Veterinarians Tend To More Than Animals Being a veterinarian involves more than giving rabies shots. Four veterinarians practicing in different areas join host Ira Flatow to talk about their day-to-day work — from birthing calves, to tracking epidemics, to diagnosing a sick hamster.

Veterinarians Tend To More Than Animals

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You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow.

And we're here today at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, home of one of the largest veterinary schools in the country. And when you hear the word veterinarian most of us probably think of the person who gives out a dog or a cat rabies shot. Well, vets do that, of course. But they also do a lot, lot more. But how would you know that? Have you ever sat down and talked to one of the vet and told the vet about what he or she actually does?

Well, that's what we're going to be doing this hour. And you have an opportunity to interview a vet or to talk to a vet. They do lots of different things. So, we're here in Cornell's Bailey Hall and I invite you to step up to the microphones if you want to ask a question. Also, you can call us at 1-800-989-8255 and you can also Tweet us @scifri. And with that taken cared of, I want to get talking to the vets because this is something that I wanted to talk a lot.

I used to have a dog. I never had a chance to talk to the vets about what they do. And as - when I was growing up and going to college and talking to all my med student friends, I said do you ever think about being a vet? They said, oh, that's much more difficult, much more difficult than being a family doctor, being a vet. And we'll talk about why that is.

Let me introduce my vets right here. Tom Gill is a large animal veterinarian and owner of the Brookside Veterinary Clinic in Auburn. Thanks for being with us today, Dr. Gill.

Dr. TOM GILL (Large Animal Veterinarian, Owner, Brookside Veterinary Clinic, Auburn): My pleasure.

FLATOW: Lisa Fortier is president of the International Cartilage Repair Society and associate professor of large animal surgery at Cornell University. Thank you for being with us, Dr. Fortier.

Dr. LISA FORTIER (President, International Cartilage Repair Society): Thank you.

FLATOW: Sarah Meixell is a small-animal veterinarian and the owner of Veterinary Care of Ithaca. She is with us.

Dr. SARAH MEIXELL (Owner, Veterinary Care of Ithaca): Thank you.

FLATOW: And Alfonso Torres is associate dean for public policy at Cornell University. And actually he was the first national vet. Wouldn't that be sort of like the surgeon general for veterinarian, the first one in this country?

Professor ALFONSO TORRES (Associate Dean, Public Policy at Cornell University): Without the fancy uniform, yes.

FLATOW: Without the fancy…

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: …uniform. Well, I'm talking to you about that. You sent me a note about an interesting story about the first chief veterinary officer, and an interesting story behind it. Tell me - share that with everybody.

Prof. TORRES: Yes Cornell's Veterinarian, Cornell's Veterinary College is the oldest educational program in the United States. We graduated the first person with a doctor of veterinary in medicine degree in 1872, not far from where we're sitting here. And that individual's named Daniel E. Salmon.

Dr. Salmon became the first veterinarian working for the newly created Department of Agriculture. And working with the swine disease, he discovered a family of bacteria that is named after him, salmonella. So, anytime that people hear about salmonella, we want to think about veterinarians, think about Cornell, think about what we're doing in public health.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of applause)

FLATOW: Well, Dr. Salmon, salmonella. Wow. Learn something new everyday is - let's learn something new about what vets do because that's the fascinating story. And I'll begin with Dr. Meixell. You're the type of vet that most of us are familiar with bring their pet into the vet's office, your dog or your cat. How do you know what's wrong with the animals?

Dr. MEIXELL: A huge part of what we do is listening to the owners. The owners live with these animals everyday and they can see really small changes in their behavior. What they're doing at home that make a big difference in what I look for and what I find. And a physical exam is very important as well. We perform very thorough physical exams, and we do a lot of the same kinds of things that medical doctors do, human medical doctors. We do x-rays, ultrasounds, blood work.

FLATOW: And how new is that? I mean, when I was a kid we didn't have any of those things.

Dr. MEIXELL: They were available just probably not generally used by most, you know…

FLATOW: So, the practice has changed, that your human patients are demanding more?

Dr. MEIXELL: Absolutely. They look for much better veterinary care. When I started veterinary medicine practicing 28 years ago, dogs were dogs that you just shove off the door to go to the bathroom in the morning and, you know, brought in at night or kept outside. And now, dogs are members of people's families, and so are cats, and so are a lot of rabbits, gerbils…

FLATOW: And designer food…

Dr. MEIXELL: Yeah.

FLATOW: …and designer clothing.

Dr. MEIXELL: Absolutely.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Things like that. Tom, I know you practice treats small and large animals, but most of them are large animal vet. How is that different on the patient that she has?

Dr. GILL: You know, there are very - there are several similarities because I concentrate a lot in dairy medicine. And so, we're seeing dairy cattle. Just like Sarah just mentioned, on an individual patient basis, it's really important to find out from the dairy producer, from the farmer a good history what's going on with that particular cow. She's off feed. How long has it been since she had a calf, et cetera?

But the other side of things on the dairy side at least is that we practice sort of a population medicine. And so, we look at individuals, but we also look at the herd. And so, there are some other things that we keep track of that are important to the quality of your food, certain metrics on the farm that we follow this to make sure that the herd itself is healthy.

So, at least in the dairy business it's sort of a combination between individual patient care, which is very similar to what Sarah was just talking about, and then also following the herd overall health.

FLATOW: But you may be following a herd of cattle but if someone has sick lama, they're going to call you up also…

Dr. GILL: Exactly, exactly. But then I would turf that to one of my associates because…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. GILL: No, I've practiced on some lamas and alpacas. You know, one of the beautiful things about veterinary medicine I think is that it is a multi-species kind of business. And if I had to get up and do the same thing everyday in my life, I would probably go a little crazy. So, it's nice to be able to do a few different things on different species.

However, you know, it is difficult to be real specialized in everything. So, we primarily treat horses but mainly backyard horses, no broodmare race track kind of stuff. Primarily dairy because we're in great dairy county, in Cayuga County and then we do - now we're seeing more and more of the alpacas and lamas.

FLATOW: Right, right. Well, Lisa Fortier, you treat the high end horses, right? Dr. Fortier, you see the good racehorses as he doesn't get to see.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. FORTIER: For the most part, the animals that come to see me - I'm a surgeon by training, so the animals that come to see me are specifically referred by people like Dr. Gill for a surgical procedure.

FLATOW: And what kinds of surgery do you do on these horses?

Dr. FORTIER: I do a lot of biological transplantation. So, we focus mostly on cartilage repair…

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. FORTIER: …to prevent joint replacement and a lot of tendon surgery as well.

FLATOW: And you do cutting-edge surgery that can't be performed even on people. Don't…

Dr. FORTIER: That is correct. We're not limited currently by FDA standards. So, the horses are a great model. If we can get something to work in thoroughbred racehorse, then perhaps the Chicago Bulls can be treated with it as well.

FLATOW: No pun intended now on that one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: What kind of, for example, would it be stem cell research, something like that?

Dr. FORTIER: Stem cells are great a example, another one is the highly use biological platelet-rich plasma. So you take your own blood and you isolate out the cells that are responsible for clotting your blood called the platelets. And the beauty of the platelets are that they are your reservoir of your growth factors. So, we have studies on cartilage and in tendon looking at the efficacy of the platelet-rich plasma for regeneration.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And so, you're saying that if you can get this to work in a horse and the horse - these are expensive horses, right? And so their owners are not going to take a lot of chances with them. You have to be pretty sure that something might yield result. If you can get them, that is sort of a pioneering step to possibly working in people.

Dr. FORTIER: That's correct, and not only do they have to go back to performance, these racehorses are really high-end athletes. They're elite athletes.

FLATOW: And how long does it take, a treatment like this, to take effect, and does it really repair the joints that you're talking about?

Dr. FORTIER: It depends on the extent of injury. It will not repair full arthritis just yet. It's more for traumatic lesions, and in tendons, it still takes some time for the body to repair it. What we're seeing is that we can get the horse back to performance faster, and they're much less prone to re-injury.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Dr. Torres, does the chief veterinary officer mostly deal with animal diseases that would cause problems for the rest of the country? What is that job…

Dr. TORRES: Yes, that is correct. There is a number of diseases that, for example, we do not have in the United States that are what we will call catastrophic livestock diseases, that if they were to come into our country not only will devastate our population but also will damage our economy. So the chief veterinary officer of any country deals with how to prevent those introductions, and each introduction comes into place how you control and eradiate that disease.

FLATOW: So you'd be watching for stuff that maybe came in from Canada or Mexico or any other…

Dr. TORRES: Or now, with globalization, could come from any place. We still don't know, for example, where West Nile came from in those years. So now with global warming, we have more movement and persistence of certain arthropods that are vectors of many of these diseases, as well, so…

FLATOW: Is there a good reporting system available for people when they see this, other veterinarians see this, that they report?

Dr. TORRES: There is an international organization called the World Organization for Animal Health, and all member countries, about 174 member countries, need to report the occurrence of these diseases within 24 hours, and that information is broadcast to all country members. So the whole world is watching for the emergence or movement of these diseases.

FLATOW: What was the last bad one that struck?

Dr. TORRES: Well, the last bad on in the United States was probably Newcastle Disease in California in 2003.

FLATOW: What is that?

Dr. TORRES: That is a disease that affects all birds but primarily commercial flocks, chickens and so forth. And it caused about the destruction of about six million birds before the disease was under control, and that came because of smuggled gamecocks from Mexico.

FLATOW: Would you be seeing swine flu moving around, carried by - I mean avian flu, carried by birds moving around, as well as swine flu.

Dr. TORRES: That is one of the concerns, that diseases like avian flu could move with migratory birds, except that most poultry industry has a very good biosecurity, very good physical separation between the commercial flocks and the migratory birds. So the chances of that happening in a commercial flock is unlikely, but it could happen more in a backyard-hobby type of farm.

FLATOW: Do you see cases of these, unusual cases, or are you just basically taking care of the aches and pains of the cows and…

Dr. GILL: Well, you know, one thing I would say, you mentioned reporting. Most states, especially New York state, practitioners that are in the field doing, especially food-animal medicine, are members of - they're accredited by the state to cooperate with regular state veterinarians who are in charge of keeping our livestock and our public health healthy. So as a private practitioner, you know, it is my responsibility that if I see strange diseases or symptoms that may be similar to some of these zoonotic diseases, diseases that can affect people and animals or especially diseases that can affect our agriculture, to report those.

FLATOW: All right. We're going to take a break and come back - lots more here - to Cornell and talk about animal health with the vets. So here's your question to ask a vet, 1-800-989-8255. Step up to the mic in the audience here in Bailey Hall in Cornell, in Ithaca. Stay tuned. We'll be right back after this short break.

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FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about what it's like to be a veterinarian with my guests: Tom Gill, a large-animal veterinarian and owner of Brookside Veterinary Clinic in Auburn, New York. Lisa Fortier is president of the International Cartilage Repair Society, associate professor of large-animal surgery at Cornell. Sarah Meixell is a small-animal veterinarian and owner of Veterinary Care of Ithaca. Alfonso Torres is associate dean for public policy at Cornell University. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Let's start right over here. Yes, step up to the mic.

Unidentified Woman #1: Have any of you ever worked on any insects?

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: I think that's one of the more unusual questions we've had, insects, animals. Are insects animals, small animals?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. GILL: I've been bitten by a lot of them, I guess.

FLATOW: That's a serious question.

Dr. GILL: There are some parasites that affect some of our animal patients. Cattle get a kind of a grub, actually, called Hypoderma bovis, that is sort of gross and you would probably think was pretty cool. It comes out underneath their skin like a big pimple, and it pops out, and it's a big, thick, fat, chubby larvae that then completes its life cycle and turns into a fly. So that's probably all - you know, we usually step on those insects. We don't treat them…

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: All right, let me go to Dr. Torres, you wanted to jump in on that one.

Dr. TORRES: Yes, actually, in all countries except the United States, diseases of bees and other insects are under the supervision of veterinarians.

FLATOW: Is that right?

Dr. TORRES: And there are significant bee diseases that can affect the economy of a country that are also part of these reportable diseases, but in the United States, bee diseases are handled under the plant pathologies because of the associations with plants. So…

FLATOW: Would you like to see that changed?

Dr. TORRES: Well, it would be interesting. It would be another species we have to learn about.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Right, right. I don't - yes, sir.

Unidentified Man #1: Hello, I'm from Buffalo, New York. I operate a low-level laser clinic for humans, and I wanted to see if they had any experience with this new technology. I actually saved a horse's life using this technology, a horse who had a severe laceration - that wanted to put the horse down. One procedure with this laser, and the animal was out of pain and healed in a matter of a couple of days. So I'm assuming they must have looked into this or are using this technology now - would be interested.

FLATOW: What part of the body are we talking about?

Unidentified Man #1: Lacerated his - right below his knee.

FLATOW: Dr. Fortier, right in your ballpark here.

Dr. FORTIER: Yes. There's a tremendous number of adjunctive therapies such as lasers that are used quite commonly in horses and in people. Some of them have great clinical evidence to support their use. In horses, there's not a great amount of literature to support the use of lasers, but there are many, many single-case reports like you're describing.

FLATOW: Thank you. If I were to go into your surgery lab, where you do your surgery in your operating room, would it look like a place that a human might be having surgery? Do you have a nurse, assistants, you know, anesthesiologist, things like that?

Dr. FORTIER: It looks exactly like that. I think the biggest difference is that one, it's all women. So usually the anesthesiologist, the anesthesia resident, the student, me, the nurse, it's women across the board. So that a little bit different, especially in orthopedics.

FLATOW: Because?

Dr. FORTIER: Because something like 85 percent of the veterinary classes are women, and still - and it's probably close to that in human medicine, as well, but in orthopedics, it's still a male-dominated field. So it looks exactly like that. When we do have surgeons come from hospital for special surgery, we do a lot of collaborative with them on animal-modeled diseases. And their biggest comment is that, you know, if you were going to get operated, I'd say okay, jump up here, and then inhale this gas three times, and you're going to go to sleep. To put a horse under anesthesia, it takes five or six people. It's very, very labor intensive to put them under anesthesia and then hoist them up and get them onto the table. So it's more the labor, but the equipment for the anesthesia, the equipment for the surgery, the techniques are all identical.

FLATOW: Now, Dr. Gill, when you go out to the farm and work on a cow, same thing happens, right?

Dr. GILL: Well, actually, we do perform several types of surgeries on cows.

FLATOW: You have a big clean room? You bring the cow into the operating theater?

Dr. GILL: I'm usually swatting flies, trying to keep them out of my incision, actually.

FLATOW: So they're not coming to your office.

Dr. GILL: No, no, if we - they are somewhat limited, but we do abdominal surgery. We do C-sections on the farm. I'll tell you, it is a little bit like medicine must have been back in the 1800s, I guess, because if I have a C-section, for instance, what'll happen is I will pick one of the farmhands who's willing to help. I'll show him how to scrub. I'll put his gloves on. I'll tell him not to touch anything until I tell him, and we prep the cow, and away we go.

FLATOW: Right there in the barn.

Dr. GILL: Right there in the barn, set up a straw bale for our surgery table, and if we're fortunate, we may have enough light. If we're not, then we just go.

FLATOW: That's because your cow is more of a commodity than…

Dr. GILL: Well, the other thing, too, there are large-animal veterinary clinics in the country where they will truck in cows. Obviously, Cornell has a great facility for trucking in dairy cattle, and if it's something more - if it's an intestinal surgery or something that I think needs to be - have a little more skill, we'll refer those to Cornell. But the thing is, dairy producers are busy folks. They've got a lot on their plate. They do have to keep their costs down, and it's doable. The cows do extremely well in the barn situation. You know, it's the middle of winter, it gets pretty chilly. If - you've got to have your sleeves taken off. If it's the middle of summer, you try to keep the sweat from dripping into your incision.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Well, I saw - our producer, Neda Heiss(ph), was out at a farm with you, and she came back with some photos with your arm in the cow all the way up to your armpit. What were you doing in that picture?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. GILL: Well, actually, there's laws against that, Ira. I'm not sure I should…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. GILL: No, a big part of what we do in the dairy business is cows, like any mammal, produce - they start to lactate and produce milk after they've had a baby. So a cow has to have a calf in order to make milk. And so financially, it's very, very important for the producer to get these cows bred and then re-bred after they've calved. And so we go out on a regular basis and do reproductive exams on the cattle, diagnose pregnancies, and when cattle are not pregnant try to figure out why they're not getting pregnant.

FLATOW: And so you're palpating the uterus?

Mr. GILL: I'm actually doing a palpation of the cervix, the uterus, the ovaries. We can even guesstimate somewhat what the structures on the ovaries are. We do also, for many of our herds, use ultrasound so we can actually see. It's a probe we take right in with us, but - very clean work.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Yeah, I've seen the pictures. Dr. Meixell, sounds just like what you would be doing in your small-animal laboratory or in your pet veterinary office. Do you do anything like that at all for…

Dr. MEIXELL: Not quite like that, no, no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. MEIXELL: No, I think a lot of people in the audience have taken animals to veterinarians, at least their pets from home, and so, you know…

FLATOW: What's - it's not cheap now to do any of these surgeries on animals, is it?

Dr. MEIXELL: It's not because owners expect good care for their animals. They expect high-quality care, and high-quality care is expensive.

FLATOW: Is there pet insurance like…

Dr. MEIXELL: There is.

FLATOW: There is?

Dr. MEIXELL: There is.

FLATOW: And is it like - do they go into the same debate we're having with human health care insurance, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. MEIXELL: No, not quite. I've always counseled people that, you know, pet insurance can be good. If something catastrophic or a major illness is going to happen, you've got it there. If your animal is going to be healthy, then you don't necessarily need it.

FLATOW: Do you at all, any of you, get involved with your patients? I mean, you have to keep really impersonal, right?

Dr. MEIXELL: It's hard. It's hard. You know, you take care of a puppy or a kitten from the time it's really young until they're dying of cancer at age 15, and you're in the room with the owner, you know, when you're performing a euthanasia.

FLATOW: Dr. Fortier, now I'm going to have a senior moment and blank on that famous racehorse who spent a year - broke down at the Kentucky Derby.

Dr. FORTIER: Barbaro.

FLATOW: Barbaro. Did that change the nature of your work at all, what you're expected to do or people have expectations about surgery?

Dr. FORTIER: Most people, after Barbaro was put down, want to know that their horse is not going to end up like Barbaro, and you just can't, obviously, guarantee that.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Let's go here, and then we'll come on this side. Yes.

Mr. NEWT GURGERI(ph) (Audience Member): Hi, I'm Newt Gurgeri(ph). I'm a PhD student here at Cornell and also working up on a startup called Genewheat Biosciences(ph) for detecting toxic and drug-resistant bacteria like MRSA. And I was curious, what are the most serious bacteria that you guys, as vets, encounter both in terms of livestock as well as domestic animals?

Dr. GILL: Well, Dr. Torres mentioned salmonella. You know, when I'm on a farm, if I have suspicious cases of salmonella, I mean, that's one of them. Because you've got to remember, on some of our farms, some of these folks still drink the milk directly from their bulk tank. It's not advisable, but some of them do, farm families. And so I'm concerned about their immediate health, as well as the food quality to the rest of us. There are a lot of species-specific viruses. You mentioned bacteria…

FLATOW: What about MRSA? Can your animal give you MRSA? Lisa, I see you're shaking your head.

Dr. FORTIER: It's much more common in a hospital setting, of a MRSA -it's one of the things we have MRSA committees for.

FLATOW: Hmm. And Sarah, can your dog or cat, is it a good idea to have them as, you know, to sleep in your bed with you at night because they're going to be bringing a lot of the stuff in with them?

Dr. MEIXELL: Well, as you said, in the hospital setting MRSA and things like that are a lot more serious problems. In most, you know, in pet-owner situations it's not as serious although it's certainly a consideration. A lot of people have their pets sleep with them at night, and most of the time, it's safe.

FLATOW: And once they start sleeping with you…

Dr. MEIXELL: They're not going to give up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. MEIXELL: That's right.

FLATOW: I learned that from a vet years ago. Once they start, you're not going to break them of that. There's the lesson for today - yes, over here.

Unidentified Woman #2: Yeah. Foods are chemicals. And some foods are poisonous to dogs. And we all know chocolate is very toxic to dogs. Are there other ones that we're not aware of that we might be feeding our pets that could hurt them?

FLATOW: Go ahead, Dr. Meixell?

Dr. MEIXELL: They are - one of the big ones that we've learned about relatively recently are grapes and raisins. There is an idiosyncratic reaction in certain dogs, which means that not every dog will have a problem from grapes or raisins, but dogs who do get very seriously ill with kidney failure, and it can sometimes be fatal if not caught early. So, yes, in addition to chocolate, grapes and raisins, onions, garlic, a number of things.

FLATOW: Can your pet live a wonderful, normal, healthy life without buying all these high-end dog and cat foods that we - the designer foods?

Dr. MEIXELL: It can.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. MEIXELL: There are a lot of good foods on the market and not all of them are the high-end foods. But in my opinion, you're still better off feeding a commercial food, although there are many good recipes out there for home-cooked diets as well.

FLATOW: And table scraps?

Dr. MEIXELL: Table scraps are fine as long as you're not feeding them the wrong foods or feeding them too much of them.

FLATOW: Dr. Torres, as important as vets are to our food supply, I've read several reports of a large-animal-vet shortage. There's a large-animal-vet shortage in many parts of the country including here in New York state. Is that because, and as I said before, my friends who are MDs say I don't want to be a vet, it's too hard to do that? Is that part of the reason?

Dr. TORRES: Yes. It's a multifactorial reason. One is we have only 28 veterinary colleges in United States, so we have way less number than medical colleges, for example. Then the output is about 2,500 veterinarians per year. But the demand is outgrowing that. Also most of students graduate with a huge debt, about $80 to $100,000 in student loans, before they complete four years of bachelor degree and then four years of veterinary education. So many of them elect to going to a small-animal practice that is a little more profitable than going to large-animal practice. And so, the is a shortage of large-animal veterinarians and, as you say, particularly in New York, to that point that we have authorized Canadian veterinarians to come in to the upper-tier counties and practice their medicine in New York.

FLATOW: Talking about veterinarians this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News here at Cornell University in Ithaca, with one of the country's most famous veterinary schools and colleges.

Tom, do you want to follow up with that? Is it tough to become a vet?

Dr. GILL: Yeah. I agree with Alfonso. It's a very complicated issue. One of the problems is that it's a very demanding job in the sense that you are responsible for covering emergency work. A lot of our small-animal clinics have now been able to - because people are expecting a high-level of care, now a lot of those emergencies are going to veterinary emergency clinics. But in the case of large-animals, you know, equine lacerations, colics, you know, cows that are having calving problems, et cetera, I mean, we have to go to them. And so, it is one of the more demanding kind of jobs…

FLATOW: How do you learn all the different body parts of different animals? Is it, you know, it's like…

Dr. GILL: Well…

FLATOW: (Unintelligible)

Dr. GILL: You know, one of the beautiful things I think about veterinary medicine and even though it's a demanding - I'd encourage all young folks to - just because you haven't been raised on a farm, you should really look into, if you're interested in veterinary medicine, you know, consider food animal practice or large-animal practice. But one of the beautiful things about veterinary medicine is the very comparative study of species. You know, these MDs, you know, they go to school and they learn everything about one species - that's us. But, you know, fortunately, there are very, very many similarities - anatomical similarities, physiologic similarities, they cross species. But then you have to just learn the exceptions.

FLATOW: Let's go the audience here, yes.

Unidentified Woman #3: Yes, I have a question about Lyme disease, and that it's not recognized by some doctors or the treatment is controversial. And I was wondering what kind of research is being done in animals. And if there's any political or controversial treatments for animals as well?

FLATOW: Dr. Torres, you want to pick up that hot potato?

Dr. TORRES: I'm not a clinician so I'll let my colleagues talk about the treatment. But there are cases of Lyme disease not only in dogs but also in horses, so we have used those as an example of how you can understand the cycle of the disease in the animal, the vector, which is a tick to reservoir, which could be the deer mice and then the intermediate vector of the deer, so it's a very complex set of circumstances. And in those cases, we veterinarians need to work with entomologists and ecologists to really understand all the cycle of these diseases transmitted by arthropods. But it is a disease that is important for some of the clinical practices perhaps.

FLATOW: Dr. Fortier?

Dr. TORRE: Yeah.

Dr. FORTIER: I think some of the reasons it's controversial is that in horses and in people and in dogs, the primary chronical sign is supposed to be not moving well or some generalized pain. So it's a common complaint to performance horses to say, my horse isn't going quite right. And Lyme disease is very difficult to diagnose. So you can get joint fluid and blood and all kinds of different things. And the truth is it's not black and white at all. There's many gray scales to say, yay or nay, your horse has this - or dog has this disease.

And the treatment, I don't think, is controversial in that it's treated with a tetracycline antibiotic. But the tetracycline antibiotics, like all drugs, have alternate side effects, and that they are very potent pain relievers as well. So you bring your horse to me, you say, I think it has Lyme disease. I treat it with doxycycline but all the tests say it's negative. But you say, well, you're wrong because it got better. But it maybe got better because of the side effects of the drug, not because we killed the Lyme disease itself.

FLATOW: There you go. We're going to have to take a break. We'll come back and talk about more about being a vet. Our number, 1-800-989-8255, twittering @scifri, here at Cornell University in Ithaca at Bailey Hall. Stay with us. We'll be right back.

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FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

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You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY on NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. And we are talking this hour about what veterinarians do, with a bunch of veterinarians. What do you call a bunch of veterinarians…

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: A gaggle or something? Anyway - Tom Gill, Lisa Fortier, Sarah Meixell, and Alfonso Torres. Our number, 1-800-989-8255.

Okay, we talked a little bit about how difficult the life of a vet is versus an MD. How do you become a vet? You know, what, Tom, what should someone in the audience who wants to become a vet do?

Dr. GILL: Well, I'll tell you, obviously, it starts with a love of animals. I mean, it's just something that - I think, animals play a big role in all of our lives. And if you find that you're a person who really, really loves animals, then veterinary medicine may be for you. But if you're in, you know, junior high and high school, you've got to remember that this is a very science-oriented kind of career and you really, you've got to get those good grades in those science courses.

When you get to the college level, you have to have a four-year degree. You don't necessarily have to be a science major. You can be an English major and still be a veterinarian, but you do have to take a course load of specific courses. One thing I will say, even though it is a career that's all about animals, you've got to remember that Fluffy(ph) does not drive herself to the vet's office, and, you know, Flicka(ph) does not call us out when she's got a belly ache. So it is a service profession that's very, very reliant on owners as clients. And so, if you're not a people person - and don't think you can run away from people by becoming a veterinarian because you do have to deal with folks.

FLATOW: And if you're going to setup your own business, you've got to be a business person, too, don't you, Sarah Meixell?

Dr. MEIXELL: That's absolutely true. Business is - business background is something that we don't get in vet school at all, and it's something that is really missing when you get out in the real world.

CONAN: Yeah.

Dr. MEIXELL: Yeah.

FLATOW: Let's go to the audience. Yes, sir.

Mr. DERICK CALHOUN(ph) (Audience Member): Hi. My name is Derick Calhoun and I'm actually one of the 15 men to sneak into vet school in my class. I'm in my fourth year.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CALHOUN: And as a veterinarian, I'm hoping primarily to promote the human-animal bond through a combination of clinical practice, education, advocacy, and policy, and hopefully build on my sociology background. I was wondering about the panels' thoughts on the social impact of animals.

FLATOW: Is he dreaming?

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Is he going to have enough time to do all these things, if he's a vet, you know? I wish you well, don't take that wrong. But when I hear what Tom and Sarah and Lisa are talking about, being a vet and how much time it takes. But, in all seriousness, any reaction to - Dr. Meixell?

Dr. MEIXELL: The human-animal bond is incredible. And I see people coming in who truly believe that these animals - truly feel that these animals they're bringing in are family members, they are members. They sleep in their beds every night. They're with them all day. They're inside. They're protected when they go out. They're treating them as family members. And when they lose a pet, it's losing a family member.

FLATOW: Let's go to the phone, to Viola(ph), in Shawano, Wisconsin. Hi, Viola.

VIOLA (Caller): Hi.

FLATOW: Hi there.

VIOLA: How are you today?


VIOLA: I have comment about my veterinarian. She's from Gillett and I extra drive there just to take my dog there. She gets her back thrown out once in a while, and she's also a chiropractor and she does acupuncture. She recently went to China to get more experience in acupuncture, more studies. And I'm wondering if they could comment on that.

FLATOW: Good point. Thanks for calling. And good luck with your acupuncture.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: What do you say, Sarah? Is acupuncture on the list of most vets these days?

Dr. MEIXELL: It certainly is on the list of things that we do for pets, as well as horses.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. MEIXELL: And chiropractics as well. Yeah. It's just like in human medicine, it's an ancillary thing that we do.

FLATOW: Okay. Let's see if can go over here. Yes, sir.

Mr. MARK DEUTSCHLANDER(ph) (Audience Member): Hi, Mark Deutschlander, Hobart and William Smith Colleges…

FLATOW: You're back.


FLATOW: Can't get rid of you.

Mr. DEUTSCHLANDER: This is not about birds.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DEUTSCHLANDER: I'm actually a pre-health advisor as well and I have a lot of students coming in who want to go on to vet school, so it's good to hear there's jobs out there for them. And you talked a little bit about what they need to do. Knowing what you know now, what would you tell those students in terms of what to do while they're in college? They have to do well academically, but what else would you give those students in terms of advice?

Dr. GILL: You know, I…

FLATOW: They have to really love what they're going to be doing, right?

Dr. GILL: I think that you do have to spend some time volunteering at a vet clinic or on a farm or getting some kind of experience with animals. I mean, I would definitely advocate not - you know, one of the problems they don't have food animal vets is because there are not a lot of kids coming from farms anymore. And so, a lot of kids from the city feel that they are not qualified. They haven't have enough life experiences in those species. I'm here to tell you that you can be raised in the heart of New York City and be a heck of a dairy vet if you'd like to be. You just have to go out and get some experience.

So getting some experience, either working with animals or with veterinary, clinics is a good thing. Again, I really, really truly feel that this is a people business. And, you know, getting experience working with people is a good thing. You know, I think that that's very important.

FLATOW: Thanks for the question. Before we go the question from the audience, I want to just probe a little bit more with Dr. Fortier about her equine stem cell line. You were trying to establish an equine line of stem cells. Is that correct?

Dr. FORTIER: We have several lines of stem cells. We have embryonal stem cells derived from day-eight embryos. We also have many lines of adult-derived stem cells. So, you can get stem cells from your bone marrow. You can get it from your fat or adipose tissue. You can get it from muscle as well. And one of the goals of our laboratory is to try and to determine which stem cell is best. Perhaps a stem cell from your bone marrow is best to treat your tendon, but maybe an embryonal stem cell is best to treat your cartilage.

FLATOW: Is that right? So you're just trying to figure out which ones work...

Dr. FORTIER: Correct.

FLATOW: ...for what kind of ailments. Sarah, could you use that in your practice, if she comes up (unintelligible)?

Dr. MEIXELL: Sure. We have a lot of bone and joint diseases in animals as well - in small animals as well.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let's go over here to this microphone. Hi.

Unidentified Woman #4: Could you tell me in your experiences, what the most challenging surgery was? And how solve it? So, could you tell me that?

FLATOW: What was the most challenging surgery you ever had and how did you solve it? I think there's a TV show here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: I really, you know? Some producer is going to come and watch you guys do this sort of thing. Dr. Fortier, you want to...

Dr. FORTIER: The most challenging surgeries are those that are associated with a lot of bleeding, because you can't see where the - if you can't see where the bleeding's coming from or stopping it, it's hard to control your own reaction to the panic mode of: I'm losing this patient. Why can't I stop the bleeding? And then somebody else is like, you know, it's bleeding. I know that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. FORTIER: And on top of it, if you're not a hundred percent comfortable with the anatomy - for example, when we started to operate llamas and alpacas a few years ago, they may or may not have exact intestinal architecture of a cow that we operate all the time. So if you get into a very difficult situation in the species that maybe you only operate once a week, that makes it even more challenging. But bleeding is the most challenging part.

FLATOW: Do you do any bird surgery? Tom or Lisa or Sarah? No. Let's get our guy - get our bird (unintelligible) back again.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. FORTIER: I've done surgery on a couple of chickens.


Dr. FORTIER: Yeah.

FLATOW: You saved the chicken.

Dr. FORTIER: Yeah. Sure.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Must be a very loved chicken.

Dr. FORTIER: It is.

FLATOW: Got to love chicken. Not going in anybody's pot.


FLATOW: And what was the surgery that you did on the chicken?

Dr. FORTIER: Opening up a part of their intestinal tract to remove some stones and, like, woody debris that they'd gotten in there - some shavings that was blocking them.

FLATOW: So it was a pet? It must have been.

Dr. FORTIER: Yeah.


(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. FORTIER: Yeah. Cornell has a very specific-oriented wildlife clinic. So, because of all the things you heard in the previous panel about how to handle these animals - deer and all the other wildlife species go to the wildlife clinic.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Okay. Let's go to - thank you for that question. This side in the audience.

Mr. CHRIS DIETRICH(ph): Chris Dietrich, Ithaca, New York. Back in Michigan, I have several friends who breed pet rats. And I've often heard them lament that the baseline for establishing health for rats was set with laboratory rats, rather than pet rats in the different populations. And I was wondering if there are any other species or types of animal where there's a problem that the baseline was set with a different type of animal.

Dr. FORTIER: I think that's true of all the little pocket pets, gerbils, hamsters, rats, rabbits. I think that the baseline for all of those have been set with laboratory animals. But the more people keep them as pets, the more it will at least have personal experience with baseline on those animals.

FLATOW: Do you have trouble with people letting go of their pet if it's way beyond anything?

Dr. FORTIER: Sure.

FLATOW: That must be very difficult...

Dr. FORTIER: Yeah. And...

FLATOW: ...for you as the doctor.

Dr. FORTIER: Well, yes. But what's important is to give them counsel on what they're doing and what's happening. And a lot of times, they look to you to tell them when it's time.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. FORTIER: Because it's hard for them to do that.

FLATOW: Yeah. Same with a horse, too.

Dr. FORTIER: Very much.

FLATOW: Yeah, especially an expensive horse.

Dr. FORTIER: And sometimes, you just can't fix it. We don't have the mechanical plates. We don't have the equipment to fix it. So even if you had all the money in the world, Barbaro, you can't fix him.

FLATOW: Yeah. That's sad. Yes. Yes.

WILLIAM(ph): Hi, my name is William of Binghamton High School. With the surge of pet owners being so attached to their pets and the move to organic and natural healing, what is veterinary medication doing along the lines of acupuncture or natural remedies?

FLATOW: I know we heard a little bit about acupuncture. What about natural - homeopathic or a natural remedies?

Dr. FORTIER: All of those things are becoming much more popular, and you will find veterinarians in practice whose specialty is homeopathic medicine and the adjunctive things like chiropractics and acupuncture.

FLATOW: Can the animal tell you it's getting better from these medicines?

Dr. FORTIER: Well, they can tell you by how they're acting and how they're felling.

FLATOW: But you're just not - you're not satisfying the owner more than the pet by doing these things?

Dr. FORTIER: No, you're helping the pet.

FLATOW: Helping the pet.

Dr. FORTIER: Yeah.

FLATOW: Okay. Yes.

Unidentified Child: Hi. I'm wondering if there are certain foods that are bad for cats, like there are for dogs.

Dr. FORTIER: Certainly. And...

FLATOW: Chocolate. Is chocolate bad for cats?

Dr. FORTIER: Yes. It's bad for cats and dogs. And onions and garlic are particularly bad for cats as well. Cats are carnivores, and they have to eat mainly meat. And it's important to remember that when you're feeding your pet and - with cats and dogs, the most important thing is to remember that the pet food companies put a lot of research into making their foods the best they can be for that particular animal. And that's why you should choose those foods as their main source of food.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Yes, sir.

Unidentified Man #2: Yes. Lisa, you alluded to this earlier, but I was wondering, the people who go to veterinary school, what proportion of them are interested in treating wild animals, maybe for the - in the field of ecology or conservation?

Dr. FORTIER: It's certainly on the rise. I think it used to be - you know, when the veterinary college was established, it was mostly food animal, and then it shifted to small animal, with very, very few people are interested in public policy or wildlife health, or aquatics as well. And I'm going to say, about a quarter of our applicants now have a strong interest - I'm looking down at our dean.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. FORTIER: …looking for a nod of - yes, you're close to right. About a quarter of our applicants are very interested in what we used to consider a minority, aquatics, public health and wildlife as well.

FLATOW: Let me get to Dr. Torres to answer that. But let me remind everybody that this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow at Cornell University.

I'm going to ask Dr. Alfonso Torres to comment on that.

Dr. TORRES: One of the challenges that we have when we deal with wildlife diseases, is that they are happening in certain ecosystems. So, we are not only trying to understand the disease in the animal itself, in which we have to extrapolate from experience more of the species, with the problems that they have. But also, we need to understand the ecology that is causing that problem in that group of wildlife. So we need to work a lot with other professionals - from sociologists, anthropologists, ecologists and the like.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Yes, sir.

Mr. STEVE KAMASH(ph): I'm Steve Kamash. I - sometime ago, I found a hatchling. It was obviously a wild bird. Fell out of a nest. I took it to Cornell and they accepted it from me. When I called, following up what happened to it, they told me that they have turned it over to the nuisance animal wildlife section. Can you elaborate on what this concept about nuisance wildlife?

FLATOW: Is there such a thing as nuisance wildlife? No? I don't know. We ought to take that up with them, we can't figure that out.

Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified Woman #5: You talked earlier about people want quality pet care for their domesticated animals. How does somebody go about determining who's the best vet for them?

FLATOW: How do you pick a vet?

Dr. MEIXELL: I always tell people when they're moving and they ask me if I know anyone in the city they're moving to, to talk to their coworkers, to their neighbors, people who have pets and clearly take good care of their pets as - to get to get references for veterinarians. And beyond that, I believe the most important thing is to have a good rapport with their veterinarian, they'd be able to communicate with them. It's important that you feel comfortable when you go. They're very much the same as when you choose your own doctor. You need to feel comfortable and feel that you're being listened to because you are the voice for your pet.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And I guess the Internet, now, has a lot of resources on finding vets around the - new places in the country.

Yes, sir.

CHRIS: Hi, I'm Chris.

FLATOW: Well, look at there.

CHRIS: Look at there? Oh, there we are. I'm Chris. I'm from Ithaca, New York. And I'm just wondering if - we got a fish, a goldfish and it's very - it's charming, but it's got a little bump on its head.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHRIS: Everybody comes over and they say, oh, you can just take it up to Cornell. They're wizards, you know? They can do anything. Can you guys really operate on the fish?

FLATOW: Can you operate on a goldfish?

Dr. MEIXELL: Absolutely.

FLATOW: Yeah, Sarah? Tell us about it.

(Soundbite of laughter)


FLATOW: She's waiting. Go to her. Go to her clinic, you know? Go to small animal vet, you know, the Veterinary Care of Ithaca. She's a (unintelligible). Yeah.

Dr. MEIXELL: I have never operated in a fish. But there are Koi fish that are extremely expensive fish and I know they have all sorts of medicine to treat those guys.

FLATOW: There you go. And just because it has one of these bumps doesn't mean it's sick. Some of these Koi look very unusual.

Dr. MEIXELL: They do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: All right. Thank you all for taking time to be with us today. It was our pleasure to be here. Tom Gill is a large animal veterinarian and owner of the Brookside Veterinary Clinic in Auburn, New York. Thank you, Tom, for being here.

Mr. GILL: My pleasure.

FLATOW: Lisa Fortier is president of International Cartilage Repair Society, an associate professor of large animal surgery at Cornell. Thank you…

Dr. FORTIER: A pleasure.

FLATOW: …Dr. Fortier. Sarah Meixell is a small animal veterinarian, owner of Veterinary Care of Ithaca…

Dr. MEIXELL: Thank you.

FLATOW: Be working on those fish pretty soon…

Dr. MEIXELL: Thank you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: …there. And Alfonso Torres is associate dean for public policy at Cornell University. And I want to thank you all for taking time to be with us today.

Dr. TORRES: Thank you.

(Soundbite of applause)

FLATOW: A lot of folks to thank. We could not have made this trip to Ithaca without thanking folks. Let's start out with Greg Smith who composed our theme music today. Also, to Visit Ithaca, we want to thank them. Warren Allmon and the staff of the Museum of the Earth, a few -you have this resource here in town and Museum of the Earth is a great museum. Make sure you all take a visit. We were over there yesterday.

I'd like to thank Aaron Read and Greg Cotterill and the WEOS team for -folks for making this visit possible. Also, thank - there, go ahead. Thanks to our public radio station here, very happy. I also want to thank Linda Mikula and Blaine Friedlander at Cornell. David Page, David Kingly - Kingsley and Bill Esty(ph) at Bailey Hall. Thank you all for taking us in and giving us such great hospitality here at Bailey Hall. Great, great auditorium.

Surf over to our Web site at, where we're Podcasting and blogging. If you missed any of the show today, we'll be up there in a podcast. Also, SCIENCE FRIDAY's video Pick of the Week. Flora has that visit out there, if you want to go watch some tagging those birds. It's quite interesting. And also, we're twittering all week long if you want to get in on the tweeting and the twittering. We're happy for you to see that. Also, we have a whole catalog of videos up there besides the one we have this week.

Thank you for your hospitality here in Bailey Hall. Have a great weekend. We'll see you next week.

I'm Ira Flatow in Ithaca.

(Soundbite of applause)

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