Veterinary medicine is truly a colorful world. They cater to cats and dogs every day, even the occasional snakes and reptiles. But beyond the cuteness is the challenging daily grind of every veterinarian. Joining Richard Marn, MD is award-winning veterinarian Dr. Ernie Ward to share a glimpse of his life treating all kinds of animals on a daily basis. He explains how his farming background and a horrifying childhood memory with his dogs pushed him to pursue his current profession. Dr. Ernie explains how this jolly and hopeful environment can sometimes become emotionally taxing at times, especially when dealing with terminally ill pets and administering euthanasia.
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The Unseen World Of Veterinary Medicine With Dr. Ernie Ward
In our episode, we’re going to talk with a guest who is an internationally recognized award-winning veterinarian. He is gifted in so many ways. Not only has he become a stellar veterinarian and serviced thousands of patients and pets, but he’s also helped the families of those pets as well. We’re going to see how impactful he has been. Not only that, he is also written several books. He’s gone and lectured at most veterinary schools. He’s also founded several companies. All are catering and focused on trying to help animals. You can tell he has a wealth of experience and perspective that can help you, as a student, if you’re thinking about being a veterinarian.If you don’t develop habits to fortify your soul, you will become a hollowed-out version of yourself. Click To Tweet
We’re going to talk with Dr. Ernie Ward, a veterinarian based out of North Carolina. I had been very fortunate to have him on this episode and I’m so glad that he was able to share the wealth of his experiences and perspective that you’re going to gain from, not only how to get into veterinary school, what to think about how to take up the advantage of opportunities as they arise, but also understand what some of the drawbacks of being a veterinarian and take that to heart. His stories and perspective that you’re going to know in this episode is going to help guide that decision making in your own life. If you enjoy this episode and if you like what you’re reading, leave a nice comment. Without further ado, let’s jump into this.
I am blessed to have a wonderful guest here, Dr. Ernie Ward, in North Carolina. Welcome, Ernie. Thanks for coming in and joining me.
About as far away from Honolulu as you can imagine. We will share the love of the water.
That’s something that I think we connected on when we first talked. We just enjoyed being in the water. I enjoy sailing now and stand–up surfing, stand–up paddleboards, sup surfing, of course, you’re doing it very actively. You’re near the beach.
I’m fortunate. I live on a barrier island off the coast of North Carolina. It’s great about 99.9% of the time and then when hurricanes roll up, it gets quite frightening.
Ernie, let’s jump into this. Please provide a quick bio of yourself so people understand a little bit about who you are.
I’m Dr. Ernie Ward. I am a veterinarian and I went to the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine. I graduated way back in 1992. I quickly went into private practice and over the years, I built up several practices. Eventually leading to lots of television and books and things like that. I was the resident house vet, as we used to refer to myself on the Rachael Ray Show from 2007 to 2014 or something. I got to play in that world for a while and write books.
I focus primarily clinically now on pet obesity and weight–related disorders. I do a lot with pets that have chronic conditions. I also have started many companies, wide–ranging from plant-based pet food companies to advanced diagnostic laboratories. Somebody referred to me as an impact entrepreneur and I liked that, so I try to find areas that I can make an impact that benefits the world. My world happens to be around pets and pet parents.
As a veterinarian, let’s do some quick–hit questions about you as a veterinarian actively. What does a veteran actually do, especially for yourself? What do you focus on as a veterinarian clinically?
We focus on every species that you don’t focus on. The only species that veterinarians don’t treat, diagnose, or make recommendations on are humans. It gets interesting. My typical day revolves around dogs and cats, but also small mammals whether it’s ferrets, hamsters, rabbits, the occasional bird, reptiles, and snakes. It’s a fascinating profession based on the diversity of cases that you can see. Obviously, I tend to focus on dogs and cats. That’s where my love and domain expertise lies but you can do anything you want. Interestingly, I grew up in rural farmland. All of my family still continues to farm to this day. Even working with food production animals is an aspect that veterinarians may do. I’m a vegan. I don’t typically go to that area, but that is a much–needed profession.
Ernie, how does someone become a veterinarian? What are the usual steps education–wise?
Education for veterinarians is very similar to human doctors. We typically have four years of undergraduate degree, primarily in STEM science. Biology and Chemistry tend to be the favor. There are pre–vet, pre-med, pre–dental types of tracks. For me, I was in microbiology, to be specific, and then you go four years of veterinary school, at which time when you graduate, you can go straight into clinical practice as a general practitioner or you can take residencies, internships, become a specialist, and so forth. Most specialties in veterinary medicine require an additional four years for a total of 12 years, similar to many of the human disciplines. The vast majority of veterinarians like me go four years and we become a general practitioner.
It is 4 years of college, 4 years of graduate school, 4 years of this residency, and then you said there are additional years after that if you want to specialize? You don’t have to?
No. Different than your specialty, we only do four years of vet school and then you can go out. To become a specialist, you would take an additional four years, so that would be a 12–year college track, so to speak.
What percentage of time do people do that extra four years?
It’s growing in popularity and that’s a trend that you guys witness on the human medical side many years ago. Now, more and more people are beginning to specialize, but this is still less than 20% of the professional specialists.
I still see the majority of people, 4 years of college, 4 years of graduate school start working.
Interestingly, because the economics of veterinary medicine isn’t always favorable, most vets are heavily indebted. The average student loan is approaching $200,000, and then commiserate salaries are less than $100,000. Students are starting to get paid more now, of course, but we’re starting to see some universities reduce the undergrad requirements. There are a few universities that will allow you to get in after 2 years or 3 years even of undergraduate study as long as you take certain core requirements, make certain grades, certain test scores, and so forth. There are other ways to shorten that. I’m in favor of this and I’ve sat on many committees at the national level over the years because the economic returns aren’t that great.
You’re telling me you may not need to graduate from college to get into a veterinary graduate school.
There are several veterinary schools that are starting to work with undergraduate programs to fast–track you into it. I’m torn on this. The economic argument makes a lot of sense because that can shorten your cost of tuition, so that’s great. On the other hand, I am a firm believer in having a very liberal arts background because that curiosity and creativity lead to innovation, and that certainly served me very well. I’ve told so many students over the years that some of the most impactful courses I ever took had nothing to do with Science or medicine. They were Philosophy. These are a lot of literature courses, creative writing courses, and, honestly, had I not had that background and foundation, I don’t think I would be where I am today. I’m torn. I get the economic argument, but on the other hand, I’m like, “How do we create curious, creative individuals?”
What’s the best part of your career that you look out for?
I’m a serial entrepreneur. I enjoy building clinics and teams but over the years, working with veterinary technicians, which are our equivalent of your nurses, and watching them blossom, grow, and mature. Honestly, it’s that type of impact. On the other hand, we could both rattle off hundreds of cases that deeply affected us that we felt profound pride in doing. There are lots of heartbreaking stories that we could share as well.
The patient element is one aspect of practice. For me, the other thing is working with teams, like-minded colleagues, associate veterinarians that I employed, colleagues in consulting or in speaking, and veterinary technicians. As my late father taught me, my goal has always been to leave it better than you found it. The lives that we touch and can we improve upon them are the things that are most meaningful to me.
On the flip side, what are some of the least favorite parts or part of the career?
It’s dealing with difficult pet parents. I’m going to put it out there. Many times they’re incredibly demanding, unrealistically so. Many times, these involve demanding that they be seen at times that are impractical for a variety of reasons. There are financial pressures that are mounted upon us by a pet parent that is again, unrealistic and unsustainable. That constant emotional assault is the thing that I think if veterinarians, in particular, aren’t able to fortify themselves, nurture them, and self–care wellness movement. People like you and me early in our career recognized it, but nobody was talking about it back then. It’s like, “Suck it up. That’s wellness.”
It is important because if you don’t develop these habits to fortify your soul, so to speak, you will become a hollowed–out version of yourself. This is leading to burnout, compassion fatigue, depression, self-harming, and all those issues that we see in our profession that you see in yours as well. When people say, “What’s the worst part of your job?” Many people do the knee–jerk, “It’s euthanasia.” That’s tough.
The reality is it’s the pressure that pet parents constantly try to crush us with. I like to tell vets when I give lectures, the problem with this is of the hundred pet parents that you may see, there may be one who’s aggressive, intimidating, threatening, and all that stuff. That one can negate the 99 who love you. It’s a constant psychological battle. You’ve got to be re–fortifying yourself, putting up the strength that armor to put on every day to confront it. It’s a realistic issue and you hate it.
If you’re a high school student reading, the main thing I would encourage you to do is to go and work at a clinic for a long time. I started working in veterinary clinics from age fifteen on. It’s all I know. I was well aware of these pressures when I decided to be a veterinarian finally. It’s important that you not be shocked and surprised because I’m seeing an entire generation of young veterinarians graduate and they are overwhelmed. They’re going, “What? People don’t love me all the time. People can say mean and hateful things to me, and they post nasty reviews on Google.” It’s like, “That’s part of the job.” I would encourage you to get that real-world experience as much of it as you can.
What is your typical day like when you’re doing clinical work?
During clinical work, most days start early. I’ll try to be in the clinic by 8:00 AM, a little earlier depending on the caseload, or what may be is the first or second case of the day. Typically, it’s going to end around 6:00 at night. These are long days. We usually don’t get formal lunch. I do try to take time away to go for a walk or something like that, but these are those quick little hits. That’s a challenge also for people even to remove themselves at lunch. If I can go out for a 15–minute walk to clear my head, get some fresh breath, refuel, and then it’s back at it. These are long days.
Typically, our appointments with each pets’ parents are 30 minutes. Some can take a little less, some can take a little longer, as you imagine. You’re seeing them back–to–back. It’s not unusual to see 18 to 24 patients in a day. The caseload is quickfire. Most of them are pretty straightforward, as you would imagine like your patients. Most of them follow the rules and there’s a set of diagnostic criteria, symptomology, then you get a diagnosis, and so forth. Some of them are vaccines or whatever. It’s a wide variety.
What happens in vet medicine is you want to be able to be flexible because you might be dealing with a puppy who’s getting a simple of immunizations, the very next case could be terminal cancer, and then followed up by that is a behavior case, which is psychology. By the way, now we’ve got a renal failure cat. It’s constantly spinning up. I thrive in that environment. I like quick shifts and challenging myself. If you’re didactically inclined, you like the facts and the figures, and you don’t mind reading a lot of research, veterinary medicine can be very rewarding. At the same time, each one of those 18, 20, 24 pets that you see with all these varieties of conditions are attached to a person. That’s managing different behaviors, as we talked about different personalities. Sometimes, you have to go and be very soothing, calming, and very simplistic terminology. The next one is an MD like you. Suddenly, I have to amp up my language.
All that variety is incredibly engaging, but also it can be a challenge. This is why I continue to say, “Get as much experience in the real world as possible before you commit to this profession because it might not be your gig.” You might not like that quick shift, go forward, reverse, forward, reverse, take a hard left, now right. I enjoy that, but it doesn’t mean it’s for everybody. It also requires a lot of energy and effort.
As you’re seeing these rapid–fire patients, in my case, we do surgeries during lunch. We can complain about that. I try to take about fifteen minutes to clear my head as we’re getting our patients lined up. I’ll come back in. Whichever vet tech is on at the time will give me the debrief. We’ll review our pre-anesthetic blood tests and whatever physical exam parameters we’re evaluating for that particular patient, then we start rapid–fire getting the surgeries. It’s not uncommon for me to do 2 or 3 surgeries a day, Monday through Friday. Saturdays and Sundays, we don’t do any.
A typical vet will have clinic as well as surgical procedures. What are some misconceptions people have of veterinarians?The reality is seeing things firsthand as much as you can. You can’t see everything, but what you can see, let it shape and guide you. Click To Tweet
That it’s all puppies and puppy kisses all day long, and people shower you with affection. People don’t fully appreciate the emotional toll that it takes. We focus a lot on euthanasia and that’s a completely separate category. That’s emotionally taxing. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a minority of your practice. It’s not the thing that eats away at you. What eats away at you literally are those day–to–day grinds, those little insults and innuendos that clients give you, the sneer of, “You care more about money than my pet.” It can chip away.
That’s the thing. They think it’s all just puppies, kittens, and kiss. The reality is a lot harder. When I got into high school, I’d always known I would be a vet from when I was a little kid. My parents were not super enthusiastic about that because they knew the vets that I worked with in town.
They weren’t thrilled about your career choice.
You’ve got to be super sharp. I’m a good student. They’re like, “You really need to go into medicine.” I was that close to becoming a pediatrician because the only other thing I could envision myself doing is to work with children. That is my energy. I like working with little things that they can’t help themselves. I’m very passionate about a lot of childhood issues, including childhood obesity, that I do a lot of work with the One Health Platform. In my senior year of high school, I start to play around. Maybe my parents are right. You do all this work. You don’t get any rewards from it. I had the good fortune of shadowing a pediatrician for a couple of months.
Back when you were in high school?
Yeah, when I was a senior in high school. What happened was I had a lovely pediatrician pull me aside and she was like, “Ernie, the worst part of this job is having to tell a parent that their child has a terminal condition, something you can’t fix.” It was, at that moment, I realized, I can do this with a dog, cat, horse, cow, or whatever. I don’t know that I can do this for a human. That was the defining moment. Literally, I never went back. It’s like the puppy dog and the kittens. I was like, “I love the kids. They’re coming in. We give them immunizations. We give them a lollipop. Mom and dad love us.” I hadn’t quite made that connection of sometimes our small town pediatricians have to sit down and say, “Your child has a congenital heart defect or cancer,” or whatever. That was the point for me. I said, “I don’t think I can do this.”
How did you get into veterinary medicine? You said you were in clinic at age fifteen.
That’s all I wanted to do. The reason I got hooked up was through a church contact. My parents are like, “Ernie, do you really want to do this vet stuff? Because they don’t make so much money.” It was to appease them. I shadowed two human doctors. The first was a nephrologist. No way. I went down to a dialysis clinic and my mind goes, “No. Never. No way. This is not my gig at all.” My parents were like, “You’re always so good with children.” I went to the pediatrician and for the first month or so, it was all immunizations and lollipops. I was like, “This is pretty cool. I get this.” They seem to have pretty good hours and all that stuff. I was fortunate that she sat me down. She said, “Let me tell you.”
How did you get even interested in veterinary medicine at all being a veterinarian?
First and foremost, all of my family comes from farming backgrounds. My parents were the only two that went off to college. Everybody else is still back in rural Alabama and Georgia. They were escaping the farm effectively. I still grew up with that because you go to summers with your cousins. You’re always at your grandparents and so it’s always farm. That’s a little bit in my probably DNA. When I was growing up surrounded by animals, we grew up in rural Southwest Georgia with acreage. We had five acres. We have a few row crops. We had lots of animals. We had ducks, rabbits, a whole lot of chickens, lot of dogs and cats, that kind of stuff. I’m surrounded by it.
You guys can look this up online. This has been published in a wide variety of areas, interviews, and articles I’ve written. When I was seven years old, my first two dogs that were my own, Taco and Missy, they were accused of killing chickens at a neighboring farm. Taco probably was, to be honest with you. Back then, you don’t have fences. This is the country ranch. Most of America doesn’t quite relate always. This was country country. One night, an unmistakable sound woke me up. A 12–gauge shotgun buckshot and the unmistakable cry of Taco. That’s something that jolts you out of bed, you run outside, Taco still made it back home, but half his side was blown out.
Literally, I’m holding him as he dies in my arms. The gravel is digging into my knees. That was the moment. I was like, “This is what I’ve got to do. I’ve got to figure out how to save animals.” That was the track. I never veered from it. As a senior in high school, your parents are like, “You’re about to go to college. Do you want to do this?” Honestly, after those experiences as a senior, only working in vets, that’s all I’ve ever known. My parents were like, “You need to see the other side of medicine before you commit fully.” You appease them and there was never any waiver. I don’t know anything else. Anything outside of animals is foreign to me.
Is there a type of student that you think will best flourish in this career?
Yes. These are people that are curious. I think you have to start with a passion. It’s not a lukewarm attraction to animals. It’s not something that you go, “I think that’s interesting.” It’s something that you have to do. The best veterinarians, it’s something that you are literally called to do. There are lots of controversies when I say things like this, but a lot of times, that hits you when you’re young. I had a traumatic event that catalyzed and crystallized that.
It imprinted something on your brain.
It did. It is traumatic. It’s unhealthy. As I write about in several articles, that wasn’t a healthy genesis, but it was mine and that’s what I got. Many children, “I want to be a fireman, I want to be an astronaut. I want to be a veterinarian.” We know the list but most abandon that very quickly. The ones that really attaches to, they then commit themselves to academic rigor. They always stay super engaged. Honestly, what was I doing before fifteen? It was illegal for me to work in a vet hospital in Georgia at the time before I was age fifteen. I was still volunteering on the weekend bathing dogs up there, starting around age 10 and 11. That was not a job. You couldn’t do that and I’m probably going to get somebody in trouble if they ever look back at the books.
You find those opportunities. Those are the people that you know when you walk in the door and haven’t been involved with admissions at different levels at university vet schools. Those are the students we recognize right off the bat. They’ve got the passion. They’ve got the experience, which is something that distinguishes you these days. The students that come in and do the minimum requirements of the 40 hours, which is what most vet school. Forty hours of volunteer work, you’re going to be a vet. It might not be exactly what you think it is. I want to see the students who go out there and get that real-world experience somehow.
The third and final thing is having a much more holistic approach to the world. Not just being so focused and you can be if you want to be a world-class specialist, that’s a separate entity. The students that I’m looking for to do the best are the ones that remain intellectually curious, multi-disciplinary. Outside of the hyper–specialization, they like a lot of things. If you have a love of art, literature, and politics, contemporary events, if you love philosophy, if you’d like those something else that’s also going to lead you to a more satisfying career because, Richard, you and I know the people that make their whole life only about their career are the ones who typically burn out.
I’ve been doing this for a long time. I graduated in ’92. You want to be able to maintain that enthusiasm throughout your career. The best students, obviously, you got to have the academics. This is not easy to get in, and then you’ve got to get the experience to make sure that this is something you want to commit the rest of your life to. What breaks my heart, Richard, are the young veterinarians. They’re five years out and they go, “Dr. Ward, what the heck? How did you do this?” You’re like, “This could be a problem.”
Great advice, Ernie. What do you think the future is like as a veterinarian?
It’s great. The pandemic accelerated a trend of bringing more and more pets into our homes. What happened when we were in lockdown was that people looked around and go, “I like my partner but my cat. She’s amazing.” I think we’ve got this renewed relationship with the animals that we surround ourselves with. We’ve seen an increase, especially along among millennials and older Gen Z’s, as far as pet ownership. That accelerated that trend. I also think that the bond is shifting. Whereas we used to say like the baby boomers, they brought the pets into the backyards. The gen X-ers, we brought them into our bedrooms. Now, as we’re saying, the Gen Z, they bring them into the board room.
What I mean when I say that is they’re bringing them into the workplace, into their life, everywhere. Years ago, I wrote a piece. They asked me about trends and one of the trends identified was the everywhere pets’ trend. That’s what we’re starting to see. When you have more access to pets at a restaurant, and again, outdoor seating. I don’t want to get into the arguments when you can take them on a plane or a train. Uber is like, “Fine, bring your dog with us.” Those are the things that make having a pet more pragmatic, realistic, and it’s enjoyable. That’s what we’re going to see.
I’m incredibly optimistic about the profession. I also think that the demands for expertise are going to continue to go upward. If you’re now looking to replicate my career path, you may find yourself at a bit of a crossroad saying, “This guy did a lot of nutrition.” When I graduated, there weren’t nutrition specialists. I had to do this together. There’s a whole generation of us. For many years there were like 20 board–certified veterinary nutritionists in the world. We had to do it on our own and the same thing with behavior and other issues.
You may find yourself needing to specialize moving forward. I only see this as a positive, but be aware that this model is slowly shifting. Getting back to that thing at the beginning, where some of these vet schools are starting to reduce the undergrad requirements, may also be a pathway for more specialists. If you’re accelerating the timeline to your degree, then that means, “I’m only adding a couple more years to get a specialty.” That’s probably a good investment as well.
Let’s change the gears a little bit. I want to do my rapid–fire questions. Are you ready?
High school, awesome or terrible?
Awesome and terrible.
Quite true for a lot of people. Was there a chore you really hated doing as a child?
Picking up the chicken yard.
You have chicken coops. Chickens poop everywhere. Periodically, you have to go and get that. You can use that as fertilizer, but it’s not a pleasant chore.
Favorite junk food?
I’m not a huge junk food person, but you have something chocolate.
Place you most want to travel to?
Indonesia, surfing in Indonesia. We’re working toward that.
How many hours of sleep do you need?
It’s 8:00 to 9:00, without a doubt.
What do you most admire about your spouse?
Women are the stronger sex. It’s patience. I do tend to be a lot more bullheaded and just, “We will solve this,” and she is able to take that one–second pause and say, “Let’s reflect for a second before we take that next step.” I’ve definitely learned a lot of patience from her over the years. If you’re lucky enough to have a strong partner in your life, number one, they’ve got to have complementary traits. Yin to yang actually is a thing. Everything that I do on that side of the energy equation, she compliments in the opposite. Those are the best kind. We met in 1986 and we’ve been inseparable since.
Finally, what is the greatest career mistake you’ve made?
Honestly, for me as an entrepreneur, it’s when I’ve gotten into situations with partners, co-founders that we’re only half–aligned with, and you think, “That’s enough. We’re aligned on the major stuff.” I would say, “If you’re choosing a life partner, if you’re choosing a business partner, if you’re looking for an employer, it’s got to line up all the way through.” What will happen is at some level, when challenges come, when friction and tension come, when things aren’t going well, those fracture lines, those disparate areas now become augmented, highlighted, amplified. Suddenly, it’s those little things that you were not in sync with that become big things. The things you were in sync with are less meaningful.
I would say the biggest mistake I’ve made is when I’ve partnered with people that we weren’t fully locked in. You always have this belief, “I’ll fix that.” They’ll come around. It’s not that big of a difference anyway and it can be. There are lots of opportunities in life for you to work, negotiate, and collaborate. When it comes to being co-founders and visionaries, that’s when you want to be in lockstep. You’ve got to know that they’ve got your back, and you’ve got have their back.The people that make their whole life only about their career are the ones who typically burn out. Click To Tweet
Ernie, this is wonderful. Thank you so much for answering these rapid–fire questions and, of course, the whole interview itself. Just a wealth of information. Thank you so much. Where can people learn more about you and find out what you’re doing?
Anywhere if you type in Dr. Ernie Ward, you can also go to DrEnieWard.com. I’m on Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, TikTok, YouTube. I would impart that if you’re a young student, a young person, and you’re thinking about this as a career, you’re on the fence like I was. You’re in senior year and you’re going, “Should I be a vet or a doctor?” The biggest bit of advice I can give you is to get out there and get real–world experience. I know students come to me all the time, probably like they do to you and they’re like, “I can’t. Nobody will take me.”
It’s like, “Where there is a will, there is a way.” You can definitely shadow. You can show up. You may not get paid for it. I didn’t get paid for quite some time. The reality is seeing it firsthand as much as you can. You can’t see everything, but what you can see, let it shape and guide you. Where I think most people make a mistake, whether it’s human medicine, dentistry, optometry, veterinary, whatever, is that they don’t fully understand the expectations, and then when there’s a misalignment in their expectations and reality, frustration, and burnout ensue.
Great advice. That investment of time is so essential. Ernie, thank you so much. This has been wonderful. I appreciate you coming on to this episode. Thank you for coming.
Thanks for doing this. It’s my honor and pleasure.
Thanks for tuning in. You can also find me on Instagram @DrRichardMarn. Thank you so much for reading and catch you on the next episode.
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About Dr. Ernie Ward
Dr. Ernie Ward has spent his entire career practicing, writing about, teaching, and encouraging better care for animals to earn the title as “America’s Pet Advocate.”
Whether he’s discussing the dangers of obesity, how to perform a physical examination, dealing with behavioral issues, answering pet owner’s questions about nutrition or surgery, or innovating better care for aging pets, Dr. Ward’s unifying theme is: Do what is in the pet’s best interest.
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