Health

What Being a Vet’s Really Like

Colleen Dickie, DVM, talks about what it takes to become a veterinarian and what it's like to actually be one.

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By: Nicole Kitchener |

Dr. Colleen Dickie is an associate in the large animal department of the Charlottetown Veterinary Clinic in Prince Edward Island. The Windsor, Nova Scotia-native joined the clinic in 2005 right after graduating from UPEI’s Atlantic Veterinary College (AVC).

Although Dickie works with all animals, her focus – both personally and professionally – is horses, mainly Standardbreds and harness racing. At only 35, she’s well-respected even among the sometimes hard-to-please, traditionalist farmers of the Island.

As one prominent PEI harness racing breeder, Owen MacLean, put it, Dickie is “smart and knowledgeable about what she does. She’s going to go far.”

MacLean added, “I was talking to a guy the other day I haven’t seen in years and he said she’s quite a vet. He had a cow that needed help calving. They sent Colleen and when she drove into his yard he said, ‘That small little thing, she’s not going to save the calf or the cow.’ She asked for a bale of straw and got up on it and in no time had the calf out.”

Here, Dickie talks to Horse-Canada about what it’s really like to be a vet.

Did you always know you were going to be a vet?

From when I was about five years old I wanted to be a vet. I never really thought about doing anything else.

There were cattle and horses at the end of the road I grew up on. Also, my closest friends either had horses or lived on farms.

A woman down the street was really involved in Pony Club and if you mucked stalls and cleaned tack you would get to ride her ponies. One of my friends boarded her horse there. I basically grew up at this lady’s farm.

Also, behind my parents’ house was a half-mile training track and barn. I would stand and watch racehorses go by all day. It wasn’t long before I walked across the back field and started watching horses there too. A man who was a good friend of my parents owned the facility, so he used to let me come over. I think I jogged my first horse when I was 11 or 12. It was all Standardbreds after that.

My parents weren’t involved with horses at all. I think they wished I had a different pastime. They were probably concerned about their 14-year-old daughter spending 90 per cent of her day with 50-year-old men.

Did being in a male-dominated environment as a youth help you when you became a vet in dealing with some of the “old timers” here on the Island?

I have always been a bit of a tomboy, there’s no debate about that. I was more into sports instead of playing with Barbies. The men were always aware there was a girl in the barn and they would talk amongst themselves.

Growing up around men let me get accustomed to what they’re like. I don’t get really offended very easily. That probably helped me a lot.

And you can’t help a man for thinking. “How’s this girl going to be able to do this when I can’t?” I think that often too. You go out to a calving, for example, and this farmer has been at it for three hours and can’t get the calf out, I don’t know how I’m supposed to either.

Probably the biggest thing that helps me – because I work primarily with racehorses – is having knowledge of the industry. It’s hard to talk the talk when you don’t know what you’re talking about, not so much in veterinary terms, but everyday practical things.

Tell us a little more about your schooling.

I graduated from Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia in 1998 with a science degree and a double major in biology and psychology. I applied a couple of times to AVC before I was accepted into the program in 2001. It’s pretty tough to get in.

I shouldn’t say I wanted to be a vet my entire life. There was one season when I was about 17 or 18 and we euthanized one of my favourite horses at the barn because he had a broken bone. I went through this stage where I said to myself, “If a vet can’t save this horse, then I don’t want to be one.”

I thought of going into medicine for a little while, but that only lasted my first couple of years at Acadia. I spent a little time away from horses and then I was drawn back to them.

Although every day is different, can you describe a “typical” day?

The easiest “typical” day to describe would be spring or summer, because they’re the most routine. I head down to the barn with my dog and clean four or five stalls every morning at about 6:30. That’s how I really like to start my day. The horses are all happy to see you and you get to do a bit of physical work that doesn’t require a whole lot of thought, but you can see the progress.

When we get into the clinic in the morning, we check in and divide who’s going to go to which client. Although at our clinic, it’s like we have our own clients. There’s people that one vet would go to more than another.

You load up your truck for the day and you’re on the road. As far as broodmares, we try to get all of our ultrasounds done in the morning and do all of our work with the mares and foals in the morning. The afternoon is spent working on whatever else comes in during the day like teeth and vaccines – your regular herd-health stuff.

As for emergencies (our “cuts and colics” we call them), whoever happens to be closest when the call comes in will go.

It’s not really 9:00 to 5:00, but maybe 8:00 to 4:00 or 8:00 to 6:00. In the summer when we’re really busy and breeding mares in June it can be 6:00 in the morning to 8:00 at night.

There’s five of us in the clinic, so we share on-call duties. We have a pretty nice rotation. You’re on call one night in five and you have to do everything from cats to cows.

I was on call last night actually. I’m pretty tired. I had a colic at suppertime then a calving to go to around 9:00, so I got home around 11:00.

We often hear about the hours large animal vets have to put in. Do you find time to have a life of your own?

Before I got into vet school, a veterinarian at AVC who I knew suggested I be something like a technician because it’s more 9:00 to 5:00. She said I wouldn’t ever look at a horse the same way once I was a vet and it’s my life every day.

I don’t really agree with that. It’s part of the life that I’ve chosen. It’s what I want to do and I can’t picture myself doing anything else. It’s a job that complements being around horses all the time.

Most of the people in our clinic have horses or farms of their own, but I look at James Boswell (a large animal vet at the clinic), and he ha farmed for 10 years before he went into vet school and he’s married and has three kids. He drops them off at school before he comes into work. He does his calls for the day, goes home and that’s it.

I definitely think there’s room for a life if you choose. But, if you have horses or cattle or anything like that, then you’re going to work all day and it might be 7:00 or 8:00 before you’re able to go look at your own animals. Or, if you’re like me, you get up at 6:00 in the morning to do it.

Plus, in the Maritimes, there’s such a nice cycle of workloads through the year. I ski, so it’s great because winter is our quietest time of year. Then we get into spring and we’re into our mares and foals, and then summer we’re into our horse shows and racetracks. Come fall, it starts to quiet down again. It’s something different at each time of year, which keeps it interesting.

But you get to a point where you need a break. For example, I just spent two weeks in Whistler for Christmas.

I think it would be pretty tough if you owned your own clinic and you were on call 24/7.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

Ideally, I’d have my student loans paid off a little bit more.

It’s an expensive degree to get. Four years of university and an undergrad degree and then four years of vet school. I had pretty significant student loans when I graduated. When you’re in vet school there’s not much of a chance to have a job because of the workload, so you’re pretty much living off student loans.

The salary of a veterinarian is not the same as a medical doctor. I think sometimes that’s why people consider veterinarians to be fairly compassionate people because, for the most part, we’re not in it for the money. I shouldn’t paint a picture and say medical doctors are in it for that, but there’s definitely a difference in the two.

Also, in five years I hope to have a good client base, which I do right now. I’m pretty happy with being established where I am on the Island. I have really good clients that I like to work with and I know their barns and their horses. And hopefully by then, I’ll have a world-champion racehorse!

Any final thoughts?

It’s a great profession. You get to work around the animals every day, but at the same time you get to work around people too. You really have to be a people person to be a vet.

They said one of the worst things you could say in an interview for vet school is that you want to be a vet because you don’t want to work around people. And we probably deal with people even more than a human doctor does because the horse owner is the voice for the horse.

As a vet, you have to deal with peoples’ emotions. They have to express them for their animal and you must realize sometimes their pets are like their children. If you look at things from that perspective, it makes it a little bit easier to figure out why people have certain animals.

And definitely with the horse people, we’re in it because we love horses and that’s a common bond. They’re your clients, but we all have a love of horses and it’s nice to be around that and share it.