Who Works at Your Dog’s Veterinary Office?

Staff members at your dog’s veterinary office may handle everything from checking your dog in, to collecting your dog’s vital statistics, to evaluating your pup’s health, to cleaning the kennel if your dog stays overnight. While the roles can vary depending on the size or location of the practice, it helps to have an understanding of whom you might encounter on a typical veterinary visit.

Dr. Karen O’Connor, who recently opened her Coastal Georgia Veterinary Care practice in Richmond Hill, Ga., and Jessie Merritt, practice manager for Oswego Veterinary Hospital in Lake Oswego, Ore., explain the following roles:

Receptionist or Client Service Coordinator
“When you come in the front door, the first person you meet is one of the client service coordinators,” says O’Connor. Expect this staff member to welcome you, update your personal information (like your phone number and address), and to direct you to either relax in the lobby or wait in an exam room, if possible. A client service person might also weigh your dog.

Veterinary Assistant or Veterinary Technician
O’Connor considers her assistants to be similar to nurses or nursing assistants in a human practice. They’re the lifeblood of many practices, serving multiple roles. “The nurses function as a filter. They’ll get a lot of basic information, get a preliminary exam, come in the back and present the case to me,” says O’Connor. “I’ve been in practices where I feel they’re underutilized. Here, I’m working these guys to the bone. They’re having a much more enjoyable experience; they’re learning medicine.”

So, what’s the difference between a veterinary assistant and a veterinary technician? A veterinary technician has typically attended a school accredited by the American Veterinary Medical Association and has passed the Veterinary Technician National Examination, says Merritt. “These individuals invested time and financial resources to receive a level of training that enables them to perform procedures unlicensed veterinary assistants are unable to legally perform,” she explains. Those functions vary from state to state and might involve such work as taking blood or X-rays.

Veterinary assistants typically train on the job and often may receive additional training through conferences or other classes, says Merritt.

Your dog’s doctor will usually take information from an assistant or technician, then talk to you about your concerns in the exam room. He or she will conduct a thorough physical exam of your pooch, then administer necessary treatments or order needed tests or procedures. Veterinarians must hold a degree in veterinary medicine and a license to practice. The competition is stiff to become a veterinarian, says O’Connor, since there are only 28 veterinary schools in the United States.

Kennel Assistants and Volunteers
These workers usually keep the kennels clean, walk dogs and help with other necessary, routine tasks.

Office Manager
An office manager may manage front-desk personnel, handling their scheduling and other paperwork.

Practice Manager
A licensed veterinary practice manager will oversee the clinic’s operation. “I am a certified veterinary practice manager, which means I had to meet specific and extended requirements involving length of experience, routine duties and education, and then I sat for the CVPM exam and passed,” says Merritt. Merritt’s wide-ranging role includes human resources, business organization, labor law, marketing, accounting and internal controls, policy and procedure implementation, hiring and termination, and even team-building exercises.

Utilizing managers to handle operations frees veterinarians to focus on your dog’s care, explains O’Connor.

The Veterinary Career Path
If you think you might be interested in a vet-related career path, both O’Connor and Merritt agree it’s best to gain some hands-on experience first. Working as a volunteer or kennel assistant lets you see the inner workings of a practice and can help you decide if you want to pursue a career in veterinary medicine.

You’ll likely find that no matter their position, most veterinary professionals share a “profound respect and compassion for the animals they work on daily,” says Merritt.

Protect Your Dog’s Teeth From Disease

Did you know that 80 percent of dogs show some sign of gum disease by the age of 3? The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) does, and that’s why they have declared February Pet Dental Health Month. “Veterinarians report that periodontal disease is the most commonly diagnosed health problem in dogs,” says Dr. Larry Corry, immediate past president of the AVMA. “This can lead to painful infections in the mouth, and in severe cases, these infections can spread and become life-threatening.” Below, dentists weigh in on how to identify and prevent dental problems in dogs.

At-home Assessment
Dr. Katy Nelson, a veterinarian who is also a member of the Iams Pet Wellness Council, suggests you quickly assess your dog’s mouth by looking at its gums: Healthy gums are pink as opposed to red, with no buildup of tartar along the gumline. Additionally, a healthy mouth does not produce horribly bad breath.

Additionally, your dog’s vet should do an oral exam at each annual visit, says Nelson. “In older dogs especially, they can get abscesses with no easily visible signs. A thorough assessment may require sedation.”

In-office Procedures
Dr. Linda DeBowes, a Seattle-based veterinarian, acknowledges that periodontal illness is often a silent disease. When your veterinarian diagnoses it in your dog, it’s because she has seen plaque, abscesses, loose teeth and lower-jaw fractures, which can occur with chronic dental problems. “At that point, we need a cleaning to get below the gumline, which requires anesthesia,” says DeBowes. Once under, your dog’s teeth will be cleaned with an ultrasonic scaler or a hand scaler. The veterinarian will look for loose teeth, deep dental pockets, exposed roots or other signs of disease. Some teeth may need to be extracted.

Tooth Disease Prevention
“Once there is disease there, it’s painful and costly to deal with,” says Dr. Trisha Joyce of NYC Veterinary Specialists. “But you can protect your dog’s teeth just like you protect your own, with daily brushing and regular checkups.” She adds: “The only difference between your dental health and your dog’s is that he can’t do it for himself. His owner has to watch out for him.”

Dr. Brook Niemiec, a board-certified veterinary dental specialist in San Diego, suggests beginning a dental routine with your dog as soon as possible and using the following methods for brushing:

1. Start with a soft toothbrush and flavored toothpaste made for pets. Human toothpaste contains detergents that may cause stomach upset. “I don’t recommend the fingertip brushes for two reasons,” says Niemiec. “The bristles are not very effective at cleaning, and this puts the pet owner’s finger at risk for a bite from even the most placid animal.”

2. Go slowly and be very positive, using food treats if necessary. Place the brush at a 45-degree angle to the gum line. Brush in a circular motion, with a firm stroke away from the tooth. Try to reach all tooth surfaces, but concentrate on the outside surface.

3. For puppies, introduce the brush at around 6 months -- and be consistent. Animals like routines, so making brushing a habit it will be easier on both of you.

In addition to brushing, foods and chew toys can help maintain your dog’s dental health. Nelson advises looking for a food or treat with a seal of approval from the Veterinary Oral Health Council -- a VOHC seal. “If it’s got the seal,” she says, “it’s guaranteed to be a good dental treat or food.” Look for treats that contain sodium hexametaphosphate (SHMP), which lives in the saliva for up to 12 hours, breaking up plaque. Chew toys, such as a rawhide or a Kong, help deal with plaque mechanically. While your pet chomps, tartar is broken down.

Finally, keep in mind Nelson’s three D’s of doggie dental health: daily brushing, dentistry and diet. Follow these and your dog can sport pearly whites throughout the rest of its life.

Veterinary Trend: Dog-only Clinics

Dr. Carr Kelsey, a veterinarian at the Kelsey Canine Medical Center in Collierville, Tenn., spends his day with Cavalier King Charles spaniels, beagles, Yorkies, golden retrievers, Labradors and labradoodles. He sees dogs with everything from ear infections and itchy skin allergies to heartworms and fleas. On his schedule, most days are the “midterm exams” that he emphasizes senior dogs should receive every six months.

What you won’t find -- or hear -- anywhere around the Kelsey Canine Medical Center is a meow or a purr; the Kelsey Center only serves dogs. “We’re really honing in on veterinary medicine just for dogs,” says Kelsey, who opened his dog-only clinic in 2007. “There aren’t a lot of other distractions. Veterinary medicine does grow and expand, and it’s hard to keep up with everything these days. Being able to focus on one species makes my practice better and more enjoyable for me.”

The Benefits of a Dog-only Clinic
An American Veterinary Medical Association article published a few years ago made an argument for more dog-only practices. That made sense to Kelsey, a lifelong dog lover. He faced some skepticism when he opened his clinic, but now some dog owners travel a considerable distance because they prefer the dog-centric focus, Kelsey says.

Dog-only clinics are still relatively uncommon, but these practices are expected to expand. The potential benefits of using a dog-only clinic include:

  • Expertise: Kelsey focuses his continuing education on dog-related health issues. He’s particularly tuned in to health matters that affect certain dog breeds. The repetition of seeing dogs each day helps in making diagnoses and developing familiarity with dog-related medical problems.
  • Dog behavior: Cat owners often choose cat-only practitioners to avoid the stress of sharing a facility with dogs, but being around other species can be upsetting for dogs as well. Your dog might be calmer and behave better in a dog-only clinic. “A lot of the dogs that might have had problems at other clinics act really good here,” says Kelsey.
  • Facilities: At Kelsey Canine Medical Center, the exam rooms are a bit roomier. Two exam rooms feature lift tables so that large breeds can be easily transported from ground level to a comfortable exam height. At Gilroy Veterinary Hospital in Gilroy, Calif., Dr. Greg Martinez is a dog-focused veterinarian, though he does treat cats. However, he accommodates his dog patients with bigger exams rooms and plenty of space to walk a dog.
  • Allergies: If you own a dog but are allergic to cats, you may prefer a dog-only clinic.

The Value of Dog and Cat Clinics
There are also reasons to choose a traditional veterinary practice that treats both dogs and cats. First, it may be difficult to find a dog-only practice in your area. If you own both cats and dogs, you may want the convenience of using just one veterinarian.

There may be medical benefits as well, says Dr. William M. Fraser, a veterinarian who runs Mentor Veterinary Clinic and Brightwood Animal Hospital in Mentor, Ohio. “I can treat the whole pet family,” he says. “For example, if I find a parasite issue in the cat, I can check to see if the dog is also carrying the parasite. If there are behavioral problems with either the dog or cat, I can work with both to resolve the problem.”

Find the Right Fit
It’s important to make sure your veterinarian understands your dog’s breed or size. For example, Fraser provides medical and surgical services for micro-breed pooches that weigh less than 5 pounds. “Lots of species have specific health problems,” notes Martinez.

You want to choose a veterinarian who genuinely likes dogs and feels comfortable with your dog specifically. “We’re the dog’s advocate,” says Kelsey. “You’re helping dogs that can’t speak for themselves. The time has come for somebody veterinary-wise to focus in on dogs’ problems.”

High-Maintenance Hounds Abound at National Dog Show

He is well on his way to becoming a champion show dog and sports the gorgeous, impeccably groomed coat and bearing that epitomize canine royalty. Still, the bottom line for Kilkenny's Handsome Hound -- better known as Murphy -- is the same as for any other dog: There are times when he needs to have that bottom wiped. And "showtime" is certainly one of those times.

This somewhat undignified ritual was a necessary part of getting the 19-month-old Irish Setter ready for his turn in the ring at the National Dog Show in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania, on November 15. But for Murphy's proud owner, Arline Hughes of Douglasville, Pennsylvania, having to deal with her dog's back end was well worth the thrill of going to the show.

"When Murphy's there in the ring, it feels like you're seeing your kids in a soccer game or a school concert," Hughes says. "You get the same jumpy feeling in your tummy, and you feel so proud."

Getting Murphy into the ring involved extensive preparation. "I comb his coat every night," Hughes says. "And I give him a bath once a week, and haircuts whenever he needs them. Also, he runs on our three-acre lot all day long so that he gets enough exercise." Despite such exercise, however, Murphy is still on the hyper side, so Hughes has enrolled both him and herself in obedience classes.

Murphy is by no means the only dog that requires extensive grooming before heading into the ring. For Egan, a four-year-old Tibetan Terrier whose formal name is Atisha's Eternal Fire, the pre-show ritual takes two and a half hours. According to René Stamm, who grooms Egan before show time, Egan submits to a bath, a blow-dry and extensive brushing before having his moment of glory. His owners are Lori J. Toth of Mason Neck, Virginia, and Mark Stamm of Quakertown, Pennsylvania.

You can learn more about the many dogs entered in the 2003 National Dog Show by watching the NBC broadcast on Thanksgiving Day, immediately after the traditional Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. If you can't wait until then to find out the results, log on to the official National Dog Show website

Veterinary Care at Your Doorstep

As Dr. Nancy R. Powel drives her mobile veterinary clinic around Baltimore and its environs these days, she makes house calls to dogs and cats -- great and small -- like a modern-day James Herriot.

Years ago, Powel read the All Creatures Great and Small books from Herriot, the English veterinary surgeon who wrote about traveling from farm to farm caring for animals in the 1900s. “The era might be a little different,” says Powel, who has been providing mobile veterinary care since 2006. “We have better pharmaceuticals and better diagnostic equipment today, but the stories could be the same.”

Mobile veterinary clinics are growing in availability from the San Francisco Bay Area to Orlando, Fla., and everywhere in between. Based on the old tradition of veterinarians making house calls in farming areas, these services now tend to focus on dogs and cats. Many mobile vets operate from vans or converted RVs that are equipped with everything they need to administer vaccinations, conduct checkups, do blood work and treat minor ailments. Some even perform surgeries and are nicknamed “neuter scooters.”

Mobility Brings Benefits
“I would never go back to a normal veterinary clinic,” says Lynne Moore of Charlotte, N.C., who has three dogs that are visited for care by Dr. Mike Thomann of Greater Charlotte Mobile Veterinary Services. She says her pets are not stressed when Thomann gets there. “They’re not taken into a back room where I can’t be with them. They just love him. They jump inside when they see him.”

Other benefits include:

  • Less stress to the animal For dogs that don’t travel well, having a vet drive up to your door is a clear advantage. Additionally, the dog doesn’t have to sit in a noisy waiting room for 10 to 20 minutes or more with other animals it doesn’t know.
  • Health benefits The mobile vet takes one patient at a time, so your dog isn’t intermingling with other pets that may have contagious ailments. “You don’t have fleas from other pets to contend with,” says Moore.
  • Convenience for the pet owner The service is perfect for dog owners who have more than one pet, animals that don’t travel well, the elderly or infirm, and people with young children. “I think about the young moms who have an infant on their hip, a 2-year-old by the hand and a Lab dragging them across the parking lot,” Powel says. “This way, the infant can nap, the 2-year-old gets a lollipop and it’s not an all-day ordeal for mom.”
  • Recuperation at home When surgery can be provided on a mobile basis, the canine patient can often recuperate at home. “They recuperate much faster when they’re at home as opposed to being in the hospital,” says Moore.

Quality of Life for Vets
Veterinarians say they also enjoy life on the road, as opposed to being cooped up in an office. “What appealed to me was that it’s a much more personal service you can provide and you can create stronger bonds with your clients and their pets,” says Powel.

There are sometimes drawbacks, such as when pets have to be referred to an animal hospital because the procedure is not one that can be done on the road.

Many veterinarians say that they would have a hard time returning to an office. “It’s a much more relaxed pace,” says Powel. “For each animal visit, I block off an hour of time. Some of that includes getting to the home and setting up at each stop. But I can also spend more time with people and do a better job of listening.”