Dr Joanna Paul is a small animal veterinarian from Melbourne, Australia. After graduating with honours from the University of Melbourne in 2006, she began her veterinary career in an animal shelter. This valuable experience gave her not only strong foundations in medicine and surgery, but a determination to work in partnership with pet owners to ensure their pets stay as happy and healthy as possible, so that they can always be much loved members of the family.
Over several years in private practice she has seen countless examples of the beautiful bond that can be shared between a pet and it's person, and has had the privilege of being involved in keeping that bond strong. Joanna divides her time between two gorgeous dogs of her own, a toddler, a baby, work, study, and her own website for pet parents.
- What made you want to become veterinarian? And by what age roughly?
- How would you describe what you do?
- What is a typical day for Dr Jo as a veterinarian?
- What do you like about what you do?
- What do you dislike?
- What is most challenging about what you do?
- What advice would you offer someone considering this career?
- What is a common misconception people have about being a vet?
- Who was your biggest influence in you becoming a veterinarian?
- What is the most common case you've seen as your time as a vet?
- What is the most preventable case you see as a vet?
- Are there any online resources that you would you suggest for vets starting out?
Throughout my childhood I was lucky enough to spend a lot of time on my grandparent’s dairy farm, and there’s no doubting I always had a special affinity with the animals. This is where you might be expecting me to say ‘I’ve wanted to be a vet for as long as I can remember.’ Well, oddly, when I was a kid I wanted to fly planes… I was totally fascinated about how those huge, heavy things lifted up into the sky, and I thought it would be awesome to spend my work days travelling around the world. Yup, that’s right, not exactly animal related! I was never a particularly organised student, and in year 9 when it came time to do my required two weeks of ‘work experience’ I discovered I had nothing planned. During a quick brainstorming session with my mum she said, “how about your uncle Doug? You could stay up there with them and do your work experience in the vet clinic.’ In retrospect I think maybe she had the ulterior motive of getting rid of my teenage self for a couple of weeks, but at the time I thought, ‘yeah mum, that’s a great idea!’ So off I went, gumboots packed, into the countryside to experience rural veterinary practice first hand. I had no idea what I was in for! I remember one moment vividly, as I was standing next to a cow who was having some surgery for ‘cancer eye’. I was concentrating intently on the fascinating procedure when I felt a fine warm spray on my face. I must have recoiled a bit, because Doug glanced over momentarily, and with a wry grin said “you’ve been christened,” handing me a towel. Yep, got a little too close to the surgical field and got more than I’d bargained for from a tiny nicked blood vessel. We drove around in his car full of veterinary paraphernalia from cow to dog to bunny to horse, occasionally stopping for a bite to eat or to chat with a farmer - and I loved every minute. This was when I knew I would be a vet.
Well the Oxford dictionary defines a veterinarian as a “person qualified to treat diseased or injured animals”. I’d like to respectfully tell them they’re wrong. Or at least they’re not telling the full story. Veterinary medicine is just as much about prevention as treatment, and I see preventing disease or injury as just as important a part of my job as treatment. Also, we don’t walk into a consulting room to find just a dog or a cat sitting alone, maybe reading a magazineand waitingfor their appointment. Our job involves working with pet owners just as much (or maybe more so) as it involves their furry friends.
One of the great (and challenging) things about being a vet is that there really is no typical day. Sure, we see some things more commonly than others, but when we walk into that consulting room, the possibilities are almost endless. A typical day usually includes a large variety of furry (and sometimes feathery or scaly) patients with their owners. Some are sick and some are hurt. Some bound in with a big goofy grin on their face, anticipating pats and treats, while others are a bit more cautious or downright scared. With some patience and a gentle touch the frightened ones usually manage ok. I do a few hours of surgery most days. Some days I eat lunch. Some days I don’t. I get to spend my time at work practicing medicine, surgery, radiology, dentistry, laboratory work, nutrition, animal behaviour, and a whole lot more. One thing I can say about being a vet is that it’s not boring!
Veterinary science, as the name suggests, is a science. The nerd in me loves that I get to know all sorts of really interesting sciencey things, but not only that, I have the privilege and honour of being able to use that knowledge to help pets and their people. And this is the part I really like. The human-animal bond. I love the special relationships people have with their pets. I love being involved in preserving those relationships and keeping them strong,by maintaining the pet’s health or helping with their behaviour. Pets enrich our lives in so many ways, being there for us through the good times and the bad. They don’t judge us when we’re having a bad day. We can just be ourselves with them, share our secrets with them, and love them without ever fearing not being loved back. It’s for these reasons and many more that I find my job incredibly rewarding every day.
Although I’m lucky enough not to see it often, the thing I dislike most is neglect. Most people who bring their pet into a vet clinic have their best interests at heart, but occasionally I see things that make me feel very sad. In these cases I will do everything in my power to advocate for the animal.
The most challenging aspect for me is euthanasia. I can’t tell you how many times someone has said to me “Oh I wanted to be a vet growing up, but I really love animals and couldn’t stand putting them to sleep…” Euthanasia is certainly part and parcel of being a vet. The thing is, gently and quietly ending the suffering of an old and unwell pet as he or she lays peacefully in their owner’s arms is not something I feel any guilt about, and in fact I see it as a privilege to be able to offer them this one final act of kindness. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy or that I’m made of stone. I’m sure a keen observer would be able to see the slight tremble of my hands as I deliver the drug into a vein, or hear the sadness in my voice as I offer my genuine, heartfelt condolences for what may be the third or fourth time that day. Protecting myself from this isn’t something I’ve entirely perfected, and I suspect neither have the many, many vets out there who suffer from compassion fatigue and burn out, and this leads into my answer to the next question...
Do your research, because you need toknow what you’re getting yourself into. Do it for the right reasons. Just loving animals isn’t enough. You need to have an interest in science (us vets even have to do maths!), a desire to continually learn new knowledge and skills throughout your career, and a strong work ethic. To start with, it’s a hard road just to become a vet. Veterinary science is one of the most expensive courses to study in Australia and it’s pretty difficult to get into (it took me three years of university to get accepted). Then you find yourself in a job with huge responsibility, long hours, and pretty average financial compensation. According to the Australian Veterinary Association, a vet who has just graduated will earn around $45,000 per year, and most can expect to earn around $76,000 at the peak of their career. You really have to be passionate about it.
Before kids, (when I used to occasionally leave the house for social reasons), new acquaintances would usually be fairly predictable in their response to my admission of being a vet. The most common thing people would say was “oh, so you put your arm up cows’ bums.” Well, no. I mean, only if it’s a really cold day.
Certainly my wonderful, supportive parents always had faith in my abilities and encouraged me to follow my dreams. Then there was my uncle Doug, the country vet who showed me what it was really like (although he did put his arm up cows bums). Funnily enough, and I guess this may speak volumes about my stubborn character, one of the influences I’ll never forget was a GP. I was probably about 20 at the time and had been pretty unwell for some time with a viral infection, and in his words, had ‘lost my spark.’ He looked at me kindly and said “Getting into veterinary science is hard. I don’t think I could get into medical school if I had to these days, it’s just so much harder now. Maybe you should consider something else…” He truly was just suggesting that I was putting too much pressure on myself and should stop and regroup. But those words lit a fire in my belly and I knew I had to prove him wrong. And I did. I still see that doctor sometimes. Just last week I was there with my son, and as he handed him a lolly pop at the end of our visit I momentarily remembered that time all those years ago. If the doctor noticed it he probably thought the tiny smile that touched the corners of my mouth was for my happy little boy and his treat. He will never know the impact those few words had.
Thankfully the most common thing I see is healthy pets for routine vaccinations and annual health checks. This is fantastic, as good preventative care catches things early when they do go wrong, leading to a much better outcome for pet and owner. I think this has improved a lot over the years, as people have begun to realise how important regular check-ups are for monitoring a pet’s health. At every health check, pets get a full, nose-to-tail examination, sometimes picking up things that the owner hasn’t noticed yet. In appropriate cases we do blood tests as well, as they are our best indicator of what’s going on inside the pet.
The most preventable thing I see day in and day out is obesity. Admittedly some dogs are much greedier than others, but it’s up to us as owners to be responsible and ensure they get great nutrition and the right amount to eat. Some pets have a legitimate medical reason for an inability to lose weight, such as an under-active thyroid, but there are usually other symptoms, and these cases are by far the minority. Just as with people, obesity in pets predisposes to many other diseases, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and osteoarthritis.It also decreases quality of life and shortens the lifespan, and let’s be honest, we all want our pets to be with us, happy and healthy, for as long as possible.
Veterinary Partner at www.veterinarypartner.com is a fantastic resource, check it out! Also, PetMD at www.petmd.com is quite good.