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Veterinarian, blogger and advocate, Dr. Tony Johnson

Interview with a veterinarian: Dr. Tony Johnson

A consummate educator, blogger and advocate, Dr. Tony Johnson turned a childhood dream of being a veterinarian into a 19-year career. He graduated from Washington State University in 1996 and in 2003, obtained board certification in the “shadowy art” of emergency medicine and critical care. A former clinical assistant professor at Purdue University School of Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Johnson is now the Minister of Happiness for the Veterinary Information Network (VIN). Recently, he took some time to share career reflections and thoughts regarding animal care with our readers.

Q: Dr. Tony, why did you choose veterinary medicine as a career?

A: Like most kids, I went through the usual phase of wanting to be a veterinarian when I was very young. And I was also violently allergic to cats and horses at the time, which could make for a pretty stunted veterinary career. Maybe I could just work on narwhals? Eventually, my immune system just rolled over and gave up and I was no longer allergic. I adopted my first cat in college and loved having pets. I took a job right after college living in and working in a veterinary hospital seeing emergency cases as a technician. I was totally immersed in it and really enjoyed it. I was lucky enough to get into vet school on the first try.

Q: Being a veterinarian must be both rewarding and heartbreaking. How would you describe what you do?

A: It's often both things at the same time. In the emergency room, we see everything from a mild case of the sniffles to life-threatening trauma, poisoning and even cancer. You have to be ready for anything at all times. With that said, we see a surprising amount of normal, routine stuff. One of the most heartbreaking things isn't the horrible trauma case—I can usually fix that. Rather, it's a dog who had early signs that we could have picked up on but now things have gotten so serious that it's very difficult to treat. The other thing that’s incredibly heartbreaking is when finances come between a pet and the family and getting the pet better. This is where pet insurance can literally be a lifesaver.

Q: What are some common misconceptions about veterinarians?

A: One of the big ones is that veterinarians are wealthy, similar to our MD counterparts. Most veterinarians come out of school with several hundred thousand dollars in debt and start out making about what a manager at a fast food restaurant would make. True, there are wealthy veterinarians, but these are often people who have been out for several decades and they own a practice. Veterinarians typically do it because they care about their patients, they love solving a medical mystery, and not for the money.

Q: Being an experienced veterinarian, I’m sure you’ve come across some very interesting cases. Do you have a ‘most interesting’ case?

A: It's hard when you see a lot of cases - some of the big ones fade into distant memory. I did have a dog a couple of weeks ago that was attacked by another dog who went right for his throat. I had to do a tracheostomy in the middle of the night, a procedure I haven't done in several years. Everything went very well with the dog healed up well and went home to happy owners.

I also remember a cat once that had a very esoteric and exotic blood disorder known as cold agglutinin disease. It required some specialized testing and a visit to an internal medicine specialist. Luckily, the owners were forward-thinking and had insurance. He was able to get the testing and treatment that it needed and the owners were very happy—and so was the cat!

Q: Between exams, tests, and procedures, the cost of a veterinary visit can quickly add up. We can’t imagine anything more heartbreaking than seeing someone unable to provide their pet with the care they need due to financial reasons. Is this something you experience in your practice? What options are available to pet parents in this position?

A: Yes, this is an unfortunate everyday occurrence, and I don't think it’s more common anywhere in all of veterinary medicine than in the ER. We try and match what we can do medically for the patient to what is reasonable within the pet owner’s finances, but sometimes that doesn't happen. Economic euthanasia is an unfortunate current reality of life. I've had to euthanize as many as nine patients in a 12-hour emergency shift, and a good portion of those were for economic reasons. If we can't find a good workaround, then sometimes we're left with nothing but to end an animal’s suffering. Everyone feels awful after that—me, the pet owners, the hospital staff. It’s totally demoralizing, but you can’t keep a hospital running by treating everyone for free, and there’s no government healthcare provision for animals. Pet insurance can help bridge that gap by softening the monetary blow of a potentially unexpected large medical bill as long as you have your pet covered before something happens.

Q: You have three children and quite a few animals in your home. How do you keep the peace between them all?

A: Luckily all the kids help out with the chores and all of the animals get along very well. We do have one dog, Dax, who occasionally likes to chase the chickens, but he knows when we raise our voices that it's time to stop. The kids all love help with the animal chores and keep the pets busy and occupied—which is a good way to get kids to sleep better at night and for dogs to develop fewer negative behaviors, which makes life easier.

Our daughter Gloria, probably because she’s the child of two veterinarians, clearly has the desire to become a veterinarian in the future. She's been helping us recently with bandage changes on our dog Rocco's leg (he had to have a small cyst removed), and when it comes to play time usually she's pretending to be a veterinarian, checking all of our dogs and cats and even chickens for lumps and bumps and pretending she's fixing their scrapes and cuts. It's really cute to watch.

Q: Your two cats—Cupid and Crispy—were animals in crisis. Cupid had been shot by an arrow and Crispy had been set on fire. With animal abuse being highlighted more in the news and on social media, do you believe legislation and consequences for committing such acts are heading in the right direction? Do you think there’s more we can be doing as a society to prevent animal abuse?

A: It's been said that you can judge a society by how well it treats its animals and its weakest members, which are often one and the same. Animal abuse is horrifying, and the laws are all over the map in the US and elsewhere. Certain places take it very seriously and certain places don't. 

In my experience, however, animal neglect is far more common than animal abuse, and more insidious. I have had to call animal control several times in my career, and in most cases it was when someone didn’t get necessary medical attention for their pet (which is neglect), and rarely for an abuse case. It’s simply not right to fail to get medical attention for a pet who is your responsibility. 

In terms of what we can do as a society to prevent animal abuse and neglect, I think it's a question of being aware, knowing who to report it to, and having the guts as a society to enforce laws about infractions and have proper sentencing for those who do it. I never completely got the whole story, but for both Cupid and Crispy my understanding is that the people who hurt them were brought to justice.

Q: Tony, thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me. Is there anything else you’d like to say?

A: Anything that I can do to help raise awareness about the benefits of pet insurance is worthwhile. Really, with so many options for pet insurance and so many companies offering it as a benefit of employment, there should be no need for anyone to have to make money come between them and getting their pet better.


Dr. Tony Johnson is a veterinary emergency medicine specialist who has been in practice for 19 years. He lives in Indiana with his wife, also a veterinarian, their three children, and their pets: four chickens, fish, two cats, and his “tripawd” dog, Rocco.

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