinarians, it can be expensive, and some jobs don’t pay well, especially when you are first starting out. The challenge of long shifts can also be frustrating, especially in Emergency where you often work 12-hour shifts.
The other thing that can be frustrating is the cost of care. A lot of people come in without a lot of money, and as a veterinarian, you have a “gold standard” of treatment, which you are not always able to give. This means going to plan B or sometimes even plan C. Now, we have all of this cool technology, like MRIs and CTs, but you have to balance that with the realities of the here and now for your clients. I strongly recommend pet insurance!
AKC: Speaking of cool technology, how has technology made a difference for you over the course of your career?
Dr. Klein: Sometimes people think that dogs are “sicker” now than they used to be, and that just isn’t the case. Dogs were always getting sick; we just know what it is now! Back then, we didn’t have ultrasounds or MRIs, and now we do, thanks to technology and research, which allows us to find out what is wrong with our patients. It used to be that a dog dropped dead in the yard and either that was that, or you did an autopsy and discovered that it was cancer. That isn’t good enough today, and now we can tell what kind of cancer a dog has and how to treat it. There are no new health problems, but how we treat and diagnose them has changed with advances in medicine.
AKC: How did you get involved professionally with the American Kennel Club?
Dr. Klein: I got involved with the AKC because of my background. I started out as an owner, then became a breeder, exhibitor, judge, and veterinarian. I could wear all of those hats, and I had the background to represent the club as both a spokesperson and liaison between the AKC and the public, as well as the AKC and the veterinary profession. I am proud to be paving roadways in the name of advancing canine health and welfare.
AKC: What advice do you have for aspiring veterinarians?
Dr. Klein: Veterinary medicine is different now than when I applied. Back then, there were fewer schools, and the profession was more focused on general practice than it is today. Advances in human medicine are also making their way into the veterinary field. Now, in addition to general practice, you can specialize just like you can in human medicine. This is definitely something to consider as you go through school.
I got to be a veterinarian by hanging around dog shows, and I met a lot of passionate and devoted dog breeders. I learned a lot from them, which gave me an edge when I applied to vet school. My advice would be to keep your eyes and ears open and be willing to learn from people who have devoted their lives to dogs.
I also worked during the summers as an assistant in the veterinary field. It is VERY important to work in the field first to make sure it is right for you. As you’re applying to school, remember that differentiation helps. Get involved with animals as much as you can: work as an assistant, show your dog, or get involved in other ways. For me, my experience in the breeding and showing world taught me the language, and I have found that being able to speak the same language as breeders is helpful as a veterinarian.
AKC: What is one thing you wish people knew about your job?
Dr. Klein: A lot of people have romanticized ideas about what a vet is. It isn’t sitting on the ground playing with puppies and kittens, although I wish it was! The vast majority of the time it is hard work, with long hours, lots of research, and a lot of talking on the phone to clients.