Interview with a Local Veterinarian

From a young age, Dr. Jen Hiebner has been an animal lover. Her first pets were hamsters, gerbils, parakeets, and a rabbit. She has also long loved science, which explained the workings of the world around her. Naturally, these two loves led to her decision to become a veterinarian

In 2000, the World Veterinary Association initiated the annual World Veterinary Day on the last Saturday of April to bring attention to the ways our animal doctors help make the world a better place. We all know that vets care for pets, and some also see livestock, but vets also serve their communities in the areas of education and public health. I recently interviewed Dr. Hiebner from Pitts Veterinarian Hospital about her life as a veterinarian. If you’ve never thanked your vet, consider doing so on World Veterinary Day.

ALLISON: Why did you become a vet?  What kind of training did it involve?

DR. HIEBNER: To be accepted to a veterinary school, you have to complete the prerequisite classes.  An actual degree is not necessarily required.  These are mostly science, such as biochemistry and biology, but also include physics, communications and English.  I completed a Bachelor of Science degree in Veterinary medicine at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

I attended veterinary school at Kansas State University in Manhattan, KS.  The first three years are lectures and labs about everything medical such as anatomy, physiology, parasitology, pharmacology, contagious diseases and nutrition.  The last year is a full year of clinical rotations through large and small animal general medicine, critical care, anesthesia, surgery, dentistry: everything you need to know to practice.  To practice, you must graduate from a veterinary school and pass state and national board exams.  To keep practicing, you have to complete 32 hours of continuing education every 2 years.  Some veterinarians go on to an extra four years to become board certified in specialized fields.

ALLISON: What does a typical day at your job look like?

DR. HIEBNER: I work at least 40 hours a week, usually more.  I spend four days seeing appointments and one doing surgery.  Appointments are usually vaccines or rechecks on animals with medical conditions but also include injured or sick animals.  I spend a lot of time doing phone calls and paperwork as well.  On surgery days I do mostly spays, neuters, dental cleanings and mass removals.  I also perform more complicated surgeries as needed.  I rotate with my co-workers clinic duty on the weekends.  We check on hospitalized animals and make sure things are going smoothly.

ALLISON: What is the riskiest part of your job?

DR. HIEBNER: I deal with a lot of animals that don’t like me.  I get it – I am a funny smelling stranger that does things in their personal space.  We try not to but being bitten is part of the job.  Our technicians are great at gentle restraint and handling difficult patients.  I also deal with a lot of diseases that are contagious to people, including ones that are potentially deadly.  Protecting ourselves as well as clients that have been exposed is part of our job.

ALLISON: What is the saddest part of your job?

DR. HIEBNER: I would say the saddest part is when there is nothing you can do to help an animal and their owners.  Medicine has its limits.  Sometimes there are things you cannot fix even if you want to.

ALLISON: What keeps you going in the tough times?

DR. HIEBNER: First puppy and kitten exams.  We all congregate when a new puppy or kitten comes in.  Puppy kisses and kittens climbing around the room – they are like little rays of sunshine.  Honestly, we also love it when clients bring us food or send cards of appreciation.  Cards go on the wall for all to see.  I often eat my lunch in little bits between appointments or not at all.  A plate of cookies in the back is pure joy.

ALLISON: Describe a happy moment in your job:

DR. HIEBNER: I recently got certified in animal acupuncture.  I studied with the Chi Institute in Florida.  I took the beginning courses which was about 6 months of online and on site lectures and labs.  I then took the advanced course and completed a case study to get certified.  I really enjoyed learning about acupuncture and was very excited to be able to offer this as a supplement to western medicine.  I have studied a little about food therapy and am currently studying to be certified in herbal therapy as well.

ALLISON: Do you have your own pets?  Tell me about them.

DR. HIEBNER: I currently have three dogs, four cats and a fish.  Three of my cats (Sam, Tessa and Isabella) are senior cats that I acquired through rescue in vet school.  They mostly just lay around and do cat things.  I have a fourth much younger cat (B.B.) that was brought in to our clinic as a stray.  She likes to play, randomly run around the house and be carried around by my daughter.  The dogs include a Schnoodle (Sugar) that we got from the humane society and a Chihuahua (Napoleon) that was surrendered to our clinic.  The third is a Great Pyrenees puppy (Comet) that only likes to play at 5 am.  The beta fish (Ruby) lives in my daughter’s room.

ALLISON: What is something that the public doesn’t know about vets but should?

DR. HIEBNER: I would say one thing to consider is that it is very hard for vets to not take their jobs home with them. We all have days of some joys and successes but also disappointments, euthanasia, and angry clients and pets.  Despite a bad day, we still try to put on a happy face when we see the next client.  When we leave the office, the hard parts tag along and we stress about them. Stress from work, high educational debt and just life in general is high in our lives.  As a result, veterinarians do have a high risk of substance abuse, divorce, and suicide.

ALLISON: What basic pet care do you see most neglected?

DR. HIEBNER: Dental care.  I see a lot of pets that come in with tartar, gingivitis and even rotten teeth.  Bad teeth can cause pain and lead to infections in the heart, liver and kidneys.  If you can’t brush your pet’s teeth (honestly, I don’t either), supply them with chews to help clean their teeth or have a dental cleaning done under anesthesia to prevent severe dental disease.  People are very worried about anesthesia and dentals.  I prefer to do dentals with proper blood work, IV placement and technician monitoring.  This allows the dental to be performed safely and also allows x-rays and a better look at the inside and back of the mouth.

ALLISON: What is one easy way pet owners can enrich the lives of their pets?

DR. HIEBNER: Find out what they like.  Do they like toys?  Chewy treats?  Walks?  Visiting other animals?  Stimulating their imagination helps too.  Puzzle balls with treats are great.  Cat trees to climb.  Windows to look out.  Visits to the park or walks around the block to stimulate their brains with sights and sounds.

ALLISON: What one medical or technical advancement in the future do you most want?

DR. HIEBNER: I’d love to have a MRI in my pocket.  I do a lot of ultrasounds and x-rays but to really look in a brain or spinal cord, you need an MRI.  This would be incredibly helpful for diagnosing strokes, cancers, epilepsy and other neurological issues. Unfortunately at this point they are too big and expensive to be practical in a clinic.

ALLISON: What ways can a person help homeless animals?

DR. HIEBNER: Volunteer or donate to your local animal shelters or rescue groups.  I especially like local groups because you can see personally what they do.  There are so many good groups that do fundraising, events, fostering, adoptions or will take donations of necessary items like collars, leashes, cat litter and food.

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