A month or so ago I offered up a post on the wide variety of veterinarians newly building their second homes on the Internet. In that post I sought to build up the veterinary blogosphere, but I should have been more inclusive. Veterinarians like Dr. Phil Zeltzman are maintaining sophisticated sites that responsibly and clearly address major issues…but they’re not exactly “blogs.”

Dr. Zeltzman does have a pseudo-blog thing going, though. He writes a weekly newsletter you can sign up for (which I heartily recommend to all Dolittler fans). Apart from the labor of love that is his website and his newsletter he practices as a full-time veterinary surgeon and writes a very helpful surgical column (geared to veterinarians) in the same publication in which my monthly rant of a column appears: Veterinary Practice News.

Because I LOVE Dr. Zeltzman’s column and strongly believe veterinarian-authored sites like his deserve more play than they get, today’s post is all about my personal favorite Dr. Phil. To that end, I interviewed him. Enjoy!

Dr. K: Let’s start with why you became a veterinarian. Forgive me for asking the obvious but always seems like a different answer for every one of us so I’m curious…

Dr. Z: Well, according to my parents, the idea stuck in my head when I was 5. I loved watching Flipper, Daktari and Lassie on TV. I loved animals. So it all made sense in my mind. Of course I had no idea how difficult it would be. And I had no clue that I’d be studying for the rest of eternity…

Dr. K: Why’d you choose a specialty like surgery?

Dr. Z: I’m not really sure… I like the concept of fixing things. I love the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives. I cherish the idea of saving lives.

A dog comes in bleeding internally from the spleen, we take it out. A cat comes in with a shattered bone, we fix it. A dog is attached to a tumor the size of a pumpkin, we remove it. Nothing is more gratifying than removing a slipped disc that is putting pressure on the spinal cord of a paralyzed dog. Granted, it may take weeks to months to heal, but for the most part, if patient and owner cooperate, we should be done from a surgery standpoint.

The other thing I love about surgery is that it is incredibly varied.  It requires some knowledge in multiple disciplines besides surgery. Obviously, we need to know about anesthesia and pain management, but also about anatomy, endocrinology (hormones), nutrition, internal medicine, neurology, radiology, cancer, physical therapy, emergency medicine, critical care etc.

And one more thing I am very fortunate about is that a vet surgeon is not restricted to one organ or one body part, as opposed to a human surgeon. So in one (busy) day, I could be fixing a broken bone, removing a foreign body in a Lab puppy’s intestine, removing a tumor from a cat’s chest, removing a slipped disc from a paralyzed dog, and doing a skin graft.

And yesterday, I fixed a fracture on a macaw from the local zoo! It doesn’t get any better than that!

Dr. K: Do you teach or are you exclusively working in private practice?  Which do you prefer and why?

Dr. Z: Most of my time is spent in private practice, at Valley Central Veterinary Referral Center, a specialty group in Whitehall, PA, in the far suburbs of Philadelphia. I “teach” when we have vet students or visiting vets coming to the clinic. And I guess I teach through writing…whether in my weekly e-mail-based newsletter, my monthly surgery column in Veterinary Practice News or various conferences, I love to share what I have learned over the years. My mentors shared with me what they have learned, so it’s only fair that I “pay forward.”

Dr. K: I’m always interested in veterinarians who make the leap from working or being educated overseas (Belgium in your case). Nick Trout and a few other surgeons I’ve met come to mind. Your perspective on animal health is always a bit more welfare centric, big-picture oriented and lateral in thinking. Do you think that’s true? If so, how do you think it happens? Is it nature or nurture? Or is it just that it takes more interesting individuals to endure the US immigrant experience?

Dr. Z: I’m not sure I can answer these questions…I think it depends on each individual. As far as who’s more interesting, I’ll leave it up to you! Some vets are more welfare-centric than others, both in Europe and in the U.S. I came to the U.S. to become a surgeon. It was supposed to be for four years. It’s been 13…

It’s been an amazing experience. By the way, I studied in Belgium, but I’m French. Initially there was a tiny cultural shock, as I moved from downtown Paris to downtown Athens, Georgia. Since then, I’ve worked in California, Illinois, Ohio, and now Pennsylvania.

Dr. K: Why’d you start writing?

Dr. Z: One reason is simply that it enables me to share information. In my newsletter, I try to explain how to avoid getting in trouble. My idea is, if one client didn’t know that you can kill a dog by giving aspirin along with an anti-inflammatory drug, then hundreds of readers don’t know either. Thanks to the magic of the Internet, I can share this information with people who read my newsletter all over the country, and even abroad. So statistically, one dog out there might benefit from this tiny piece of information.

My favorite story is from a lady in Ohio who spontaneously wrote to me after reading my newsletter about the benefits of spaying and how it can prevent breast cancer in pets. She was concerned that her co-worker’s Rottweiler wasn’t spayed and she told her about what she had read. That evening, the colleague checked her dog out and found a lump around one of the nipples. The next day, the dog was scheduled for surgery with her local vet.

That’s the power of the Internet. Very indirectly and very modestly, I helped a dog I have never met, and made a difference in a family I don’t know. That’s why I write.

Dr. K: I love your newsletter and your columns in Veterinary Practice News because I think you have a unique voice in veterinary medicine—partly because unlike me, you never offend. So diplomatic and yet so outspoken. How do you manage it?

Dr. Z: Are you really going to publish that? You are way too kind, thanks!  I love you column and your blog, too!

I guess I spend an unreasonable amount of time proof reading and correcting and changing until I am somewhat convinced that nobody will read my column and feel bad about something they did or didn’t do. I write to inform, not to blame anyone. Oh yeah, and I also try not to use expressions like WTF :- )

Dr. K: WTF! OK, so what subjects do you most like to write about and why?

Dr. Z: The beauty of surgery is that topics are endless.  Every organ can be involved.  And pets constantly find new ways to get in trouble, so I like to inform other pet owners that they should be aware of such and such “new” danger. So over a year, I could write about 52 different topics and never repeat myself. Like you, I also interview other vets and professionals to share different perspectives. For example, in early 2009 I will publish an interview of the world guru of an emerging and devastating disease in Labradors.

And in my free time, I am working on several book projects.

Dr. K: Are you a big reader? What writers do you admire and why?

Dr. Z: I love reading, and unfortunately don’t have enough time to read books except on vacation. I read a lot of medical and surgical stuff. Daily.

Although I initially thought it was sacrilege, I now listen to audio-books in the car.  This enables me to brush up on other topics.  For example, I recently listened to the excellent Freakonomics.  I also listened to Blink, which unexpectedly led to a surgery column in Vet Practice News! These days, I am listening to a book on the history of the U.S.

Dr. K: What's your favorite animal and why?

Dr. Z: Possibly one of my cats.  They sleep a lot, they eat well (just enough to be thin of course), they play like maniacs, and they have zero worries.  Actually, they have one worry: “When is my next meal?” Then again, they don’t do a whole lot for the benefit of mankind or world peace…

Dr. K: If you could pick another career, which one would it be and why?

Dr. Z: I often wonder myself. Is being retired and sipping a drink on the beach in the Bahamas a career?  I don’t know…journalist, maybe?

Dr. K: Do you have any advice for anyone who would date a veterinary surgeon? I need some.

Dr. Z: Who wouldn’t want to? I mean, [date] a surgeon. Surgeons are patient, open-minded, creative, mature, profound, and above all, unusually modest. What’s not to love?

Anyone else have questions for Dr. Zeltzman? I’m sure he’d be wiling to entertain them here. In lieu of that, you can support another worthy veterinary Internet project by signing up for his newsletter here. Keep it coming, Dr. Z!