Meg Connelly is a medical jack-of-all-trades. Her days are spent doing everything from geriatric care to surgical services, with a little dermatology, weight management, dental work, radiology, and vaccinations mixed in. The way she talks, you’d think she was a physician: “I like being a general practitioner, working with patients on total wellness and also dealing with all kinds of illness.” But Connelly, veterinarian and owner of Willard Veterinary Clinic in Quincy, sees mostly small four-legged patients: dogs and cats, with an occasional rabbit, bird, gerbil, or snake at the door.
The James Herriot country-style vet who treats all creatures great and small is increasingly uncommon today. Fewer people own livestock, and most vets, like Connelly, focus on household pets, although there are marine, wildlife, equine vets, as well as those who specialize in cardiology, ophthalmology, and chemotherapy. There are even holistic vets who use acupuncture, herbal remedies, and massage therapy as alternative to conventional treatments. A nationwide shortage of livestock vets in particular is causing difficulties for farmers and has the makings of a crisis, threatening the wellbeing of cows and poultry and other agricultural animals.
Employment of vets is expected to increase 35 percent through 2016, with excellent job opportunities, since there are only 28 accredited schools of veterinary medicine in the U.S., resulting in a limited pool of graduates; in New England, Tufts Cummings School is the region’s only veterinary school. “Admission to vet school is highly competitive,” says Connelly, who graduated from Tufts in 1985. “It helps to be strong in math and science, have related work experience, and keep applying, even if you don’t get in the first time.”
Q: Are you like most vets in that you always wanted to be a vet?
A: Like so many little girls, I dreamed of owning a horse, but there were nine kids in our family and we couldn’t afford it. I used to clean stalls so I could get free riding lessons, and I held the horses while they were being vaccinated. I wasn’t scared or grossed out by the shots, but intrigued about medicine. This was during the days when there was lots of farmland in Milton and Randolph, where I grew up.
Q: How do you “talk” to the animals to find out what’s wrong with them?
A: The owner is our eyes and ears and I get 70 percent of the diagnosis by teasing information out of them. A physical exam helps us zero in on the problem. A vet will go from head to toe, looking in ears, eyes, and mouth; moving joints, listening to the hearts and lungs, and feeling the bladder. If I get interrupted in the middle of an exam, I have to start all over again!
Q: What are some of your more unusual cases?
A: There is nothing on the planet that dogs won’t swallow – glass, razor blades, panty hose, corn on the cob. Cats are a little picker, but bad about swallowing needles and thread. Then there was the Canadian goose that my sister found collapsed on her lawn on Christmas Day. We nursed it back to life. Nothing surprises me anymore.
Q: Has the recession affected your business at all?
A: I’m seeing more people are waiting longer before they bring their pets in. Owners are waiting a little longer to address an illness, like a bad ear infection, so animals are in a worse place when I see them. And, more animals are being put to sleep, because the owners can’t afford to go further and do needed interventions. It’s sad but part of the job.
Q: And how many pets do you have?
A: It’s unusual for me, but right now I only have one, a standard poodle that I’ve had for 13 years.