Like Grey's Anatomy, only furrier — Kitsap doc offers look inside vet clinic

Dr. John Paulson checks out Belle, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, who is hooked up to IV fluid. The dog was at Ridgetop Animal Hospital because she frequently vomited and her owners became concerned. - Jesse Beals/staff photo
Dr. John Paulson checks out Belle, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, who is hooked up to IV fluid. The dog was at Ridgetop Animal Hospital because she frequently vomited and her owners became concerned.
— image credit: Jesse Beals/staff photo

Dr. John Paulson wears a white lab coat, performs complex surgeries, consults patients and prescribes medications like any other doctor.

The only difference is Paulson’s patients are furry and have four legs.

Paulson is one of five veterinarians at Ridgetop Animal Hospital in Silverdale and became an animal doctor 16 years ago.

Paulson recently let us snoop around Ridgetop Animal Hospital for a day and learn firsthand what it’s like to doctor up dogs, cats and all the furry and feathery creatures in between.

Every kid’s dream

Paulson was not one of those kids who grew up wanting to be a veterinarian, but he was no stranger to family pets.

“I always had a dog, I loved dogs,” he said.

Paulson took an interest in anatomy and physiology in college and decided to pursue a veterinary career. Veterinarians must earn a bachelor’s degree and graduate from a four-year veterinary school. Paulson said many veterinary students also complete a one-year internship after veterinary school.

Veterinarians can work with domestic animals such as dogs and cats as well as exotics including birds, rodents and rabbits. Large animal or livestock veterinarians make house calls for horses, cows and other farm animals.

Paulson said roughly 75-85 percent of veterinary students are women and no one knows why more women than men become veterinarians.

“I’m the only guy vet, there are all gals here (at Ridgetop Animal Hospital),” Paulson said. “Why there’s not many guys applying to vet schools, no one really knows.”

Paulson and the other Ridgetop veterinarians work 35-45 hours a week to ensure the animal hospital is adequately staffed throughout the week. Although the veterinarians have normal hours, a day spent working with animals can be anything but normal.

All in a day’s work

Paulson starts most days at 7 a.m. at Ridgetop Animal Hospital. The five Ridgetop veterinarians rotate surgery days and Paulson was up Tuesday.

“We do surgery here every day. On Mondays and Tuesdays I primarily do surgeries,” he said.

At about 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, Paulson put 12-year-old Louie under anesthesia to check his ears. The cat suffers from chronic ear infections, so Paulson shaved off some fur and took a peek inside Louie’s ears.

“Louie’s eardrum looks pretty good in there,” Paulson told a veterinary technician.

Paulson swabbed Louie’s ears and sent samples to a lab to check for bacterial infections. He then put ointment in the cat’s ears, took him off anesthesia and placed him on a heating pad inside a kennel to rest.

“I think we probably spend about 20 percent of our time doing surgeries,” Paulson said. “Here we do a fair bit of orthopedic surgery.”

As for the most common surgeries performed at Ridgetop Animal Hospital, Paulson said more and more people are choosing to spay and neuter their pets.

“By far and away the most common procedures are spays and neuters. Dental procedures are the third most common surgery,” Paulson said. “Dental diseases are a big thing now.”

When he’s not performing surgeries, Paulson is meeting with patients, squeezing in emergency appointments and talking to pet owners via telephone. Paulson said he sees anywhere from 15 to 20 animals a day with all different types of problems.

“Each day we see a wide variety of problems and illnesses and it keeps it interesting,” Paulson said.

He said the most common reasons dogs need to see a veterinarian are vomiting and diarrhea. A pet owner brought Belle, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, to Ridgetop because she was vomiting and on Tuesday, the small dog sat in a kennel happily wagging her tail while hooked up to IV fluid.

Paulson said only 10 percent of his job involves paperwork because, unlike humans, most animals do not have health insurance.

“I would definitely point that out as a positive for vets,” Paulson said. “We don’t have that burden of paperwork because people don’t have health insurance (on their pets).”

Paulson also said he spends a lot of time talking to pet owners on the telephone, updating them on their hospitalized pet’s condition, discussing medications and talking with people about the toughest decision a pet owner has to make.

“A lot of our phone calls are the end-of-life decision times,” Paulson said. “We talk them through that.”

Tough times

Paulson said talking to pet owners about when to euthanize an animal is always tough, but it’s a job requirement.

“That’s part of the job, helping people through those really difficult decisions,” he explained. “There’s a lot of weight on our shoulders at times.”

He added that it’s his job as a veterinarian to diagnose a pet’s problem and find the best way to treat it, which in some cases is euthanasia.

“It’s our job to try and make predictions on how things will go,” Paulson said. “You have to tell the pet owners if it’s hopeless, you have to.”

Paulson said some pet owners treat their pets like children and “have strong ideas about what’s right for their pets,” which makes a veterinarian’s job even tougher at times.

“People get so emotional about their pets,” Paulson said. “It’s our job to educate them in a polite way.”

It’s an ‘Animal Planet’ world

While Ridgetop Animal Hospital primarily treats dogs and cats, Paulson and the other veterinarians have seen their fair share of exotics.

Paulson has worked with guinea pigs, rabbits, birds, all kinds of smaller pets. One Ridgetop veterinarian worked with sugar gliders, a small gliding possum, in the past.

“It’s kind of ‘Animal Planet’ when they come in here,” Paulson said.

The same veterinarian also works with West Sound Wildlife and has treated coyotes, owls, raccoons and even pinned broken wings on a seagull at the Silverdale animal hospital.

“We get to see all varieties of wildlife in here,” Paulson said. “I really like the variety that we get with being veterinarians.”

It may be difficult to work with a coyote or owl, but Paulson said cats and dogs provide their own challenges as well.

Cats are more difficult to work with than dogs because one never knows what they’re thinking or about to do next, he added.

“Cats have different switches in their brains,” he said. “When a cat switches to that wild instinct, watch out.”

He said dogs are more predictable because “if it’s a mean dog, you’ll know it.” Paulson recalled having a rottweiler running through the kennels at one point that could not be controlled. Once the dog’s owner showed up, the rottweiler straightened right up.

Paulson’s most memorable moment involves a cat. A receptionist was preparing to weigh a cat before surgery when Paulson happened to walk by the room and saw her huddled in the corner as the cat bounced around the room because “it went bizerk on her,” according to Paulson.

“That image I’ll never forget,” he laughed. “This cat had just gone completely wild on her.”

Veterinarians use muzzles and leashes to contain animals, but if that doesn’t do the trick, Paulson said sedatives are a safe way to control them and the animals recover quickly.

“Each problem has a different solution — you just try to do it as quickly and humanely as possible,” Paulson said.

Continuing education and volunteering

Veterinarians work hard to stay up to speed on the newest technology, techniques and animal illnesses.

“The reality is you have to continue to educate yourself to be able to practice,” Paulson said.

When he isn’t treating pets at Ridgetop Animal Hospital or attending educational conferences, he works with local rescue groups such as PAWS of Bremerton and Animal Rescue Families.

Paulson donates his time from 1 to 5 p.m. every Thursday to offer free spays and neuters as well as mild to moderate health check-ups for animals. Pet owners must qualify for the program through a participating rescue group.

“I think veterinarians in general think they should do work for rescue groups,” Paulson said. “I feel pretty privileged to be a veterinarian.”

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