Every occupation or experience has life lessons to offer if you’re the type of person who looks for lessons in everything you do. I happen to be a person who sees lessons in my work and in many other aspects of my life. While there are probably dozens if not hundreds of life lessons being a veterinarian has taught me, these are my seven favorite.
1. Being friendly makes everything better. Dogs and cats who are friendly and let me handle them in the exam room always receive a more thorough examination. Always. Is that fair? Nope. But that’s how it goes. With a friendly animal I can pull on the legs, evaluate the gums, look into the eyes, feel for every lymph node and look in between the toes. I can even smell their breath which is a very important diagnostic tool believe it or not. With some of my grumpier patients, I can’t even take a temperature. Right now, if you’re a pet lover like me you’ll be thinking, “Come on Heath, that’s not the dog or cat’s fault.” And of course, you’re right. I’m not passing judgement but the truth of the matter is, friendly and outgoing pets will get more thorough exams every single time. More thorough exams mean we catch things faster, sometimes before they are actual problems. And in the rare case that an animal needs to be hospitalized, the friendly ones can receive much more intensive care. This leads to better outcomes. Think about that the next time you’re trying to get a table at a restaurant or reroute a flight after weather or mechanical problems interrupt your travel plans. The worst thing being friendly in tough situations can do is make it a little more pleasant for everyone involved. Who knows? It might just get you a better outcome as well.
2. Be comfortable with you. Dogs are gross. Cats, while more fastidious are also gross in their own way. Nothing is so happy to see you and as ready to snuggle as a muddy dog. Some of the presents your cat leaves you can make you want to wretch. But they make no apologies for how they are or who they are. I’m not advocating cutting back on the hygiene or wearing outfits that might land you on the people of Walmart blog but we could all stand to be a little less insecure and a little happier with how we’ve turned out so far.
3. Don’t hold grudges. Occasionally, I hold your dogs like the photo below to trim their nails. Sometimes we have to place a cat on their side and poke them with needles. These are super unpleasant experiences. When we let them go, how often do you think they turn around and try to bite or scratch at us? If you said almost never, you are correct. When you release a dog after having to pin them down, the worst thing that might happen is they try to get away from you. Cats will sometimes take a swing but for the most part, they too are just happy to not be held down. Applying it to your own life, the next time you’re out driving and someone pulls out unexpectedly or turns without using their signal and you have to hit the brakes but everything turns out ok, channel your inner dog/cat and let it go. Same goes for gossipy co-workers or meddling managers, the damage they cause is so temporary and insignificant, if you broke down our lifetime into the span of a dog’s life, the time rumors or managers spend hurting us is probably no longer than a nail trim.
4. Always make an effort. Watching dogs and cats wake up from anesthesia is one of my favorite things to do. Not just because it means that another anesthesia event is coming to a successful conclusion but also because the mentality of dogs and cats coming out of anesthesia amazes me. They always have someplace they need to get to. Sure, some of them seem a little frightened but for the most part they look like they just need to keep moving. You can typically stop, sit with them and pet them and they will calm down a little bit but they really have somewhere else they need to be. I like to imagine they wake up and think, “I haven’t checked on my human in awhile, I should get on that.” That level of persistence and determination in the face of an insurmountable obstacle such as anesthesia always makes me smile. I think about that persistence when I’m out for a run and hit that point where I want to walk and catch my breath. A dog recovering from anesthesia wouldn’t stop there. Why should I?
5. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Or the big stuff. Or anything really. Some of the pets who come to see me are really sick. I mean like hammering away at death’s door like a maniacal girl scout sick. Here’s the thing, sometimes you can’t even tell. I’ve had dog’s that were actively bleeding into their abdomens from ruptured splenic tumors wagging their tails and taking cookies out of my hand. The dog that is in the picture at the top of the page came in with porcupine quills everywhere and was still wagging her tail and loving on all of us. She didn’t seem to understand why we would only pet certain parts of her. Dogs and cats don’t seem to think about the future much, this frees them from worry and leaves them blissfully unaware when they are suffering from terminal illnesses. While not planning for the future could leave you and I in a pretty poor predicament a few months or years, not worrying about it has few if any side effects. If you think worrying and planning are the same thing, I would encourage you to read Sacrifice vs. Value for an idea of how much perspective can affect outcomes.
6. Face your fears. At least a few times a week I will step into our feline exam room with a significant amount of apprehension. There are 12 pound cats out there who make my heart freeze when I see their names on my appointment scheduler. And I am actually pretty good at handling cats, despite the opinions of at least two of my previous clients. I admire the tenacity and fearlessness that these cats display in the exam room. If there was something 10 times my size – large male Grizzly Bears can weigh this much – coming at me for any reason, my first reaction wouldn’t be to pick a fight. Even if I lived with Grizzly Bears and those bears fed me and took care of me and loved on me, if one I didn’t live with went to examine me my first reaction wouldn’t be to fight it. You have to admire that level of pluck. I often channel my inner fearless feline when I have to deal with uncomfortable situations. Dinner party where you know no one? Client angry about service you provided? Need to dispute a bill? Hey, at least you don’t have to fight off a Grizzly Bear in a white coat with a thermometer.
7. Live here, now. Dogs and cats are present, in the moment. They are never dwelling on the past or pining for the future, they are experiencing life as it comes. Even in our end of life visits they are in that moment, it never ceases to amaze me, dogs will sit there and happily munch on treats while we prepare to end their lives. They are blissfully oblivious because they are here now. (And of course they don’t really understand or appreciate the reality of the situation) We could all take a page from that playbook. Things aren’t always going to go your way. In fact, by the end of it all, nothing goes our way. If we’re lucky, we will grow old, people we love will pass on before us and eventually our bodies and minds will deteriorate until we finally join our loved ones. Way to end on a high note McNutt! Seriously though, bad things are coming for you and they’re coming faster than you realize. It’s enough to drive a person insane. You will never get to complete all of the things you want to complete or experience all of the things you want to experience. And that’s ok. This moment – as you read these words – this is your life. Enjoy it now. Be that Golden Retriever with its head out the window on the way back from the lake as often as you can be.
There are more than likely, hundreds of lessons my career and the pets and people who make it possible have shared with me over the past few years. Hopefully, there is a lifetime of life lessons ahead of me. My only hope for myself and for you is that we never get tired of learning from them.
Thanks for reading.