What is that gawd-awful smell? It’s probably moi.
Many animals hate going to the vet. With highly sensitive noses like our canine companions, what could be the worst smell? Another animal's fear? The mixed human emotions of happiness, stress or grief? The odor of body fluids? The overwhelming chemical cleaner?
All. Of. The. Above.
Chlorhexidine, isopropyl alcohol, quaternary ammonias, dimethyl sulfoxide, bleach, povidone-iodine, these compounds could result in nose hair loss if you chance a big whiff from the bottle. Spread across surfaces to clean up vomit, abscess, blood, fecal, urine (to name a few-believe you me, there are others) and rinsed well, they permeate the structure of a vet clinic and provide the perfume that those in the veterinary profession immerse themselves daily.
It's the essence of a dream job. Of a tough, body-wrecking, soul-wrenching job.
Anytime I walk into a clinic, the sentimentality is strong. Just like in Inside Voices, Penny finds comfort in the smells of the veterinary clinic where her mother works. These flavors, if you will, evoke emotions and memories. Some good, some fond, some bittersweet, and some heartbreaking.
Now it may seem strange to you that these astringent disinfectants would be, well, enjoyable. But my daughter gets excited with I clean with bleach because it reminds her of summer and the pool.
The aforementioned chemicals that are used in veterinary medicine envelope us during work. They surround the tiny parvo puppy who spends three days in the isolation ward.
They surround the horse prepped for surgery to remove an intestinal stone the size of a musk melon.
When I inhale the vet hospital smell, a deluge of memories rises up.
The many horses that were able to return home to green pasture and those that left for the great pasture in the sky.
I remember the young camel who was kicked by a horse. While receiving treatment for her broken leg, she was stalled between two bone-breaking beasts. She made excellent use of her three good legs when she got the hell out of there.
It’s the memory of the overly friendly puppy with antifreeze poisoning who, during treatment, he transformed from an adorable boy into a demon yowler. He recovered but all that worked with him continue to suffer with tinnitus.
The smell of a newborn calf I just hauled out of a c-section. While my husband and the client crack open a beer at 3am and I began sewing momma's incision, they comment on how energetic the calf is as it proceeds to knock over my equipment.
It's the smell of a hot summer day performing lameness exams on horses. Fresh cut hay, leather, and horse are three of my favorite real-life smells. My grandpa said if someone could bottle horse scent, it would be the perfect perfume.
It's dried lube and horse/cow feces under your arm pit (also why large animal vets don't really need deodorant, even if they are sweaty).
It's the smell of anxiety over the critically ill patient you spent the night with.
The sorrow of losing a patient.
The irritation over a client not paying their bill.
The frustration over not knowing if you can pay your bills.
The moments spent crying with the technicians over a tough loss.
Laughing about animal or owner shenanigans.
Dealing with angry clients who know more than you.
Phone calls at 2 am, "Yes, I want to schedule an appointment for my dog. He is due for those rabies and distemperment shots."
I could go on and on. To make sure I didn’t, I asked my colleges what the smell of a vet clinic meant to them…
Dr. Laurie Flick Huckle from Casselton Veterinary Service in ND shared, "When I walk into the clinic in the morning, the smell triggers "busyness" of what our days usually entail. I instantly think of nail trims, anal gland expressions, blood draws, restraining wiggly dogs, angry cats that are wrapped in a towel like a burrito. It also triggers teamwork, knowing that without my techs assistants and receptionist teams, I can't do my job."
Dr. Kim Nicklaus Lentz of Southfork Animal Hospital in MN comments, "It smells like home because I spend so much time there! It makes me feel trepidatious since you never know what the day will bring and proud because I will be among the people helping animals today."
Dr. Elizabeth Greenwood of Associate Veterinary Services in Great Falls, MT longs for those initial, exciting smells pre-veterinary times. "So, my strongest memory was when we were going to our interview at Kansas state and we entered the vet clinic for our tour and were met with the most amazing smell (today I know that smell as DMSO and cleaners). But at that time it smelled like adventure and the future!! I still have some of those feelings when I smell DMSO. But nowadays clinics smell like many different things. I can usually tell what kind of day I had by the smell. The smell of Tom cat pee meant I got to do cat neuters."
Dr. Bo Brock, author of Crowded in the Middle of Nowhere and owner of Brock Veterinary Clinic in Lamesa, TX shared, "I had to go to the county jail a while back and actually go inside. The odors were strong to me....people sweat, fear, urine, musty/mold....I ask the lady that let me in how she could stand having to smell that all day. She took a big inhale and said "what smell". She then went on the say that anyplace smelled better than a vet clinic...I should be used to it.
"Funny. Our clinic has no odor as far as I can tell.
"I guess the odor or our place is simply normal and comfortable to me. And my kids. They grew up thinking every dad should smell Awful." (Dr. Brock also has a humoristic article called "Stinky Dad" - check it out at https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=429130653958294&id=143388619199167 )
Dr. Mindy Walstra-Hummel of County Animal Hospital in St. Louis, MO revealed, "Disinfectant/cleaning solution is the smell that I associate most with vet clinics. That smell often triggers intense nostalgia and happiness as it brings me back to when I visited/volunteered at our hometown vet clinic as a young girl. I was always so excited to be there as I knew that I was going to be able to be around so many animals and learn more about the profession I was so passionate about. Our hometown clinic had a particular medicinal/disinfectant type smell and to this day if I smell that particular smell, it will stir up those memories of me as a starry-eyed kid with the dream of one day being a Veterinarian."
A veterinarian who wished to remain anonymous disclosed, "I left veterinary medicine miserable and in a dark place. I didn't know how I was going to pay my bills. I had a run of patient losses and I couldn't shake the guilt that it was my fault. For quite a long time after, the smells of a vet clinic made me anxious and nauseous. I would choke up. It took many years before those feelings dimmed to allow nostalgia to shine through. There were many good times and excellent people I had worked with. Wonderful clients and animals that I missed beneath the oppressive self-doubt."
If you aren't aware, the veterinary profession struggles with suicide. Melissa Chan for the Time Magazine* wrote "...wracked with student debt and worn down by the daily demands at work, which included euthanizing dogs and cats and being vilified by pet owners for not meeting their expectations.
"While researchers have long known that doctors are more likely to die by suicide than the general population—partially due to issues like depression, anxiety and burnout—veterinarians face a set of unique stressors. Their patients can’t speak or tell them what’s wrong, much like babies can’t communicate with their doctors. But unlike pediatricians, veterinarians frequently find themselves having to euthanize a patient with a treatable injury or illness because its caretaker can’t afford the remedy, which might include costly surgeries."
Anxiety, giddiness, grief, guilt, fear, joy...the smells of veterinary clinics and professionals evoke strong emotions. Don't get me wrong…there is a lot of joy and light in being a vet. But just as in life, sometimes the bad overshadows the good. There were times I felt like Dr. Death (and not DEATH from the Terry Pratchett books). It's not a warm, fuzzy feeling.
Back to the aromas...I have a wonderful memory from back in the days as an intern. I can clearly recall standing in line at a grocery store after several days of no sleep. My scrubs were dirty with stains of blood, pus, reflux and crap. My hair was crazy…certainly that wasn't abnormal but what was the amount of pine shavings clinging to the frizzy curls. I didn't care. I needed sleep, but I also needed food. I was running on empty, physically and emotionally.
The lady in front of me gave me a dirty look. The person behind me moved to a different line. Did I care? A little. Probably more than a little since I remember...
Life as a vet is tough...and stinky. Just like many other professions. Each fills one with unique memories and feelings.
Times can seem really dark and smells can bring those memories back in a flash. But know that stars shine brightest in the darkest of nights.
If you or someone you know may be contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741741 to reach the Crisis Text Line. In emergencies, call 911, or seek care from a local hospital or mental health provider.
* https://time.com/5670965/veterinarian-suicide-help/ "Veterinarians Face Unique Issues That Make Suicide One of the Profession's Big Worries" Times magazine. 12 September, 2019