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Loving Our Pets in a Diverse World

Loving Our Pets in a Diverse World

My first dog, Ebony, died in our backyard, not because she wasn’t loved but because we didn’t know what we didn’t know. My mom and stepdad were hourly workers, so we decided to wait until the weekend to get her veterinary care. Unfortunately, we didn’t realize how sick she was.

However, that’s not where my story begins. I’m the oldest of five children. I never met my birth father. My only early interactions with a doctor of any kind were with my pediatrician. I recall telling him I wanted to be a doctor. “What kind of doctor do you want to be?” was his response. I had no idea there were different types of doctors.

Throughout school, I focused on the sciences because I was always a curious child. I gave no thought to veterinary medicine. Instead, I honed in on biochemistry and, while doing prostate cancer research, began working with animal models. I also found two unicorns: the lab animal medicine veterinarian was Black, and his wife was a Black general practice veterinarian. I remember talking about them with my husband, who said, “You realize you can be a veterinarian, right?” I hadn’t. I looked into what I needed to do to become a veterinarian, only to realize I was teaching many of the prerequisites. While completing my master’s, I took the remaining courses, applied to three veterinary programs and got into all of them.

Facing Harsh Realities

Moving from an ethnically diverse health sciences center to veterinary school was eye-opening. On the first day of orientation, I saw one Black man and one other Black woman in a class of over 120. The lack of diversity did not sway my focus, which was to become a veterinarian.

One day between classes, a concerned classmate asked what I would do when I encountered a dog that “didn’t like Black people.” I responded, “The same thing you would do with a dog that didn’t like white people.” I could tell by his gasp and response — “There are dogs like that?!” — that he didn’t think we were the same. He was genuinely concerned for me but couldn’t fathom that a patient wouldn’t be OK with his skin color. This is where I started to pay more attention.

In thinking about how to improve our representation in veterinary medicine, I say we must start early. While my path to veterinary medicine was nontraditional, I didn’t consider the career earlier because I was never exposed to veterinarians as a child.

Today, even being considered for a veterinary school interview means your family needs the means and connections to get you to shadow a veterinarian. With less than 2% of the veterinary population being Black, you can be sure that many BIPOC students aren’t aware of veterinarians who look like them.

That is one reason I wrote my children’s book, “What’s a Real Doctor?” Targeting 4- to 6-year-olds, it aims to plant the seed that a Black female with mixed-race children can be a doctor and that a veterinarian is a doctor. Showing brown veterinarians gets the attention of brown children. That’s how diversifying veterinary medicine starts. Simply raising awareness that veterinary medicine is a viable field opens the door to more opportunities.

The Future of Veterinary Medicine

Once you have a diverse veterinary team, you must diversify how you connect with pet owners. My dog died because my parents were wage workers who had to choose between a lesser paycheck or taking Ebony to the veterinarian and paying the bill. The traditional construct of in-person, hands-on interaction for every ailment prevents families like mine from asking questions and addressing basic care needs.

Enter telemedicine. Over the last few years, we’ve seen a dramatic rise in virtual care for humans, but the veterinarian space hasn’t fully caught up. When COVID hit, we saw a feverish attempt to accept virtual care in veterinary medicine. Sadly, I know of predatory telehealth platforms that sold software to my colleagues and provided no training or support. We moved backward instead of forward.

That, as a telehealth veterinarian today, I can’t give an NSAID to a pet I know is in pain without first laying hands on it is gut-wrenching. That I can’t protect a pet’s family by putting the animal on flea and tick prevention is ghastly. To say that having a pet is a privilege and that the human-animal bond lengthens the lives of animals and people means we think it’s a privilege to live longer. That’s unthinkable.

In the United States, an estimated 75 million pets go without veterinary care. These pets deserve care, and their owners deserve to form relationships with veterinary professionals.

Telehealth Is Inclusive

The future of veterinary medicine is a virtual veterinary clinic, one where the simple things are addressed without a pet owner having to go to a clinic. When a pet does go to a clinic, it’s with purpose, support and need. The virtual veterinary clinic experience is seamless for the pet owner, pet and care delivery team. This helps to address the lack of inclusive access and allows the hospital teams to have the right pets in front of them.

We’ve seen a drastic increase in pet ownership without the veterinary industry’s ability to scale accordingly. The key to this is tapping into a diverse candidate pool and modifying a care delivery system that has not had any real change for over 100 years. By modifying the care delivery system, we can care for pets remotely and make space for those truly needing an in-hospital visit.

Ebony’s death might have been unavoidable, but I’ll never know. I do know she was loved deeply by all five children in our house. Telehealth, teletriage and telemedicine allow pet owners to take the serious matter of their animals’ health into their hands, much like I can with my human children. Seventy-five million pets deserve better access to veterinary care.

Dr. Cherice Roth is a 2013 graduate of the Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and the chief veterinary medical officer at Fuzzy, a 24/7 digital veterinary company.