Shannon Talbott lives in Edgewater with her husband, Mark, eight-year-old son, Nate, and awesome mutt, Maisie. She is a veterinarian at VCA Alexandria Animal Hospital, where she has worked since finishing veterinary school in 2002. As this is our pet issue, we thought it would be a perfect time to get a glimpse into the life of a veterinarian.
Q: What’s a typical day like for you?
A: I work three days a week and every other Saturday, two 12-hour shifts, and 8 hours for the other two. I do general practice medicine and simple surgeries, so most of my days are appointments. Plus I have one day a week that is all dental cleanings and surgeries.
We have 30-minute appointments, which is a luxury. Not that long ago it was 15. Everyone now has the breeder’s opinions and the internet’s opinions, so they’re coming in with more educated questions. And that’s wonderful, but it kind of makes things take longer.
Q: What’s your favorite animal patient?
A: My favorite is a mutt dog. The muttier, the better. Each one is one-of-a-kind. And dogs enjoy being at the vet much more than cats do, as a rule.
Q: Are cats difficult?
A: The majority are scared. And the question is whether scared turns into aggressive, defensive behavior or just withdrawn. But either way they’re not looking forward to coming to see you.
Q: What types of surgeries do you perform?
A: I do things like removing masses on the skin, spay and neuter, and can do abdominal exploratory surgery—like a dog might have a foreign body, or we might need biopsies in a cat.
Q: What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever found in a dog?
A: Oh, it’s usually underwear. Or socks. I did have a cat once that ate a bunch of window tinting, which comes in a film like cassette tape.
Q: What’s the hardest thing about your job?
A: That you’re privy to people’s losses. They think of you as a family doctor (which is also the best thing about my job), but very often, as they lose a pet, they might share all of the other things that go along with it. One of the hardest for me is when elderly clients lose a pet and say ‘oh, this will be our last, we’re getting too old’.
Q: So you do put them down if necessary?
A: Yes, we do perform euthanasia. I also have a right to say ‘no’ if I felt that if it was inappropriate. But I have rarely been asked to do so. Most of the time it’s always been significant quality-of-life issues.
Q: What’s your stance on pet insurance?
A: Pet insurance can be a big lifesaver if a pet has a major emergency. Some people conceivably pay into it for many, many years and never use it, and in that case an emergency fund could work just as well. I have one client with a young French bulldog who has had two disk surgeries—$5,000 to $10,000 dollars each—and she wouldn’t have been able to do that without pet insurance. I’ve definitely seen it be a lifesaver. I think if most families could be prepared for a $2,000 to $3,000 emergency, that would likely be enough for the more common things that we see.
Q: Do you ever bring home animals with you?
A: I have not! Well, I got my current dog because one of my clients was fostering her, but I’ve never brought home a hard luck case, which has more to do with my husband than me.
Q: Did your son inherit your love of animals?
A: He loves animals, but I don’t think he’ll go into veterinary medicine. He loves anatomy, and certainly likes to know the different breeds of dogs and cats, and I think he likes the scientific aspects of it. He also likes showing me off, like at career day . . . he’s proud of his mom.
Q: What do kids want to know at career day?
A: They all want to know what was the most interesting animal I’ve ever seen. And I don’t have a good answer because I’ve always just seen cats and dogs. Although I did help a colleague tube-feed her snake once. The kids also wanted to know after I showed them X-rays of some foreign bodies I thought they could identify, ‘what if a dog ate this or that?’ Which is a wonderful opportunity because I want those first grade girls two know not to leave their hair ribbons and hair elastics for their kittens to eat. And I want the boys to know not to leave their socks out, so it prompts a useful conversation.And mostly they want to tell me about their pets, which is wonderful.
Q: Do you have any good general advice for pet owners?
A: Be prepared for emergencies. Have simple first aid things on hand. There’s a bandaging material called vet wrap that kind of sticks to itself. That can be really useful for covering up a wound (so the animal doesn’t lick it) till it can be seen by a doctor.
Ask your vet about the safety of using human medications. Some are safe, but some are very, very unsafe. Some that you might not think can be lethal. Don’t ask the internet, ask the veterinary staff.
Veterinarians are obligated to advocate for the pet. That means not guessing at what the family can afford. Our obligation is to present the best course of action—what we would do if money were no object. We don’t judge, though, when money is an object, because it is for
We’re very willing to work with people, and while we’re required to present the Cadillac plan, not everybody needs a Cadillac. There is always a plan B, C,
So it’s okay to let your veterinarian know your goals and limitations.
Q: Got any tips for aspiring vets?
A: Definitely! Do well in math and science. You need to do well with writing, too, because you’re going to be communicating a lot. You need to be able to explain things well to pet owners. There’s a wonderful website called vetsetgo.com, for aspiring veterinarians. It’s very good and covers lots of different aspects of the veterinary profession.
Most veterinary schools host an open house about once a year, which is wonderful for both seeing the animals and what veterinary education is like.
There are also lots of opportunities to ‘shadow’ at a veterinary hospital or shelter, but liability insurance usually means that kids under age 16 can’t participate without a parent.
My other advice for teens or college students is to keep your educational debt to minimum. Because you’re not going to be able to get wonderful scholarships to veterinary school; it’s too in demand. So minimizing your undergraduate debt can really put you in a better place.
And remember, too, that there are other wonderful careers and veterinary medicine and animal care. Licensed veterinary technicians have a two-year degree and are in wonderful demand, probably more than veterinarians. It’s the equivalent of a registered nurse. They have a lot of impact on patient care.
Volunteering at a veterinary practice is something a veterinary school wants to see on your application, because you actually know what this job is going to be like.