Vet Student Volunteer Experience

By Paige Roth

Growing up, my family wasn’t big on volunteering. We always admired families that made a weekly appointment at their charity of choice, but skillfully justified our lack of participation with busy schedules or commitments that would one day make us more capable, generous philanthropists. During a particularly lean year I remember asking my mom why we didn’t volunteer more (read: why are we such lousy, selfish people), to which she good-naturedly responded, “I am my own charity.”

While I feel like most people my age pride themselves on over-committed schedules, keeping up the appearance of a break-neck pace to convey competence and possession of their life’s direction, my schedule really isn’t that busy. Even with a full time job and grad school, I find myself with infinitely more downtime than I ever had in undergrad. I immediately went in search of a vet-school-relevant way to fill it.

One of my short-term goals is to acquire more small animal experience. I was offered a position working as a kennel assistant, but couldn’t afford (financially or egotistically) to spend 40 hours a week cleaning cages for $8 an hour. I realized I could get similar experience volunteering at an animal shelter that could open the doors to positions like  a veterinary assistant – some clinics are willing to train these employees as long as they have some relevant animal experience.

Most animal shelters have organized volunteer programs that will work with your schedule – perfect for someone who works full time. I chose to volunteer at the Houston Humane Society. They had a very thorough volunteer training that covered not only the shelter’s policies and public health protocols, but also taught us basics of animal behavior and how to handle a variety of animals. The shelter also offers monthly courses for additional learning that can expose me to new subjects, like handling exotic animals, nutrition or grooming. Besides, it happens to be the shelter where we rescued Scout, so the least I can do is pay it forward.

After only a few hours of volunteering, I have learned a lot about the special health concerns pertaining to shelter medicine. As a dog walker and matchmaker for potential adopters, I have been exposed to a wide range of animals and can asses a variety of temperaments more quickly. Volunteering also means hanging out with other die-hard animal lovers, which makes it easy to stay motivated to keep checking vet school boxes.

I will continue to chronicle my journey and the various approaches I’m taking to fulfill my clinical hours. I would love to hear about your experience! What did you get out of volunteering? What tips do you have for vet students in need of hours?

Saving Scout: Rescuing a Dog with Heartworm Disease

By Paige Roth

“We’re just looking. If the right dog declares itself, we can talk about it,” – the serial dog rescuer’s famous last words.

We rescued our first dog almost a year ago, and had been considering adopting another for several months when Scout declared herself. John wanted a dog’s dog – one we could take running, who might catch a stick, swim in a lake and wouldn’t look out of place lolling its head out of the pick up truck.

Scout 1
Scout’s first day of sweet sweet freedom.

Scout was all of those things. A distinguished pointer mix, she looked ready to chase a pheasant. Agile, cuddly, a bit of a ham, a natural athlete, and, most importantly, approved by our miniature schnauzer, we were sold. But of course, there was a hitch.

Scout was heartworm positive. Coming from Colorado, we had honestly never worried about heartworm disease (you can see why on this incidence map) until a Texas vet suggested we test our first dog. And in Texas shelters, it seems like every other dog is positive for the disease. Afraid of the price tag and the follow up, we had passed up numerous dogs simply because we didn’t think two grad students had the resources to treat it.

As we turned to survey the next kennel, a purple sticker caught my eye, “Treatment sponsored.” Optimistic and uninformed, we asked a volunteer to meet her.

From down the hall, another volunteer’s face lit up, “Wait one minute. I need to tell you about Scout (then Sam).”

“This is my favorite dog,” the volunteer, Abbey – with whom we are now on a first-name basis – said, “She is the best dog and she’s been stuck here since February.” It was now the second week of May.

On cue, Scout rolled on her back, thumping her tail in the dirt.

scout and paige

“We noticed her heartworm treatment was sponsored, is that typical?” John asked.

Abbey grinned sheepishly, “No. I did it. It’s the reason no one would adopt her.”

Abbey had paid for the $450 treatment with her teacher’s salary. If that wasn’t a vote of confidence, I don’t know what is.

“What do we do next?” we asked in unison.

heartworm drugs 2
The new decorations on my kitchen counter.

If you are considering adopting a heartworm-positive dog, here are a few things we’ve learned:

  1. Can our current dog catch heartworm from the infected dog? No. The disease is transmitted by mosquitos, so as long as your healthy dog is on monthly heartworm preventative, you have nothing to worry about.
  2. How long does treatment take and what’s involved? Treatment takes about three months. This includes pre-treatment medication, a series of three shots (administered monthly), and heart and lung exams to make sure the treatment is working. Click here for more details.
  3. What’s the owner’s job? Besides shelling out about $450 for treatment and chauffeuring to appointments, the most important part of heartworm treatment is limiting the dog’s physical activity. They are basically on house arrest for the duration of treatment so ensure their blood pressure doesn’t get high enough to circulate the worms from the heart to other blood vessels or the lungs, which can cause lethal clotting. Click here for tips on entertaining your dog while on bed rest.
  4. Can it be cured? Once the dog has undergone treatment, they are considered cured as long as they remain on regular heartworm prevention.

Treating heartworm is a nasty business, but like any good pre-vet student, I’m up for the task. Stay tuned for more Scout updates as we get her health back in good standing!

A Pre-vet Student’s Trip to the Vet

By Paige Roth

I love going to the vet. As a dog owner, I tend to be a bit of a hypochondriac because I love guessing what the diagnosis will be, the tests they’ll run, the treatment and preventative plans, and dreaming up the questions I’ll ask. But on Tuesday, I had a real reason to go to the vet and the trip was an important lesson.

My miniature schnauzer Katie – light of my life and keeper of my soul – was just recovering from bladder-stone-removal surgery when I rescued her 9 months ago. She came from a high-needs shelter where wonderful vets, the vets I one day hope to be, perform life-saving operations on animals that would otherwise be abandoned and euthanized. Since then, she has been on a special urinary diet designed to keep more stones from forming.

But over the past few weeks my boyfriend and I noticed she would urinate, and then keep trying to pee, but nothing would come out. She asked to go out more frequently and could barely walk around our apartment complex without sitting down for a break. We knew the signs and took her to see a new vet, hoping we had caught the stones early. Maybe they would give us some medication to break up the stones and adjust her diet.

Katie 2
Sad about surgery in the morning

After an ultrasound, an x-ray, and urinalysis, it was clear that she had a giant bladder stone and needed surgery as soon as possible. During the first visit our vet was great about walking us through the diagnosis and explaining the urgency of the surgery – we didn’t take much convincing. She scheduled the surgery, suggested it wasn’t a big deal and sent us on our way before we could ask many more questions.

That night my boyfriend – also a scientist, son of a doctor and a pharmacist, and brother of a medical student – and I sat down to research the surgery. We researched the mineral composition of her stone and which urine pHs were most conducive to their precipitation. Most clinics performed the procedure laparoscopically, if the stone could not be removed with a catheter. This meant minimal recovery time and often a same-day pick up.

But when we got to the clinic at 7 the next morning, we were met by an assistant, not the vet. She told us the surgery would involved at least a 3-inch incision and likely overnight monitoring. No one was there to answer our questions about how the surgery would be performed – little things like how much anesthesia was required, what type of sutures they would use, where the incision would be made, or possible complications we might anticipate. From my nervous research I learned that bladders can rupture during the surgery and leave stones scattered throughout the body cavity – how comforting.

While I realize we may have wanted more information than the average bear (and might not be satisfied unless we were peering over the surgeon’s shoulder during the operation), I felt something I hate feeling – uninformed. I felt nervous, unsure of what to expect, and a little angry. I thought the $1500 bill would be the most consuming, but I didn’t care at all. I hated feeling like I didn’t understand what was happening or worse – that the vet didn’t think it was worth telling me the more complicated or scary details. As I sat in the car crying after dropping my dog off for surgery, I realized the root of my sadness was knowing I hadn’t been an effective advocate for my animals because I wasn’t in possession of all the facts.

Katie 3
Recovering beautifully (a weight loss program is next on the agenda).

In hindsight, the surgery was a great success.

Though the vet removed an oreo-sized stone from my dog’s bladder and she recovered beautifully, the experience taught me what kind of vet I want to be. Though I hope to be a killer surgeon and patient advocate, I also hope I never forget how important it is to thoroughly explain the treatment details to owners who will worry unnecessarily.

Even if the information is complicated, I hope I take the time to communicate it as simply as possible and as many times as it takes for the owners to understand.

And even though not-knowing gnawed away at me for two days, I can still say I love my trips to the vet and my passion for animal medicine has only been reaffirmed.