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Dr. Michelle West with two of the Shoreline Vet Academy’s patients, who will stand in for real pets at the Shoreline Animal Hospital’s vet academy. (Photo by Margaret McNellis/Harbor News | Buy This Photo)
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Dr. Michelle West, DVM of Shoreline Animal Hospital in Clinton is encouraging future veterinarians and veterinary technicians with the hospital’s upcoming Shoreline Vet Academy for children.
“I’ve wanted to do this for years,” Michelle says.
She was inspired by some of her veterinary classmates who now practice in Maryland.
“Theirs started small,” she says, “and it’s grown into this big thing in the community.”
Increased community involvement is one of the Shoreline Animal Hospital’s goals, but more than that, Michelle wanted to provide a hands-on opportunity for kids who might become future veterinarians or veterinary technicians.
“There is a shortage of vets and vet technicians,” Michelle says.
That shortage exists not only in Connecticut, but nation-wide, she says.
She wanted to not only find a way to get young people interested, but also to provide a way for children to find out what it might be like to work in a veterinary practice.
“A lot of kids may not even know about these careers,” Michelle says.
Although there are multiple careers in the veterinary field, and a range of career paths for those who hold a veterinary degree—everything from medicine to pharmaceuticals to insurance—the Shoreline Vet Academy will focus on what it’s like to work in the field of medicine.
The one-day academy will begin with a talk from the Valley Shore Animal Welfare League, the animal hospital’s partner for the program. They’ll talk for 10 to 15 minutes about shelter medicine.
“The shelters always need help,” Michelle says. “This partnership is a win-win. We’re trying to help them streamline medical care for pets at the shelter.”
The Shoreline Vet Academy marks the first of what Michelle hopes will be multiple programs co-sponsored by the hospital and shelter.
“We’re excited about this event and partnering with them,” she says. “It’s a great way to help the animals.”
After the shelter’s introduction, the children attending the Shoreline Vet Academy will move through four stations: exam, lab, radiology, and surgery. They’ll discuss real cases (using stuffed-animal patients).
Hands-on experiences will include learning how to examine a dog, viewing samples under a microscope, completing a mock x-ray (no radiation included), and use of monitoring equipment like a pulse oximeter, which animals usually wear on their tongues during surgery.
“The goal is to get kids excited about science,” Michelle says, “while teaching them basic pet [and] shelter care.”
An Early Start
Michelle knew she wanted to be a veterinarian since the age of five or six. She moved to Madison with her family when she was in the 4th grade, and started riding horses.
“I was an equine vet for three years,” she says.
The lifestyle was hard—Michelle had to drive all over the state, from farm to farm. When she wanted to raise a family, she decided to make the switch to treating small animals.
“I sometimes miss being on the farms,” Michelle says, “especially during foaling season.”
Before she became a vet, Michelle worked as a kennel assistant as a teen at Central Hospital, which was in New Haven at the time. Her job consisted mostly of cleaning up after the animals, but after a while, she could interact directly with the animals more and more.
“I just worked my way up and it was great,” she said. “I loved it.”
From kennel assistant, to sharing ownership in her own practice, Michelle says for her, pet care is as much about connecting with the pets’ humans.
“I like talking with people about their pets and helping to build that bond between them…helping [people] figure out how to make the pet a part of their family,” she says.
Because Michelle has practiced at the Shoreline Animal Hospital for 12 years, she’s “seen people from start to end,” she says. “To be able to go through that cycle of life and help them go through the hardest part—pet loss—is an honor.”
It’s no mean feat to arrive in a place where one can feel honored to participate in an animal’s whole life, and it’s something Michelle recommends future vets think about.
“Being a vet involves euthanasia,” she says. “Some people love animals, but they can’t do that. You also see neglected and mistreated animals.
“There’s a lot of heartache, but also a lot of joy,” she adds. “You have to be able to see the joy without letting the heartache drain you.”
Along with the emotional element, Michelle offers sage advice for future veterinarians: It’s a significant financial—and time—commitment. A veterinary medicine degree is an eight-year pursuit.
“That’s a tremendous amount of debt,” Michelle says.
She advises picking a school that’s affordable for an undergraduate degree—all the better, she says, if students can earn their bachelor’s degree without incurring debt.
There are even some programs that combine both undergraduate and graduate coursework, allowing the student to finish in seven years instead of eight.
To get into a veterinary program, animal experience is key, she says.
“If you don’t have it,” Michelle says, “go to a school where you can major in animal science or volunteer with a large animal vet.”
Veterinary schools look for this experience, and Michelle would know. She’s currently helping her alma mater, Ohio State, review for veterinary school applicants.
“Get experience with as many different kinds of animals as possible,” she advises.
Michelle also hopes future vets will share her love for interacting with people.
“Veterinary medicine is a people job,” she says. “You must love people.”
Future vets will need to be able to both educate their human clients and handle the wide range of human emotions that come with pet ownership and treatment.
“It’s a very hard job,” Michelle says. “It’s a dirty job. It’s a very physical job. It’s not glamorous.”
Despite the challenges of her field, as well as the learning curve of managing a business—which Michelle says “they don’t teach you…in vet school”—she’s eager to educate and inspire future vets and vet techs.
“We’re all about education,” she says, noting that whether it’s in the form of educating pet owners or encouraging staff, it’s an integral part of the practice.
Shoreline Animal Hospital also participates in a job shadowing program through The Morgan School. Each year, two to four students shadow for a few hours at the hospital.
They observe exams and surgery to get an idea of what a day-in-the-life of a veterinarian or vet technician is like.
One of the hardest things stems from the fact that animals can’t talk to their vet.
“We have to rely on more diagnostics,” Michelle says. “Convincing the owner that expensive tests are necessary can be a challenge.”
This can be especially difficult because pets will often live with underlying pain without complaint, such as with dental disease. For a lot of owners, it’s hard—or impossible—to know their pet suffers from dental issues.
“We try to listen to what people need with their pet,” Michelle says. “We try to personalize [care], and we try to keep the stress level down…we go through a lot of treats.”
The first session of the Shoreline Vet Academy, which starts on Saturday, March 23, was fully booked at press time. A second session will run Saturday, June 1 from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. at the Shoreline Animal Hospital, 18 West Main Street, Clinton. Children ages 11 through 13 are welcome. The cost is $20 per child; proceeds benefit the Valley Shore Animal Welfare League. The registration deadline is Wednesday, May 1 For more information, visit www.shorelineanimalhospital.com.
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