Read as John Tegzes gets JobShadowed about his career in Veterinary Toxicology. You can find John at www.toxvet.com and on his Twitter feed in the sidebar of this interview.
I am a Veterinarian who specializes in Toxicology. What that means is that in addition to graduating from veterinary school, I also completed a three year residency training program in Toxicology, and then passed my specialty boards in Toxicology to become a specialist in Veterinary Toxicology.
How would you describe what you do?
I work for a Veterinary College at a Health Sciences University. In my position at the university, I am involved in teaching veterinary students all about toxicology. I also provide consultations to area veterinarians when they have challenging cases involving toxins. The typical scenario is one where a dog has gotten into a poison of some sort, and may be very ill. I help the treating veterinarian diagnose the type of poison the dog was exposed to, and then help the vet to develop a treatment plan to ensure that the dog recovers. Because animals can’t tell us what they’ve eaten, the diagnosis of the poison can be very challenging.
I help to put all the pieces together like a puzzle – when did the dog become ill, what were its clinical signs, and then try and relate that to possible poisons the dog could have been exposed to. I then suggest certain diagnostic tests until we determine exactly what poisoned the dog, and then formulate a decontamination and treatment plan to try and save the dog and allow it to have a full recovery. Think CSI for animals, and you have an idea. Unfortunately, I am often consulted after an animal has passed away from a poisoning, and when the owners and the vet want to know what happened so they can prevent it from happening again to other animals in the same environment.
What does your work entail?
Teaching veterinary students requires that I constantly read the veterinary and toxicology literature to stay up-to-date with recent advances and situations involving poisons. Staying current with the literature also helps me to be aware of new poisons as they emerge, so that I can always give the best advice to consulting veterinarians.
What’s a typical work week like?
My work week is a Monday through Friday daytime schedule. I spend time each day with veterinary students in classroom situations, and helping them when they are in the clinics. In addition, I spend time responding to questions and requests from veterinarians in the area. The vets who I help are companion animal vets who care for dogs, cats, and exotic pets. But I also get calls from food animal veterinarians who work with cattle, poultry, and pigs. And sometimes from equine veterinarians who work with horses primarily. For the larger animals, it is often a question about a potentially poisonous plant that the animal may have eaten. I need to give good advice about maintaining the health of the animal, and also about whether the toxin in the plant could be passed onto humans who either drink the milk from a cow that ate the plant, or eat the meat from an animal that could have been poisoned. So my focus is not only the health of the animal, but also the health of the people who may eat animal products.
How did you get started?
After I graduated from veterinary school, I worked in a general companion animal veterinary clinic for about 5 years. I really, really enjoyed the toxicology cases I would see. I was fascinated by how dogs and cats react to toxins, and that their responses were completely different than each other. Certain things are toxic only to dogs, and others only to cats. And then there were many things that could poison dogs, cats, and other types of animals.
I just loved how finding the right antidote would make a poisoned animal recover fully, and the challenge was always figuring out what the poison was in the first place. So after 5 years in practice, I decided that I wanted to specialize in Toxicology, and found a residency program. After spending three years in the training program, I was prepared to take specialty boards. After passing my specialty boards, I was able to officially call myself a specialist. My official title is that I am a Diplomate of the American Board of Veterinary Toxicology.
What do you like about what you do?
Everything. I am so fortunate to work at a veterinary college because I get to teach veterinary students everything I love about toxicology. And I get to provide a service to area veterinarians when they encounter challenging poisoning cases. And I sometimes get to help on interesting research projects that help to decide the best ways to treat poisoned patients. I also love working with brilliant people all day. I work at a Health Sciences University that awards many health degrees, so I get to work with physicians, dentists, nurses, pharmacists, etc, etc.
What do you dislike?
I dislike that many patients die before a poisoning diagnosis can be made. Some poisons act very quickly and by the time an animal presents to their veterinarian it is sometimes too late to make a difference. I try to learn from these cases, so that I can educate other pet owners so that they can avoid these painful situations.
How do you make money/or how are you compensated?
I receive a salary from the university where I work.
How much money do Veterinarians/Toxicologist make?
Depending on where a veterinarian works, the salaries can range dramatically. As a specialist in veterinary toxicology, so too can the salaries range quite a bit. For instance, those just starting out in a residency program might only make between $20,000 to $35,000 per year for the 3 year program. Afterwards, though, the salaries can go up quite a bit. Those who work for universities can make between $60,000 to $150,000 or more. For those who choose to work for research organizations, salaries can rise above $150,000 to over $200,000 per year. I would guess that most veterinary toxicologists earn between $75,000 to $125,000 per year. While other veterinary specialists might make a bit more than that, an advantage to veterinary toxicology is that the hours are usually a normal daytime work week. There are occasional emergencies, but they usually are not frequent since we provide guidance and support to the veterinarians who are treating the animals.
How much money did/do you make starting out as a Veterinarian/Toxicologist?
Early on in the residency training salaries can be quite low, but this is temporary. Think about it like getting paid to go to school. In those years most make about $20,000 to $35,000 per year. But as soon as those 3 years are over, the salary would likely jump to about $60,000 or more depending on the exact location of the first job. It is possible that the first position could be as high as $90,000 to $100,000 per year.
What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?
In addition to earning a four year bachelor’s degree, and then a four year veterinary doctor degree, there is usually another 3 years of specialty training. The specific skills and knowledge that are required are first, candidates should be great problem-solvers. If you like solving puzzles, this is the field for you! In terms of knowledge, toxicology is all about chemistry and biochemistry. So a love of basic science is a must. And then as one advances in the field, putting it all together with clinical sciences is the icing on the cake.
What is most challenging about what you do?
Trying to solve a challenging case without much or any information.
What is most rewarding?
Finally figuring out what poisoned an animal, and then coming up with strategies to avoid it from poisoning others.
What advice would you offer someone considering this career?
Keep your curiosity high, and learn chemistry in as much detail as possible. It will serve you well during those most challenging cases.
How much time off do you get/take?
Working for a university I get 5 weeks vacation each year, as well as another 2 weeks or so for holidays.
What is a common misconception people have about what you do?
That poison equals death. Not all poisons are deadly. Some just make the animals unthrifty or poor performers. Everything on earth is a potential poison. It is the dose that determines whether something is safe or dangerous.
What are your goals/dreams for the future?
To help develop novel treatment strategies for new poisons as they emerge. And to always be vigilant for new toxins as they emerge, and how they might affect animals. To prevent as many poisonings in animals as is possible.
What else would you like people to know about your job/career?
It is always challenging, interesting, and fun! There is nothing better than relieving animal suffering.