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Lessons from a Small Animal Surgeon
A Utah veterinarian reflects on the changing industry and lessons learned.
If you were an animal lover as a kid, everyone probably told you that you should grow up to be a veterinarian. Working with animals is rewarding, but people seldom talk about the challenges. When New York Magazine interviewed Dr. Jesse Terry, a small animal surgeon in Utah, it gave an interesting peek into the changing veterinary field and lessons learned over the course of his career.

About 80 to 90 percent of Jesse's patients are dogs. Specialists like himself are becoming more common as dogs are increasingly treated as valued family members. Jesse performs a wide range of operations from neurological surgeries to heart operations.

One of his most common procedures is related to Dachshunds and their propensity for herniated discs. It's so common that the surgery was a weekly occurrence during his residency. Yet no mater how many times you do it, working around the spinal cord is always a little scary. A mistake could cause permanent paralysis. As Jesse says, there are no guarantees, not in life or in dog surgery. While dogs can live a good life in a wheelchair, not all people can handle a paralyzed pup. But when the procedure goes well, and you can decompress the spinal cord in time, it can make a significant difference in the dog's life.

He's learned a few interesting lessons:

A Large Part of the Job is Educating People. "As a vet, you’re the advocate for that animal, and you’re the one who really needs to make sure, if you’re going to go through major surgery, that you’re maximizing that animal’s chances for a successful outcome." Jesse says he often wishes that he could cut to the chase and talk directly to the dogs. I've heard more than a few people share that sentiment!

Don't Prejudge People. Jesse remembers assuming a young man in his late teens or early 20's wouldn't be able to afford an expensive surgery, but it turns out he didn't bat an eye over the several thousand dollar estimate. Meanwhile, Jesse encountered people driving expensive cars who would balk at paying $100 for an x-ray.

Make Peace Before You Pet's Surgery. Sometimes an operation will uncover a situation worse than initially thought, like a cancer that has spread too far. It surfaces a difficult debate whether or not to wake the animal up to allow the family to say goodbye. Jesse prefers not to since the dogs have a lot of drugs in their system, just went through surgery, and would be woken up only to be euthanized right after. But some people feel they need the closure.

It's Not Easy Being a Vet. No matter how good you are, it's inevitable that you'll have to euthanize beloved pets, sometimes even several in one shift. "I think to be a good surgeon, you have to have at least a little bit of disconnect. If you can’t turn that off, it adds to your anxiety, and that can impact your job," says Jesse.

The Rewards Are Worth It. "I realized that I felt most fulfilled when I was doing surgery," explains Jesse. "I loved the speed, the adrenaline rush, if you will." There's nothing like helping a dog to walk again after months of pain and stumbling, or reuniting a pup on the mend with their family. 

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JoAnna Lou is a New York City-based researcher, writer and agility enthusiast.

Photo by Westvet Utah.

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