Sarah Boston, DVM, DVSc, Dipl ACVS

Veterinarians are professionals that work with animals. Usually sick animals. There are often multiple body fluids involved. This creates a tension in us. How do I dress professionally, knowing full well that I will soon be covered in feces, urine, anal sac fluid (I don’t even know what this stuff is called), blood and/or hair?

Once, when I was in general practice, I was unblocking a cat (male cat, can’t pee, needs a urinary catheter placed ASAP) and I managed to simultaneously pass the catheter and release a jet of fluid from the cat’s anal sacs. Couldn’t really stop what I was doing due to sterility and finally getting the cat unblocked, so I just endured the stream of stinky fluid as it shot directly on to my neck and then streamed down my chest, settling in my nonexistent cleavage and bra as I worked. And I really can’t complain because when I tell this story to my colleagues, they always one-up me and tell me that almost the same thing happened to them, only the anal sac stream hit them in the mouth. The mouth. I quit.

One of my professors at vet school, a very old-school bovine veterinarian, used to wear a shirt and tie under his coveralls when he saw sick cows. I am not sure about what kind of pants, or if he wore pants. (I hope he wore pants.) I am not even sure if it was a real shirt versus a dickie-style shirt-collar and tie, but the overall appearance was very very profesh. For male veterinarians, it is relatively straightforward; if you want to look professional, wear a shirt and tie.

Our veterinary students are required to wear a shirt and tie on their clinical rotations. There is no doubt that it looks good, but it is important not to think too much about the particular tie. Most vet students do not have a wide selection of ties. It is also questionable whether or not they have ever cleaned their tie(s) or if they would know how to clean their tie(s). Their tie is peeking out between the lapels of their clean-ish lab coat, picking up bacteria everywhere it goes. It is a fashion forward fomite.

Female veterinarians have a whole other set of hurdles to contend with. There is no shirt and tie off-the-shelf uniform. The clothes that we wear at work need to be: comfortable, flattering, stylish, professional, female, machine-washable and hair repellant. Easy to change in and out of is also a plus if you are going in and out of surgery. So what’s a girl to do? There is the old-school female(-ish) vet uniform, that is often mocked, yet can not/will not go away. That is the white sneakers, mom jeans and airbrushed animal T-shirt or sweatshirt. This ensemble fits only 2 of the 8 criteria above, but it is a real favorite.


Some women just miss the mark when trying to dress professionally and land either in cocktail party or bar-girl outfit land, or even worse, frumpy middle-aged men’s business clothes for women land (complete with shoulder pads). It’s tricky.  I oscillate between different vet girl looks on a regular basis. Sometimes, I try to look nice and I wear my best working girl clothes (meaning professional clothes, not that I am dressed like a hooker, which is definitely a look to be avoided). Then I get frustrated because these clothes get ruined or cost a fortune to dry clean and I switch to dorky, but functional and washable dress shirts and slacks. Sometimes I give up altogether on civilian looks and wear the surgeon’s uniform, which also look like pyjamas, surgical greens. Then I miss fashion and I start the cycle all over again.

The other challenge to looking good is the general business of the day in the life of a  veterinarian. Most vets do not take time for themselves at work to do frivolous things, like peeing or drinking water. Actually, drinking water would just compound the problem, as adequate hydration can only lead to the need to urinate. No peeing also equals no looking a mirror for the entire day, so the mascara fail, food in teeth (assuming you had time to eat) or protruding booger go unnoticed all day.

Ignorance can be bliss in this scenario. It is also a good way to know your true work friends, the ones that let you know when you have a “puppy in the kennel” as they gesture to a nostril. I would say I am a bit inconsistent on the booger alerting front. I try hard to be brave and just let my colleagues know that they have a bit of a situation in their nez, but sometimes too much time has passed in the booger-laden conversation and bringing it up now would just make it worse because I have been staring at it the whole time. Sometimes I am just not strong enough.

Once you head in to surgery, it is a whole other set of aesthetic challenges. It is impossible to stay pretty in surgery. The surgical cap, which is made of a truly disgusting synthetic material that makes my skin crawl and does strange things to everybody’s hair, the face mask and the sweating, all conspire. Once you come out of surgery, you have mascara running down your already darkened eye circles, strange hair that will not/can not go back to normal, and you are just a little sweaty all over. If you are a cancer surgeon like me, you might also have blood splattered across your face. Everyone you see in the hospital will tell me about it, just in case I forget that I look like an axe murderer as I head up to the waiting area to tell my clients that their precious dog is doing just fine.

I think that the only reasonable answer is to have a glam squad waiting for you as you head into every appointment. Just like the glam squad on American Idol that keep J-Lo and Harry from looking too shiny. (Somehow beautiful Keith doesn’t seem to need any touch-ups on set, he just gazes dreamily into the camera while his besties get re-primped.) Until we have vet glam squads, our clients will just have to take us as we are, shiny, frazzled, disheveled, sweaty, tired and happy to get a little dirty taking care of their best friends.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the editorial team.

140828_Boston_014BABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sarah Boston is a veterinary surgical oncologist and public speaker. Sarah is also a cancer survivor and author of the best-selling, hilarious memoir, Lucky Dog: How Being a Veterinarian Saved my Life. Follow her on Twitter or find her on Facebook.