News & Politics

Tender Loving Care

More women are going to veterinary schools, changing the face of animal medicine.

Veterinarian Ashley Hughes, who has three dogs and three cats, checks out her dog Poppy. Photograph by Chris Leaman.

Teachers first pegged Melinda Cep as a veterinarian at a fourth-grade career day. Growing up on an Eastern Shore farm, Cep saw vets care for her family’s dogs, cats, and horses. “I had a deep appreciation of the bonds between humans and animals,” she says. “Empathy, compassion, love—I saw it all.”

A recent graduate of the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine in Blacksburg, the closest veterinary school to Washington, Cep was part of a class of 76 women and 14 men. “There have been vet schools that have graduated all-female classes,” she says.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, women made up half the profession last year. While most medical professions have seen an influx of women, the veterinary field is experiencing a complete gender switch. In 2005, 95 percent of retiring doctors were male, while women made up 77 percent of veterinary schools’ graduating classes; in the 1970s, more than 80 percent of vet graduates were men.

“It’s happening worldwide,” says Dr. Jennie Hodgson, associate dean at Virginia-Maryland. Some vet schools are worried about the lack of diversity. Virginia-Maryland is rethinking its advertising, hoping to appeal to more men.

One reason for the shift, doctors say, is money. While vets earned a median salary of $79,000 in 2006, surgeons and anesthesiologists who work on people can make four times that. “Vets have a financial cap, which is restricting for a lot of men who are supporting families,” says Dr. Ashley Hughes of DC’s Friendship Hospital for Animals. “Men and women don’t do this for the money; we do it because we love the work.”

Once a practice driven by the care of livestock, veterinary medicine now focuses mostly on small animals—companion pets such as dogs, cats, and birds.

Women are drawn to veterinary care partly because of its hours. “The busiest days are Saturdays and Sundays, which leaves working mothers flexible hours during the week,” says Hughes, who graduated from the University of Florida in 2006. The emergence of after-hours emergency clinics enables many veterinarians to go home after work instead of working overtime.

Hughes has enough time during the week to run her own blog,, where she details her adventures at the hospital while dishing out health and training tips for cats and dogs. She has recently been blogging about housetraining her new puppy, a golden-retriever mix named Poppy.

“Certainly there are compassionate men, but women have brought real balance to the profession in terms of the level of personal care for patients,” says vet Claudia True.

Colleagues call equine vets such as True “road warriors.” In college, male classmates told her she was there just to “get her Mrs.” Now vice president of the Virginia Veterinary Medical Association, True has been working with horses for 23 years. The job doesn’t offer the flexibility small-animal vets have—when True is on call, she can end up alone on a farm in the middle of the night.

Dr. Charlie Weiss, who runs Bethesda’s Bradley Hills Animal Hospital, says female vets have helped personalize pet care: “In the past it was much more common for doctors to refer to patients as ‘the pancreas case’ or ‘the kidney case.’ That doesn’t happen anymore.”

This article first appeared in the August 2009 issue of Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here.