Last week’s Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA) carried a letter to the editor bemoaning the state of affairs in veterinary medicine.

No—it’s not the often-unprofessional, inter-vet competition or lack of collegiality. It’s not the skyrocketing cost of doing business or even the decreasing profit margins in our industry. Nope. It’s none of those worthier subjects at all. This vet was concerned about the emerging lack of decorum in the profession (a complaint I've heard escape the lips of others—yes, typically older vets).

Let me first explain. Vets are very protective about how the public views our profession. Sometimes it seems almost as if we share a collective inferiority complex about our choice of livelihoods.

Considering how highly regarded we vets seem to be (at least in national surveys on respectability of professions), it strikes me as odd that we still care so much about what outsiders think of us.

Let’s face it. We will never sink so low as the legal profession (at least not in national polls) and perhaps we’ll always fall short when compared to human physicians (at least while income and respectability remain somewhat equated in our culture). But we get plenty of respect (IMHO).

This older vet specifically mentioned the younger set. What with our long hair (presumably a male vet’s claim to slovenliness) and unshaven appearance (I assume he refers also to males, though I confess to skipping a few days on my legs from time to time), we apparently present an appalling spectacle to the delicate sense of aesthetics of an unsuspecting public.

The complainant also goes on to berate us younger types for our unprofessional dress code because, he argues, we tend to eschew professional niceties like neckties and dress pants, jewelry and skirts. These transgressions cannot be abided, posits this advocate of traditional dress—never mind the multiple piercings and tattoos. Given our wayward looks, his editorial implies that we’re better suited to a career at the local Starbucks than in a professional setting.

Coffeehouse dress and sloppy grooming aside, we’re also crude and careless in our speech. Our terminology is that of the slacker generation, lacking precision and…well…decorum.

We “slackers” give vet medicine a bad name. We demean the status of the profession. We deserve less than our due if we continue down this path of untoward appearance. And when you look like this, can a cascade in the quality of the profession’s moral fiber be far behind? Can the expertise and skills we’ve worked so hard to hone slip and slide in the wake of our slipshod façade?

Given that many vets over fifty had merely to demonstrate their dexterity in dismantling a milking machine to gain entrance to vet school, I take exception to the attitude that the younger generation’s overall quality prove suspect to the older for our negligence in dress or inattention to grooming. Our presentation should not rule our personal sense of respectability—nor reflect the quality of our profession as a whole.

However, I will agree that client perception is often critical to securing trust. And that trust is imperative to garnering the compliance we seek in dealing with clients. Without these, our ability to help our patients is surely diminished. But is it imperative that we wholly subjugate our individual appearance to the code of decorum set by earlier generations?

I propose that it is not. Whether we practice our profession in slacks or jeans, with bowties or butterfly tattoos, we should not expect our entire profession to suffer the slings and arrows of past generations’ social mores or, more to this editorialist’s point, that of the pet-owning public at large.

As long as we practice intelligently and skillfully, with professionalism in our ethics and our methods, I believe we need not be overly concerned with how past generations of vets or the pet-owning public regards our appearance.

Personally speaking, I have the good fortune of practicing in a situation where I have worked hard to secure my client’s trust through years of good practice. If I now choose to reveal that my tastes run to platform heels and blue toenails (well-pedicured though they may be), this, in and of itself, should not be cause for alarm among my devoted clientele. Should the unthinkable occur and my standing slip in their eyes…well…they have the option to choose another vet. And I don’t see how that hurts my profession one bit.