DR. PRIYADARSHINI
GOVIND

Veterinary Surgeon, IN

Published Date: 20th June 2011

Open Windows | In Conversation

DR. PRIYADARSHINI
GOVIND
Veterinary Surgeon, IN

June 20th, 2011

Animals are an integral part of my life. To say they understand me better than humans would be accurate. Yes, they can’t speak my spoken language, but then neither can I speak theirs; we connect on a deeper level, with unpretentiousness, trust, and love. And I believe a good veterinarian, along with his expertise, connects on similar levels with the animals he treats.

In my experience, of taking my pets to veterinarians, I have interacted mostly with men. Not many women venture into this profession, let alone stay the course. I finally found a female veterinarian—Dr. Priyadarshini Govind, a gifted veterinary surgeon for companion animals. With the support and encouragement of her family, she has realized her dream. She is a boon to the animals she treats and an asset to the pet owners she advises.

 

You decided to pursue veterinary medicine in India at a time when it was, and to a large extent still is, considered a man’s profession. Did your family support you in this decision?

My parents come from two different communities. They defied their families and got married. Initially, they did not have any family support, so that made them fiercely independent, and that is the way they raised their kids. When I was about 12 or 13, I talked about wanting to be a pediatrician, but I also talked about being a neonatal. When my parents asked me why, I said: “Babies do not speak, and that makes it challenging.”

Then when I was about 12, someone gave me a pup—a blue-blooded Labrador. She was a huge inspiration because she was not the healthiest of dogs. She fell sick very often, and I would keep going to the hospital with her. My parents also noticed that every little-injured creature from the streets turned up at our house.

We were taught that we had to do what our heart told us to do, and of course, to be a little sensible about it.

Do the majority of veterinarians settle for this field when doors to mainstream medicine shut on them?

Yes, most of them do. In my batch of 140 students, only two chose to become veterinarians. I could not see another way of life for myself.

 

Can one do right by animals when one settles for being a veterinarian? And can you be happy?

How many people are willing to settle for happiness and a lower salary than get all the money and still be unhappy? I find a larger group of people settling for unhappiness. I like what you are doing now, giving motivation to young people to do what they want to do. What I have noticed is that there is a lack of knowledge out there.

When I joined the course, I had no idea that the rest of my classmates would not care a damn about animals. They had not had so much as a little kitten in their house. I have seen them be rude and cruel to animals, and that was very, very disillusioning.

 

What challenges did you face during the course of study?

It was the dissections. It was difficult to shut off the fact that this cute calf that was with its mother one moment is preserved and in front of me to cut open the next minute.

 

Was it killed just for you to practice?

Yes. They had to sacrifice a certain number of lives for the purpose of research. Many experimental procedures during my post-graduate degree were performed on dogs and cats. Today they have simulated electronic models where people can practice. Now all experiments have to be clinically based, which means that you do not have to sacrifice animals—you have to accumulate a set number of clinical theses. The transitions started to happen when I was studying; I could do my thesis in this manner.

 

Are more women pursuing this field?

In India, it continues to be a male-dominated profession because veterinarian science is likened to taking care of cattle and horses. They think that as women we do not have the physical strength to do what we do.

The fact is, mental strength is far important than physical strength.

The number of women is increasing now. In my batch, out of 140 students, there were 80 women and 60 men.

 

If this is the case, why do we see fewer female veterinarians?

Women get married and do not practice veterinary medicine, as the idea of caring for the husband and looking after the baby takes precedence. Out of 80 women in my group, only one is still in practice.

 

Are you taken seriously as a female veterinarian?

I am still unable to put my finger on it and figure out why men question our credibility. They always like to put women down. They want to attribute everything as a result of a woman’s hormonal reaction. A while ago, two guys interviewed me, and they asked me if I regretted being an old maid. You know Heera, it really upset me—I was so shocked. I did not know how to reply.

 

You live your life on your terms, and you made your dream a reality. How many people can claim this? Anyone can get a salaried job. It must be terrible being in their shoes; we can only show sympathy for those with this disposition.

It also talks about the mindset in this country. It has to change. Girls can do the same professions as men, and often do them better. Also, we are driven by having to prove ourselves as women. It is changing very, very slowly. I always tell parents, do not look at your daughter as a daughter. Look at her as a person who can do anything that your son can. It is nice to learn to be independent. And the pride in me is such that if I want to buy my parents something I do not have to think twice. I know I can afford it.

 

Did you face obstacles from your professors, male colleagues or the public?

When I set up my practice, I had my professor saying: “God save those animals she is going to handle.”

 

And what does your professor have to say today?

He has become an old man who does not practice. I get a lot of his cases, and his clients tell me that they see a lot of him in me. I take this as a compliment, as he was a very accomplished vet. He was different in that he would not hug and cuddle his patients. It was that generation; I do.

 

When I lived in India, facilities to have pets X-rayed or scanned were absent in clinics. Has there been progress?

Only the government veterinary hospital has these facilities. If you invest in an X-ray or an ultrasound machine, there has to be a certain amount of return. Right now if I want to have a pet X-rayed, there is someone who reaches my clinic in a short time, and he does a good job. If a group of doctors get together and open a practice, they can afford to team up and buy such equipment.

 

Would you consider collaborating with veterinarians specializing in different fields?

Yes. I do not perform orthopedic or ophthalmic surgery. I am not trained or experienced enough in it. I am not willing to put a dog’s eyesight at stake. There is a lady vet who is excellent, and I refer all my cases to her. This has gained me respect amongst my clients.

They now know that if something is wrong with their pet, something I cannot take care of, I will refer them to someone else. And the next time when my clients have to see a vet, they come right back to me.

Some of my colleagues fear that their clients will go to another vet and not come back. You do not own anybody. What people choose to do with their pets is their choice. Would you rather an animal lose its eyesight?

 

All parties involved benefit when the larger picture, the well-being of the animal, is addressed.

Definitely.

 

There was a time when vets insisted that cats, after being neutered, be left in rusty cages (at the clinic). How can an owner care for a neutered pet at home?

When I neuter pets, I give owners comfortable recovery cages.

Owners should know that dogs wail on recovery, and since cats are high strung, they get disoriented. Cats tend to hallucinate on recovery; they do not do well with anesthesia. So one should switch off the lights. When it is dark and quiet, cats will go back to sleep. Also, keep the room at a comfortable temperature, and do not move the pet if you see it tossing or turning.

Some veterinarians push sales of puppies and recommend breeders. Do they get commissions?

Most vets take a commission out of every puppy that is sold. If more vets come out of the mindset about selling puppies to get commissions, it will help. I have breeders tell me they have puppies; I might direct someone to look at the litter, but it’s only a reference. Also, whether that puppy comes back to you for treatment is not your decision.

 

Now that dumping of dogs and cats has become an option, do you see a growing callousness in this cycle of rescuing abandoned animals (by animal shelters) and the subsequent adoption?

That is happening. I have breeders who come to me inquiring about becoming a member of the Blue Cross. When I ask why they say: “We sometimes see strays on the road and want to leave them in the shelter.” No, it is not true. They think becoming a member of the BC [Blue Cross] or the People for Animals [PFA] is a license to dump their animals. Unfortunately, the BC and the PFA are overcrowded. We have a lot of “no-kill” policies happening in India. For example, due to the lack of manpower to raise them, newborn puppies whose mothers have died, just lie and choke on the bottle they are being fed with and die.

This no-kill or no euthanizing policy is something that is not right. When I reason with them, they tell me I am too Western in my thinking. It is not about being Western in my thinking. Would you rather have a newborn animal die a miserable death or put it down right there? Unfortunately, India has this problem. We have a lot of centers where animals are dying but are not put down. I want shelters to wake up and decide which animal has to be put down and which to take care. The animals are hoarded, and they all die at their own time, some sooner, some later. It is not a happy existence.

 

How do you deal with wealthy disconnected clients—who talk excessively about their imported breed, imported kennels, imported food, even imported leashes and shampoos—who in reality force caretaking onto their domestic help?

I am downright rude to owners who send their dogs with their drivers and managers. I will write a note and tell them that I would like to see the owner’s face. Every time I see a new driver, a new maid, a new manager, I can tell there is no bonding whatsoever. And they will say: “Oh, the vaccines are due.” Would you send your child to the paediatrician with the hired help? No, you are there with the mother-in-law and father-in-law in tow for the first vaccine. Then why not for this pet?

 

I see children from poor families treat their pets, mostly mongrels or street cats, with tenderness and love. And It is quite the sight to watch them, often barefoot, with their pet in tow, on a cycle or in an autorickshaw.

I am sure there are households where pets and people are nurtured. They will take the first puppy off the street and shower their love on it. They might not have money to do more for their pet, like the rich kid, but they know how to extend love.

Mongrels are affectionate and intelligent. What stops people from having them as pets?

I am selling this idea. When people come to me and tell me they want to spend less money and want a low-maintenance dog, I tell them to walk into shelters. There are hundreds of puppies wanting homes. But some educated people say they want a pedigreed dog. It is a status thing.

 

Their pet is part of their “we have arrived” list.

Sure. I have people tell me they have built their house for nine or 10 crores, and they want a dog to go with the house. When I ask them if the dog is part of the furniture, they do not know what to say. And after the Vodaphone advertisement, the Pug breed was exploding in India, everybody wanted to go out and buy a Pug.

 

It’s my understanding that a significant number of Pugs that were “manufactured overnight” died, as they could not tolerate the heat in India.

It is true. They could not take the heat. The whole depiction in that ad was wrong. They are not necessarily the friendliest of dogs. They can be bad with children, and yet they show the pug running around with a child in the ad.

I have clients who have never looked after dogs in their lives and should never have taken on the Pug as their first dog. You have a lot of inbred Pugs that have undescended testicles, weak hind legs, poor vision, skin fold eczema, the entire cycle of eye conditions, respiratory disorders—it is a delicate breed. But just because you saw an advertisement and thought it was cute, you bought it. You saw it just like an actor selling jeans or sunglasses. It looks hot—I want it, I buy it. It was the same thing with the Pug. You had breeders popping up everywhere. Pugs were the flavor of the season. And then, when nobody wanted them anymore, they were dumped.

I also have had people asking for white dogs. There is a fixation for white and fluffy in India, have you noticed that?

 

How can one miss it? It runs the gamut of women and pets!

True. They want them fair, but the parameters change state to state.

With the white and fluffy dogs, people do not realize that they are high-maintenance dogs and do not have the best of temperaments. I ask them if they want a short-coated dog or a long-coated one. Then I tell them to go to some of the shelters to have a look at the puppies, but that the dog’s parents would not be known. How often do they know the parents of the pedigree dog? Just because it is a pedigree, you do not mind buying it from a breeder or a broker or from a pet shop where they do not show you the parents. They have a bunch of puppies in a cage, and you pick one, but that is okay because it is a pedigree dog.

 

Humans require fingers to carry out fundamental functions. How has it come to be acceptable to declaw cats or clip the ears and dock tails of puppies, robbing them of their most basic instincts?

They should not be subjected to this treatment. If a dog’s tail is up in the air and wagging, you know it is happy to see you. If it is tucked between its legs you know it is scared, and if it is not moving, it is not in any particular state of mind. When you dock a dog’s tail, its freedom of expression is gone. I have tried to understand this whole cosmetic surgery thing, and I have not found a single justifiable reason. People have progressed to using the latest electronics, so why have their mindsets not changed? Who are they to say that this is too thin or not? In many cases, the cropping fails, and apparently, the value is lost as a show dog, so they only use it to breed and make money.

It is cruel. I do not do it. I do not declaw, I do not dock tails, I do not crop ears. This is a stand that I took from day one. I decided to become a surgeon because I wanted to save lives, not alter animals.

The way I put it across to people is that when you smile, you smile. You have lips, and you have teeth, and you can express happiness. How does a dog express itself otherwise? A boxer has no tail because you crop it out when it is two days old. I cannot justify it.

Cropping puppy’s ears when they are four months old is cruel. They wear the bandage for three months, so the scar tissue forms, it contracts and makes the ear stand up. Why do we do this? Because some man somewhere said that a Doberman, Boxer, Great Dane or a Schnauzer looks good with cropped ears and cropped tails.

 

It must be traumatic for the pup and the mother.

I do not know if the mother realizes. All she knows is that her puppies are taken away from her when they are three days old, and they come back after an hour without their tails.

 

But the mother must sense the pain.

Yes, she senses the pain and will be in a lot of trauma. She will release cortisone in her milk, and the puppy will consume it.

 

Are there informed ways to buy a pedigree? And, how can we educate ourselves about the plight of the mother, the suffering that comes with her repeated breeding?

When people come here asking for advice on how to buy “a good breed dog,” I tell them to go about it scientifically. If you want to do it right, ask the breeder to show you both the father and the mother. Ask them for the certificates, as you will then be able to make out if they are inbred or not. They call this inline breeding—they just go back and breed the mother with her uncle.

I have tried to drill sense into some breeders, that if they want to breed their dog, breed her every third heat, giving her a year’s break in the middle. Do not breed her every six months, and do not inbreed.

 

What happens to the older mother dogs?

I am glad you bring this up; it is something I am trying to address. I have been talking to a lady who runs an animal shelter. I called her once out of sheer exasperation when I came across a female Labrador who in a span of four years had changed three owners, and they all came right back here.

Now I have to blame myself. I did not recognize the dog…I have so many patients that I correlate the owner’s face with the dog. When I looked at the record book, I asked: “Was this dog not owned by somebody else?” And they said she had been bred once by them and then given to another person for breeding, and sold to a third guy to be bred again.

By the time she dies, she has changed hands six or seven times. And when she can be breed no more, she is thrown into the streets and lands in a shelter.

When I spoke to this lady, who runs the shelter, she told me the problem is that the minute we ask people, they become very secretive about it. I have tried to bring it up with certifying authorities, namely the Kennel Club of India. Apparently it is run by the breeders. And they do the same thing. They do not want to listen to what I am saying.

 

It sounds like the shortsighted Indian lawmaker who is the lawbreaker, not the law upholder.

It is. Every time you buy a puppy, ask to see the mother. If you see that the mother is kept in a sad state and looks unhealthy, you know she has repeatedly been bred. Some clients will come back and tell me that the mother looked terrible, but the puppies looked great. Even when I say that the mother has had no break being bred from her very first heat, they aren’t willing to change.

I have a lot of male owners who come and tell me that their dog is ready to be bred. And I ask: “Did she tell you?” To this, they ask me: “Is she not old enough?” They go on to say how they have wives, and their sisters have husbands, and they need to have children. But I tell them that the female dog does not need to go through motherhood.

Most owners are doing it out of sheer ignorance. Breeders do it for money, and people who are buying the puppies choose to be shortsighted. When a person brings their female dog to me, the first thing I tell them is, “I hope you are not going to breed her.” They ask why, and I have to explain the problems she faces and the benefits of spaying.

When you let dogs go on one heat, you are increasing their chances of ovarian and mammary cancer.

Once people are convinced of the benefits of spaying their dogs, they can seek out more information. The mindset is slowly beginning to change; people are bringing in their pre-pubescent pets for sterilization.

 

 Is it emotionally challenging for you to euthanize pets?

Often I have problems because a lot of vets in town say that it is against their ethical belief to put an animal down. And their clients come to me and tell me that their pet is very ill, they will not tell me straight away on the phone that they want an appointment for euthanasia.

A few years ago, there reached a day when I did not want to wake up the next morning, as every day I had to put an animal down. I dreaded to see the next day. It took a huge toll on me. I would go to bed and wake up in tears. But when I saw the state of those dogs, I realized their suffering is more important than the owner’s negligence or the attitude of their vet saying that my heart is too soft, and I cannot do this.

There cannot be someone more sensitive than I am. One day, after eight straight days of doing this I told a client that her vet had no guts in him to face up to what he has to do and that he was walking away from his responsibility. He diagnosed this dog with the problem, gave her the entire picture and then threw her out to do what she wanted to. What kind of a vet is he? She finally picked up the phone and called the vet, but he would not do it, so I put the dog down. What has this profession taught us? Relieve an animal of pain. It does not always mean curing illness and healing. It also means this.

 

I know what you mean. Putting an end to their suffering gives dignity to death. Dr. Priya, what about extending pets dignity in their lifetime, basic care, grooming, and exercise?

I always tell people that if you want to get a pet, set aside half an hour in your day to groom your pet. You can find out so much about your pet, lumps, wounds, overgrown nails, breath. It is also therapeutic for the owner, as they are taking care of their pet.

And exercise is important too. A puppy can play around in the garden or terrace, but after they are immunized, they should be taken for walks. Twice a day for a dog, early in the morning and the evening is ideal, not in the sun. The other thing that I tell them is to pick up after their pets, do not leave poop around. Even here at the clinic, I say that if your dog has pooped, tell me. Do not look away. Everybody poops. At times when I open the door, and there is poop, people will step around it, and I will get a plastic bag and pick up after their dog. This hits them hard—the doctor is picking up the poop. How difficult was that? Actions speak louder than words—you need to do it to make other people realize.

 

Do pets take on their owner’s personality? For example, is a high-strung dog a reflection of its aggressive owner?

I have always believed that.

 

So when a dog is aggressive, it is the owner who has to be trained and not vice versa?

Yes. I have clients who will come in with their puppies and yell, “No, no!” And I will ask what they have named their pet. It will be Juno or Bruno. I tell them the pup probably thinks his name is “NO.” I asked one of my clients why he was shouting so loudly at his dog, and he told me his previous vet said to him that if the dog barks, he should shout louder.

 

That is hilarious.

Yes, it is. You have to be firm at the dogs level and use a low volume voice; this tells the dog you are not high-strung and mean-spirited.

 

What should a pet owner look for in a veterinarian?

The connection between the pet and the vet is a good place to start.

 

You have always had the support of your family; most women do not. How can women stay on track to pursue their dreams?

In school, I had people laugh at me and say: “Priya, a vet?”

A woman should follow her heart and not listen to the noise around her, as she will not be able to embark on her path.

And stay with your dream. I tell the youngsters, practice with your heart first, and use your brains to make use of what you have been taught.

 

Your working hours seem to be endless. How do you maintain a balance?

It is tough. Maybe this is one of the reasons I decided to remain single. I have been in relationships, but I have not met a man who has understood my vocation and my calling. I also have very supportive parents who are getting older and fall sick. I now realize why I left college and came to study and set up a clinic here—to take care of them. In many ways this balance is only there because of the work I am doing, it keeps me grounded.

 

Where does the real reward lie for you?

The true reward has been the way people have reacted to my existence in the city. It is when someone like you comes to interview me. It is my patients who love me. My clinic is part of their evening walk. All this is extremely rewarding.

 

 

 

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