The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Vets

Anna O'Brien, DVM
By Anna O'Brien, DVM on Mar. 11, 2014

I’ve noticed the self-help area of the bookstore doesn’t seem to have any guides for vets. Not that I really think the veterinary community is in dire need for such books; we tend to be a pretty independent lot with a go-get’em attitude.

Still, on days when things aren’t going so well (toes crushed by a clumsy Clydesdale, lunch stolen by a crafty goat, head-butted by a rambunctious ram), I try to remind myself that other vets go through the same things and come out on the other side smiling because they were able to take some aspirin for those toes, buy a better lunch, and castrate that ram.

To keep on the up-and-up and make up for the lack of vet-specific psychology books, I am left with no choice but to take what’s out there and mold it to my specifications. This is how my “7 Habits of Highly Successful Vets” was formed, loosely based on a similar book by author Stephen Covey:

Habit 1: Be Proactive

In a veterinary practice, sometimes things aren’t comfortable in dark, cold barns, or with animals that are less than cooperative. This is where the ability to be proactive comes in handy. You are solely responsible for how comfortable you are, so make the most of things. If the farm dog keeps biting you, bite him back. If a child is annoying you, tell him to hold the IV bottle for you — and be sure to hold it high. With one arm. And don’t move.

Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind

For a large animal vet, this has never been truer. So many exams on cows and horses begin at the behind, this should really be a mantra. 

Habit 3: Put First Things First

If the sheep is bleeding, stop the bleeding. If the sheep is loose and bleeding, first catch the sheep and then stop the bleeding. If the dog is chasing the loose sheep that is bleeding, first catch the dog, then the sheep, then stop the bleeding, and finally, yell at the dog.


Habit 4: Think Win-Win

There’s no point in fighting a one thousand pound steer. If he doesn’t want to go in the chute, he will not go. Therefore, think of ways in which both of you, the vet and the steer, will profit from the situation. Coaxing with feed sometimes works and saves your back from pulling and shoving. Being sneaky sometimes works too, and everyone knows it’s just plain fun to be sneaky. See? Win-win.


Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood

It is very clear to clients when I don’t understand what’s going on. I’m a terrible faker. For this reason, a slight covert detour to my truck where the reference textbooks lie in the back, or the trusty cell phone with my boss on the other line is worth the crow I eat when I’m stumped. An appendix to Habit 5 is this: There is no shame in asking for help.  

Habit 6: Synergize

Covey means this as in combining the strengths of other people through teamwork. The same applies to the farm. No man is an island when you’re delivering lambs via C-section on top of a hay bale — this is a team effort. There’s me, the surgeon; the farmer as Nurse 1 helping hold the sheep still; the farmer’s wife as Nurse 2 taking care of each lamb I deliver; farmer’s daughter as Nurse 3 to hand me various surgical items; and farmer’s son as Nurse 4 to shine the flashlight where I need it.  


Habit 7: Sharpen the Saw

I have no idea what this means when applied to real life, unless you’re a serial killer. Maybe there’s some deep metaphorical meaning here, but it’s lost on me. For the veterinary surgeon, however, this is a brilliantly simple habit. Always use sharp scalpels, sharp needles, and sharp scissors. And watch your fingers (which could also be classified as an extra bonus habit).

Dr. Anna O'Brien

Image: Goodluz / Shutterstock

Anna O'Brien, DVM


Anna O'Brien, DVM


Anna O’Brien, DVM is a large animal veterinarian. A 2008 graduate of Purdue University, she currently works in Maryland, just outside of...

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