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!

Pre-Requisite Courses for Vet School

By Paige Roth

What is the number one reason veterinary schools reject applicants? Low GRE scores? Lousy GPAs? Minimal clinical experience? The real answer surprised me. According to VMCAS, “the applicant doesn’t meet the specific minimum requirements for that school.” My first response – how could anyone possibly screw that up? – soon gave way to some deeper criticism.

Most veterinary applicants are probably pretty smart people – or at least doggedly persistent – so there must be some reason pre-requisites threw them for a loop. In an effort to avoid the same fate, I took a closer look at the required courses.

For those of you just learning about pre-veterinary requirements (and if you aren’t, read ahead), each veterinary school has its own specific list of required courses. While there is certainly a good amount of overlap between the schools, the variation is just enough that students can’t blindly submit to any school that suits his or her fancy. The common courses tend to coincide with the pre-med list (read: all the chemistries, upper level biology, physics, statistics and calculus, a helping of humanities, and an English course for good measure.)

For a complete list of requirements for each school, click here.

But beyond those “core” classes, most schools have their own specific requirements. For example, some want genetics or microbiology, some want both, some want just upper level biology. Others require one semester of physics, more require two – but disagree on whether or not you need a lab. Animal nutrition is the famous added requirement (for schools like Texas A&M, Purdue and a few others). If you didn’t go to an agriculture school, finding this course can be a needle in a haystack. (Hint: Purdue offers the course online and most schools will accept that credit).

The bottom line: plan way ahead.

The best strategy is to start with your in-state school (because that’s where you have the best chance of admission) and design a plan of study to fulfill their requirements. Then sprinkle in a few more widely required courses (a microbiology or an animal nutrition) or classes to fulfill pre-requisites for a few of your other favorite schools. It feels a bit like putting the cart before the horse to write up your carefully selected list of schools before you even know if you can pass general chemistry, but that’s the nature of the beast.

Beware of credit hour requirements. Some schools require three, four, five, six or eight hours of physics (one semester or two? yay or nay on the lab? and I have no explanation for five). Because these requirements are generally based on the schools own curriculum, be sure you ask if your course counts. Same goes for courses with slightly different names (ex. my school’s public speaking course was called “human communication”). A few schools make this easy for you with lists of courses that count from other institutions. However, in most cases, your best bet is to contact the admissions team, unless you have a seasoned advisor.

Like many things in the veterinary application process, pre-requisites can seem a bit muddled. But take heed, it’s nothing a good spreadsheet, some direct emails and the occasional online course can’t fix.

My Return to Horseback Riding

By Paige Roth

I am the classic tale of the little girl who has ridden horses since she was five years old. In high school, my time at the barn took up a substantial but delightful chunk of time out of my social life and taught me the canonical lessons mother’s often use to justify exorbitant spending on their daughter’s school-night hobby. But at 18, when I signed my college acceptance letter for an out-of-state school, riding taught me the biggest adult lesson yet – how to give it up. I sold my beautiful dutch warmblood, who I trained from a gangly 5-year-old who trampled the stable-hands his first day of the truck, to a mature, well-mannered event horse, donated my riding gear and wondered how I would ever fill the gaps in my schedule.

For four years in undergrad, I committed myself to the “real college experience,” which in my case meant extra library time, and only rode horses occasionally summers. But when I got to grad school and finally had a reliable paycheck, I decided I was going to do the first less-than-fiscally responsible thing I’d ever done – get back into horses. And it was the best decision ever.

hershey 3

I joined my school’s equestrian team and started taking weekly lessons at a hunter jumper barn. An eventer by training, I was a fish out of water, and my inner leg strength was an embarrassment. Even though I’m an avid runner, nothing can keep you in riding shape except hours in the saddle.

Because my high school horse schedule generally consisted of me hacking around after school with minimal supervision, a strict lesson schedule worked wonders for my progress and confidence. Though I missed having my own horse, riding a different lesson horse each week– and I was lucky to be at a barn with at least twenty wonderfully schooled horses to choose from – made me an adaptable and thoughtful rider.

It took about six months of lessons for me to really start to feel like my old self. Old habits reared their ugly head – leaning too far to the right, getting to relaxed about my deep heels – but I had uncovered this important part of myself to keep me grounded as I navigated the most tumultuous transition of my young adult life.

hershey 2

I am now planning to lease, and ultimately buy my own horse, and have been offered a position teaching beginner riding lessons part time. I even have my first show this weekend (expect a post). And though I will never buy clothes unless they’re on sale and manically monitor my savings account, this has been the best investment for making me feel like a complete person again – instead of a corporate robot or beleaguered grad student.

As for vet school? My hours at the barn are always the thing that keep me motivated to sign up for harder classes, find my volunteer opportunities, and stay the course. Because every time I drive home from the barn, I can’t wait for the day I’m making a similar drive home from work.

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.

Clinical Experience

By Paige Roth

The successful veterinary applicant has over 2,000 hours of quality “hands-on” experience in the veterinary field (according to UC Davis). But where do all these hours come from?!

“Hands-on” veterinary experience is one of the main things standing between me and a viable veterinary application, so I have dedicated a post to mapping out a realistic path to get these hours.

Like many pre-vet students, I have buckets of hours of normal animal experience – and vet schools will have you know that owning a pet does not qualify. I have had horses for most of my life, done Pony Club and 4-H, taught riding lessons and fostered dogs. But clinical experience was hard to come by.

First of all, most vet clinics aren’t looking to employ an eager pre-vet student who has no hands-on experience. I interviewed for several vet assistant positions at small-animal clinics, thinking the staff would be willing to train me, but when they realized my main animal experience was with horses and that I had never actually set a catheter or taken a cat’s blood pressure, they were less than enthused. Ultimately, I was offered a position as a kennel assistant (read: poop scooper and occasional dog walker) that paid less than $8 an hour. Disheartened and in need of some semblance of financial security, I passed.

vet tech 2

Basically, like many things on the road to vet school, you have to climb a certain ladder to even be eligible for relevant “hands-on” experience. Generally this means work as a kennel assistant, then a vet assistant, then a tech. While I know some people get lucky and have a friend or neighborhood vet who enthusiastically takes them under their wing, shows them the ropes and makes sure they check the boxes to certification, I am under no such wing.

So, here is my game plan for getting clinical experience:

  1. Volunteer – Because I am a full time employee and student, I can’t take a low paying kennel assistant position to gain experience and keep a roof over my head. Instead, I decided to volunteer with the Harris County Public Health and Environmental Services Veterinary Public Health group as a kennel assistant. I feel better about voluntarily performing menial tasks to help rescue animals, rather than having a clinic lord an $8 pay check over me while I bleach their floors. I can keep my pride, work flexible hours and make important steps toward a real clinic. There are lots of great sites to help place volunteers with organizations that interest them. I found my opportunity here and they responded to me the same day.
  2. Online Veterinary Assistant Certification – Most clinics want someone with a credential, or at least working toward one. I was discouraged to see that most vet assistant programs take almost a year in the classroom, and technician programs take closer to two years. That’s basically the equivalent of becoming a nurse before you become a doctor. No can do. While I’m volunteering and keeping up my grad program, I enrolled for about $700 to work toward my veterinary certification online with this program. At first I was skeptical of an online certification, but after some LinkedIn stalking, it looks like their students land where they say they are and I’m willing to give it a shot.
  3. Teaching Riding Lessons – Though this is not clinical experience, I found a way to keep up my animal hours, make some money and make connections with large animal vets (the veterinary specialty I’m most interested in). If you can find a way to involve yourself with the local animal community, I think it will help keep your spirits up and remind you why you want to do this in the first place.

I should mention that I am planning to apply in the summer of 2017. That means I have a full summer and school year to get these preliminary credentials, and ideally hope to work as a vet tech during the year I’m anxiously awaiting interviews and admissions decisions.

Stay tuned for more thorough posts about the online program, teaching lessons and how I like my first few days of volunteering!


Study Tips for the Pre-Vet Science Student

By Paige Roth

Science courses were really hard for me. You are talking to a girl who wrote paragraphs instead of diagrams when my organic chemistry professor asked me to explain a synthetic pathway. For many pre-med or pre-vet students, science classes seem like a masochistic but ultimately satisfyingly pleasant challenge as they simply expand their already linear minds to greater heights. I did not experience that pleasant climb. My experience was a bit more Sisyphysian as I watched my giant boulder role back down the hill after each semester.

But I am here to say, I did figure it out. And while I may never be the first student to shout out the answer after my professor flashes a slide with a complex signaling pathway and asks how some hormone’s presence will alter it, I am the student who can figure it out and, even better, explain it to someone else.

I am not going to give you generic tips like sleep more, eat right, go to class, take exercise breaks, for the love of god go to office hours – because if you have come this far I am assuming you have that all figured out or have tactfully chosen what to ignore. Here are some of the tips and tricks I learned to help my non-linear mind tackle the logic required for my courses.

  1. Study better not more.
    My freshman year seemed terribly unjust because I would spend countless hours in the library reviewing material to only see marginal improvement. After that year, I thought about how to maximize my studying efficiency. Realistically, you only have a couple good hours of focus at a time to crank out useful studying. Anything after that usually dissolves into mindless Facebook scrolling or scheduling weekend plans. I started making to do lists for each short study session that included the exact material I needed to cover and the exact study tools I planned to use (flashcards, flowchart, rewriting terms etc.). This proved far more effective than trying to reread every chapter.
  2. Focus on the material you professor presents.
    Disclaimer: some professors really will test you on random paragraphs in textbook reading. But, in my experience, professors generally only test you on what they think is important (i.e. what they covered in class). Prioritize power points and in class material over re-reading supplemental information. But, if you are shaky on a concept covered in class, then review it in the reading. This saves you valuable time and ensures you cover the most important concepts if you are in a hurry.

    paige studying 2
    Check out that cute dorm room! I think it’s critically important to like where you’re studying. You’ll spend a lot of time there, make it nice!
  3. Flashcards are still good for rapid recall.
    While any science professor will tell you not to memorize, sometimes it’s unavoidable. I kept a running stack of flashcards, particularly for chemistry classes, with critical reactions and terms. I found that I was much more comfortable on tests when I was able to quickly recall a familiar term to contextualize myself than when I tried to apply a broad concept to a specific term I remembered hearing at one point in the lecture. Flashcards also helped me calm my nerves right before exams because they were a tangible way to reassure me that I did have command of a good chunk of the material.
  4. Handwrite and consolidate notes.
    I learned the benefits of handwriting my notes in class far too late. Studies show that you remember concepts better when you handwrite them instead of typing. Now, I will say there were certain classes that definitely required a laptop or I wouldn’t have gotten nearly half of the class content. It is also nice to be able to annotate directly on slides. For those courses, be sure to rewrite your notes on a regular basis in a consolidated form to help you organize and internalize concepts. I used these consolidated notes as study guides in addition to my flashcards before each exam.
  5. Use study groups strategically.
    People often rely on study groups or office hours to teach them concepts through osmosis. My rule about study groups were: 1) never the night before an exam 2) I would only go if I had finished all my own study checklist items. Here’s why. Study groups can be cancerous and kill you confidence before an exam. But, they are also a great way to see how other people approach concepts you struggle with or to catch important concepts you may have missed during lecture. So, it’s important to prepare and feel like you can confidently contribute and teach concepts (that way you are also not the study leech that everyone hates). Also, allowing yourself time after your study group means you can review any concepts you missed after the group session instead of letting your friends terrify you that you are dismally unprepared.

This is by no means a definitive guide, but I hope it shows you have a crafted, modified and strategized my study habits during my four years in undergrad. These were some of the tips I wish someone had told me, so I hope they help you gain some confidence in those difficult classes!