Editorial: Veterinarians are animal people too
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, December 1992:
Veterinarians, as a profession, have a morale problem. It’s not that they don’t love
their work; most do. Dropouts from veterinary work are few, while competition to get into
veterinary schools is intense as ever. The morale problem comes, rather, from feeling
unappreciated. And it isn’t just a matter of not getting enough pats and tail-wags from happy
patients. Increasing numbers of veterinarians are having trouble meeting the sometimes con-
flicting demands of maintaining ethical standards and making a living.
Today’s veterinarians are acutely conscious of ethical issues involving animals.
Witness the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons’ recent stand against docking dogs’ tails
(see page 14); the 1991 survey of University of Missouri veterinary graduates that found
nearly half believe animals have rights and four-fifths believe leghold traps are cruel; the
widespread participation of veterinarians in the Friends of Animals and Spay U.S.A. dis-
count spay/neuter programs; and the emergence of two vet-based animal protection soci-
eties, the American Association of Veterinarians for Animal Welfare and the Association of
Veterinarians for Animal Rights. Volunteers from both were among the first rescuers on the
scene in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew.
Ask almost any vet and you’ll find that he or she would much rather be providing
essential health care than unnecessary cosmetic surgery, once a staple of small animal vet-
But then there’s the matter of convincing clients to spend money on essential health
care for the average cat or dog. Too many pet keepers still think of the household animals as
they do the car: when the cost of repairs threatens to exceed list value, it’s time to junk it
and get a new one. And new kittens and puppies are available dirt-cheap––often “free to a
good home.” Convention in the veterinary profession holds that only the people who spend
hundreds or even thousands of dollars for purebreds are typically willing to spend money on
veterinary care, beyond the basics required or strongly encouraged by law: rabies vaccina-
tion, sometimes spaying or neutering, maybe other vaccinations if they can be had for the
value of a single green bill. And, some veterinarians have disgustedly observed, even
many purebred owners tend to be more interested in tail-docking, ear-cropping, and other
procedures to enhance an animal’s sale or show value than in actual health maintenance.
It is understandably hard for many of us to believe veterinarians are feeling a
financial pinch, especially animal rescuers and rehabilitators, considering the difficulty we
have in raising the cost of care for the animals in our custody. But we’re usually looking
after a lot more animals than the average household; if we’re professional humane workers,
we’re near the botton of the U.S. income scale. The salary charts on pages 12 through 14 of
this issue tell a surprising story. After noting the soaring salaries of the top executives with
the biggest organizations, the meager salaries of social workers, humane workers, and
childcare workers, and the striking pay disparity between male and female group heads,
take a good hard look at what veterinarians and veterinary technicians are actually earning.
Only three veterinarians who perform veterinary work as their primary duty are listed above
the median of all the salaries listed. There are in fact other veterinarians who are paid
enough to have been listed above the median, had they been among the best paid five
staffers with their respective organizations, but they all work for just two of the organiza-
tions, the Massachusetts SPCA and the American SPCA. Each is located in one of the five
most expensive metropolitan areas in the United States; when cost-of-living adjustments are
applied, their veterinarians still doing well, but not getting rich.
A large animal veterinarian, typically an agricultural specialist, does earn within
$5,000 of the median for physicians. Horse veterinarians, though, make 20% less. Small
animal veterinarians and veterinary general practioners are close to the U.S. median house-
hold income. That’s not much for people who have gone through training as rigorous and
almost as costly as that of physicians. To be sure, veterinarians don’t pay the high malprac-
tice insurance premiums that physicians must. On the other hand, they pay as much or
more to outfit their offices; unlike physicians, they can’t get started in practice while shar-
ing the facilities of a multi-million-dollar hospital.
Small wonder that the pages of trade publications including Veterinary Forum and
The Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association are filled with income-related
anxiety. Small wonder, either, that some associations of veterinarians are aggressively
opposed to the establishment of lowcost spay/neuter and vaccination clinics by humane soc-
ieties, which they fear will further erode their earnings. Their position is misguided, inas-
much as studies have demonstrated that contrary to conventional belief, people who pay to
have a pet altered and vaccinated are also then more likely to pay for other veterinary
care––even if they have paid only discount rates for the initial services. Having had an ani-
mal altered and vaccinated demonstrably increases the average pet keeper’s perception of the
value of the animal. The Friends of Animals spay/neuter program has also proved an effec-
tive loss leader for thousands of veterinarians just starting to attract a clientele. But one real-
ly can’t fault veterinarians for knowing the job they have been trained to do better than pro-
motional psychology, nor for getting anxious and edgy about potential competition.
Animal rescuers need to strike a bargain with the veterinary profession: in
exchange for the professional discounts and other aid we receive with spaying and neutering,
essential vaccinations, and assisting the ill and injured, we need to join veterinarians in pro-
moting regular, thorough health care as part of the routine obligation of petkeeping.
Veterinarians are our natural allies in both preventing animal suffering and promoting
For their part, veterinarians need to acknowledge that there will be a continuing
need for discount spay/neuter and vaccinations, because there will always be a certain num-
ber of pet keepers who can’t or won’t pay full price. Likewise, it will not be possible for dis-
count clinics to provide the full service health care that both conscientious veterinarians and
humane workers agree should be every pet’s due. Discount clinics exist to provide the most
essential services for animals who otherwise wouldn’t get any treatment at all. Humane res-
cuers, struggling to pay for these essential services, shouldn’t be blamed or criticized for
being unable to pay for more ideal treatment.
Finally, we need to salute those veterinarians who go out of their way to make out-
standing contributions to animal well-being, whether it’s for free or for substantial dis-
counts, or simply a matter of sacrificing holiday time to attend a sick animal. At this writ-
ing, former Vermont Veterinary Association president Dr. Reginald Tschorn is giving up
part of his Thanksgiving weekend to treat one of our cats who has a urinary problem. Over
the years, our work as active animal people has been considerably assisted by veterinarians
Dr. Jean Plomteaux, Dr. Louise Beaudin, and Dr. Michel Quintin of Quebec, who treated
wildlife for free or at cost as a tithe, as well as by Dr. Arnold Brown and Dr. Michael Reid
of Connecticut, who altered approximately 300 cats for us at substantial discount as part of
our cat rescue project, described in previous issues.
ANIMAL PEOPLE is pleased that veterinarians account for a significant and
growing part of our circulation. We’re delighted to spotlight the work of Colorado veterinar-
ians Dr. Jeff Young and Dr. Mark Chamberlain in this issue. We hope to expand our animal
health news coverage as opportunity permits, and to publish regular guest columns by vet-
erinarians who wish to share their insights into various aspects of animal care and protection.
We finally wish to acknowledge one more outstanding veterinarian, Dr. Joseph
Michael Griffitt of the Bluegrass Veterinary Clinic in Nicholasville, Kentucky. A few
weeks ago a railroad worker tried to shoot a Walker coonhound who had been lying injured
on the tracks for two days, apparently lost and abandoned by hunters before being hit by a
locomotive. In all, nearly 50 trains had passed over the dog, pulverizing two legs. The gun
misfired. The railroad worker then walked to the nearest house and notified Lucia Denton,
who called Nicholasville policeman Benny Lyons, who called Griffitt, who drove out to
attend the dog in a freezing downpour. Griffitt identified and located the dog’s owner. The
owner said he would take the dog home and shoot him. The dog wagged his tail. Griffitt
ended up adopting the dog, who has somehow begun to walk again and is now an office pet.
Perhaps the dog should have been euthanized. Perhaps the time and resources used
to save that one animal should have been used to save many animals. But that particular dog
bears important if wordless testimony to the best as well as the worst in human nature. All
of us who have rescued animals understand the importance of extending kindness toward
those emissaries of other species who enter our lives, whether or not our work can be ratio-
nalized in economic terms. Simply put, Griffitt is an animal person.