GRAFTON, MASS. — "Dottie Jo is here!" Heather Powers and her peers halt their conversation, hurry to the black white-spotted greyhound, and shower her with attention. Dottie Jo responds with a few happy wags of her tail.
As a fourth-year student at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, Ms. Powers is on duty at the university's Foster Hospital for Small Animals, a place where she gets hands-on experience with four-legged friends and their owners.
"We try to get students involved with the owners, asking them the history, going into the exam room first. Then they'll come back to us and go through the whole history and we'll see if there is anything they missed," says Elizabeth Brown, a second-year resident, who oversees several students each week.
As more pet owners treat Fluffy and Scruffy as members of their family, bringing them to the hair salon and to church services, vet schools are shifting with the times and looking beyond the traditional medical and surgical classes.
"There's no doubt that there's more emphasis on companion animals [dogs and cats] in schools," says Larry Heider, executive director of the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges. "That's been driven by the economics."
Although students are still examining slides under microscopes and pursuing traditional medical studies, additional skills are being taught as well: grief counseling, animal behavior, how to relate to pet owners, and team-building skills. The University of California at Davis, Cornell University, and Tufts even have pet-loss support hot lines staffed by students.
"It wasn't too many years ago where you'd be telling me about losing your cat, and I might say, 'Why don't you get another cat?' Now I wouldn't think of such a thing," says Dr. Alan Beck, director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University's Veterinary School. "That's new for veterinary medicine.
There are full-time social workers on the floor in the clinics at University of Pennsylvania and University of Colorado. The very fact that we at least entertain grief counseling clearly reflects the human social value of animals."
The typical student in veterinary school today grew up with a pet in an urban area and knew a small-animal practitioner, so it's not surprising that 70 percent of graduates choose companion animal practice, says Mr. Heider.
The field is also expanding. Besides treating cats and dogs, veterinaries are expected to treat birds, rabbits, snakes, and reptiles. Only about 30 percent work in state and federal health departments, agriculture, the military, and teaching positions, according to the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges.
Because a majority of students choose small animal practice, this has left a significant void on the farm.
At the University of Minnesota, for instance, the percent of graduates entering either large animal or mixed animal practice has dropped from 35 percent in 1991 to 13 percent in 2003.
"We're becoming aware that we have rural areas that are not well served because we just don't have enough people there," says Heider.
Even the federal government has stepped in. President Bush in December signed the National Veterinary Medical Service Act, which provides student loan repayments to recent veterinary grads if they agree to work in rural regions and inner-city areas.
Not only is there a shift in professional directions, but students entering veterinary school are not all rooted in the sciences. Some come from hotel and restaurant management, communications, and even theater.
"I was considering acting in New York, but then I saw 50-year-old men waiting tables," says fourth-year student Matt Steinberg. "If I'm going to work, I'd rather be doing something I love. This is good, meaningful work."
Mr. Steinberg and a handful of other students also have an entrepreneurial spirit. They have started "business clubs," inviting veterinary management speakers to come in and teach students about the business aspect. Since only one business class is required to graduate, several students feel they aren't being adequately prepare to run their own practice some day.
"It's a big issue at vet schools across the country," says Steinberg. "A lot of students become private practitioners and they own their own business. There are some classes that tell you a little bit, but I feel like we aren't getting prepared."
Just a few decades ago, Steinberg would have been in the majority. But fewer men are entering this field. Close to 75 percent of entering students today are women, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.
It's a turnaround from 50 years ago, when schools actually made it unpleasant for women, says Angie Warner, a veterinarian and associate dean for academic affairs at Tufts.
"But by the time I got out of college in the 1960s, it had opened up a great deal, and now the floodgates are open. It's a caregiving profession and it's very attractive to women," says Dr. Warner.
It's also a good fit for those who love the great outdoors. "My mom spent a lot of time trying to teach us about the natural world and ecology," says Gately Ross, a fourth-year student during her rotation in the wildlife clinic. And I really think that played a big role in that."
Powers says after graduation she sees herself most likely working with small animals in a private practice with a good training program. Growing up in upstate New York, she says, she learned to love nurturing cats and dogs. But working as a vet encompasses more than just a love of animals, she says.
"Pet owners today are looking for someone they feel comfortable with," says Powers. "A big myth is that people go into veterinary medicine because they love animals and don't want to deal with people. Well, the owner is their advocate and you're dealing with a lot with people. Owners rely on their pets and they are more willing to spend or do anything to make their animals happy because it makes them happy."