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The Daily Vet by petMD

The Daily Vet is a blog featuring veterinarians from all walks of life. Every week they will tackle entertaining, interesting, and sometimes difficult topics in the world of animal medicine – all in the hopes that their unique insights and personal experiences will help you to understand your pets.

Size Doesn’t Matter

For many would-be veterinarians, excuses to not work on large animals tend to fall in the size category. I mean, after all, they are LARGE animals. If a Poodle steps on you, you don’t think twice. But if a Holstein steps on you? Something’s getting squished.

Likewise, if a kitten or a cockatiel poops on you, people think it’s cute. Pooped on by a Thoroughbred? Not so cute. Believe me.

For me, the size issue gets personal. Countless times, clients make the comment that goes something to the tune of, "Oh, you’re so small! How do you manage with all these big animals?" Or better yet, from some of the ol' farm hands who have been around the silo a few times: "How does a little girl like you work with these animals?"

First things first: I’m not small, or little, or tiny. Most anyone compared to a one thousand pound Angus bull is small, little, and even tiny. I prefer to think of myself as slightly vertically challenged … although 5 feet 4 inches is still considered normal, right? And secondly: "Little girl"? Who are you calling little girl?

Personal issues aside, there are two answers to this common size-disparity question. Firstly, have no fear, they do actually teach us how to handle large animals in vet school. Secondly, drugs. That’s right, good old-fashioned pharmaceutical intervention works wonders.

Before the real advent of our modern tranquilizers over the past twenty years, large animal medicine was a bit of a circus. Placing nasogastric tubes down completely conscious horses’ noses or suturing up an eyelid laceration would be virtually impossible, not to mention dangerous, for me to do without the proper sedative. However, a little xylaxine, detomidine, or acepromazine (all common equine tranquilizers) and voilà! Stand back, sir, I have veterinary medicine to do.

It’s also an awesomely convenient fact that the creation of better, safer, more effective sedatives and pain medications has evolved simultaneously with better, more effective diagnostic tools that require the animals to be very quiet and still in the presence of these big, expensive hospital tools.

The funniest and most counterintuitive thing about this size debate is that sometimes it’s the smallest of my large patients that cause me the most grief. For example, large draft horses like the Clydesdales (the ones everyone recognizes for pulling the Anheuser-Busch wagons) are known for their calm, docile natures. Ponies on the other hand? Mad, I tell you! To add fuel to the fire, the sweeter sounding the pony’s name is, the more crazy the animal is. Cases in point: Sugar, Sweetie and Twinkle are all Shetland ponies that have had very strong opinions regarding vaccines and other such veterinary nonsense.

I'll leave you with Large Animal Vet Med Axiom #1: A draft horse called Thunder is a guaranteed sweetheart. A Shetland pony named Candy, on the other hand? You’d better run in the other direction.

Dr. Anna O'Brien 

Image: Marcel Jancovic / via Shutterstock 

Comments  8

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  • Clydesdales
    03/02/2012 12:03pm

    You mentioned Clydesdales and it made me regret (again) that I lived in St. Louis for 17 years and never made it to Grant's Farm. Shame on me.

    Back on point, I confess that I've wondered how humans of any size manage to wrangle farm critters. Thank you for a glimpse into the tricks of trade of a large animal vet.

  • 03/04/2012 09:41pm

    Ah yes, Grant's Farm! I grew up in St. Louis and had the chance to visit with those lovely creatures, and also the ones at the Anheuser-Busch Brewery. Even being so large, that breed is so elegant and a joy to watch.

  • Small woman, large animal
    03/02/2012 02:43pm

    I had to laugh at the quote "How does a little girl like you work with these animals?" This attitude is why woman often work better with horses then men. No human is going to win a battle of muscle with a large animal. You have to use brains over brawn. Women are use to being physically weaker and find it easier to remember this.

  • 03/04/2012 09:43pm

    You are so right! Just as the saying "you will catch more flies with honey...", a little understanding and patience goes a long way!

  • Large vs small
    03/02/2012 07:34pm

    As an owner of 2 QHs and 2 standard (no options) donkeys, it is so true. I also have a Flat-Coated Retriever who is a love compared to my cats at times;0 Great article. Love the Clydes.

  • 03/04/2012 09:44pm

    :) Thanks!

  • An Aspiring Veterinarian
    03/02/2012 11:13pm

    As an aspiring veterinarian, I have also faced the concerns regarding size. Although I ride horses and think that they are beautiful, their size still gets to me... especially when I think about having to perform a procedure on one. When I first saw this blog post on Pet MD's facebook page, I thought it was meant for me. I am encouraged by your words and I think I may you may have just changed my mind! Size really does not matter! :)

  • 03/04/2012 09:46pm

    That is so awesome to hear! It is so easy to get discouraged and overwhelmed sometimes by the sheer size of these animals but you're already on the right track if you ride horses - you've got the understanding and appreciation of their body language and that is so important! So, keep up the great work! I'm rooting for you!

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