To Animals, She's the Cat's Meow

Boston Globe
February 13, 1987
By Gloria Negri

MARLBOROUGH - There may be days, like the one she had to inject penicillin into a boa constrictor with pneumonia, that might make Laura Schwarcz [LeVan] wonder why she hadn't followed her parents into a newspaper career. But those days are few and far between.

For the last 10 years, Schwarcz has been a veterinarian with a practice in small animal medicine and surgery at the Marlborough Animal Hospital on Lakeside Avenue.

"I have absolutely no regrets about my choice of career," the 39-year-old Schwarcz said the other day at the clinic she shares with Dr. C. Peter Nelson and staff of eight.

Neither, apparently, has the 500-member Massachusetts Veterinary Medicine Association, which several days ago installed Schwarcz as its first woman president. The association is marking its centennial this year.

While women in veterinary medicine have come a long way since 1910 when Florence Kimball of South Dartmouth became the first woman in Massachusetts and, possible, the first in the country, to become a doctor of veterinary medicine, the profession is still male-dominated.

Of the approximately 800 veterinarians in the state, some 225 of them are women. But, times are changing. Sixty-five percent of the freshman class at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine are women.

Kimball's graduation from Cornell University School of Medicine after a three-year course in 1910 is noted by Dr. Ellis Pierson Leonard in his history of Cornell's veterinary school, "In the James Law Tradition," which describes her as "the first woman in the United States to earn a doctor of veterinary medicine degree."

Reflecting on her own career the other day, Schwarcz recalled that the idea of becoming a veterinarian took hold when she read an article about women vets and another about women Peace Corps members vaccinating cattle in some foreign land, "and realized how far we had come."

A native of Oregon, where her parents met when both worked for the Portland Oregonian, she graduated with a liberal arts degree in 1968 from Raymond College of the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif. She was living in Canada when she decided to become a veterinarian and entered the Ontario Veterinary College in Guelph.

After a while, she thought she would switch and become a physician because people where her main concern, but she stuck with animals and received her doctor of veterinary medicine degree with honors in 1976.

"This isn't an animal business," Schwarcz said, "but a people business. I have to be able to communicate with the owners of a pet and find out what part that pet plays in their lives to be most effective." Next to caring about people, anyone thinking about being a vet should "do well in science and have a compassion and feeling for animals," she said.

For a year before setting up her own practice, Schwarcz worked in a Shrewsbury animal hospital caring for bigger farm animals. A slim woman, deceptively fragile, with blonde hair and blue eyes, Schwarcz can physically outmaneuver any Doberman Pinscher whose temperature she has to take or any cunning cat she has to vaccinate.

As a general practitioner and surgeon, she has cared for almost every kind of small animal, from the pneumonic boa constrictor and dogs and cats to gerbils, guinea pigs and hamsters. Gerbils fight a lot among themselves and bite and at two or three could be dying of old age, while guinea pigs get viruses and bacterial diseases, Schwarcz explained.

She has performed a Caesarean section on a poodle who was having a difficult pregnancy and removed a hunter's arrow from a duck shot through the skin of its throat. On any given day, she might do everything from surgery and neutering a pet to setting fractures, removing foreign bodies from stomachs and repairing a ruptured bladder.

While emergencies are what compels most owners to bring their pets to a vet, Schwarcz said vets are stressing the preventive medicine approach of regular check-ups and vaccinations. "Pets can't tell us how they feel so we have to be very observant of subtle symptoms, like the color of the skin or breath odor, as signals that something's wrong," she said.

People must be taking better care of their pets, because pets are living longer. "It's not uncommon to see a cat who has lived to 18 or even 25, compared to 9 or 10, not long ago," she said. She feels that if medicine can help an animal live longer, it will be around to give its owner even more love, which, medical research has already proven helps the human condition.

She spoke also of the many medical advances and vaccinations that have eliminated some animal diseases, such as distemper, and how important rabies immunizations are in "establishing an immune barrier" between the wildlife that gives rabies to pets and, through them, to people. "Before the 1950 law requiring dogs to have rabies shots, rabies caused the deaths of 50 people a year in this country," Schwarcz said.

Recent years have also seen more interest in behavioral aspects of pets, with owners becoming more concerned about their animal's mental and emotional health.

For example, why does your cat shun his litter in favor of your rug or behave rudely to your guests? He could be acting out because of jealousy or an imagined slight.

Incidentally, Schwarcz said, cats can be trained as well as dogs. Now, the behavioral problem has become a specialty at veterinary schools. "After all," Schwarcz said, "if the pet is a burden, it's hardly a pet."