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Veterinary medicine is a calling almost always heard at a young age. Consequently, a young, aspiring doctor often subjects his or her parents to a litany of trials, involving stray dogs, injured cats and at least one or two wild creatures.

Veterinary medicine is a calling almost always heard at a young age. Consequently, a young, aspiring doctor often subjects his or her parents to a litany of trials, involving stray dogs, injured cats and at least one or two wild creatures.

"Every mother of a child who wants to be a veterinarian has earned a special place in heaven because they have lived with bunnies in the bedroom and turtles in the bathtub," says Dr. Mary Beth Leininger, director of professional affairs with Hill's Pet Nutrition. "The mantra has always been: 'Because I love animals,' but it's become more than that: It's wanting to make a difference for beings that can't speak for themselves."

Obviously, Leininger was a typical animal lover in her youth, but her career eventually took on a unique turn. In 1996, Leininger became the first female president of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), where she had less resistance because of her gender than she had because of her previous experience.

"What was challenging for most people was not that I was a woman, but I had not served on the AVMA executive board," she says.

Leininger rose through the ranks in Michigan—eventually serving as president of the Michigan Veterinary Medical Association—before she tackled leadership roles at the national level. But irrespective of her role in the profession, gender has never been an issue, she says.

"I really never noticed that it was difficult to be a woman in the profession. I suppose that it was, but maybe because I was never looked for it, I never really noticed it," Leininger says. "What I really wanted to do is make a difference for my patients and make a difference for the families that loved them."

Association views

After making a difference one client at a time across the exam table for more than 20 years, she set her sights on making the national association more interactive for its members.

"What I found most satisfying is that I really wanted to make AVMA more accessible to the general member: people who were not in leadership positions in state associations or were not in the AVMA councils or committees," she says. "I wanted to give people the opportunity and the understanding of how to get into the system and to have their voices heard on the national level."

While Leininger spent much of her time at the helm making the organization more accessible for the everyday veterinary members, she says the organization's most-important role today is to make veterinary medicine accessible and understandable to the rest of the world.

"One of the most important things that the AVMA does is position us to influence public policy," she says. "Veterinarians, no matter what they do, are more and more impacted by laws and regulations that are either going to help us or hinder us from doing our jobs."

Public opinion is important, too, especially with burgeoning social concerns about bioterrorism and the prominent role veterinarians play in public health and animal welfare.

"We have to figure out how to communicate who we are and what we are all about to the entire universe of stakeholders that might not know about us. They might know their family veterinarian, but they don't know how important veterinarians are in providing a safe food supply and ensuring public health," she says. "The best epidemiologists are veterinarians because we've been doing herd health all of our lives. The challenge is that all stakeholders hear the message differently; government officials listen in different ways than people who care about the welfare of animals. We must be constantly aware that society has changing expectations of us."

Lack of diversity is another issue on the horizon for the profession. Leininger says the United States is increasingly diverse, but the veterinary profession is not.

"There are very few people of color, whether that be Hispanic, black, Asian or Native American, and that is a big hole because people like to do business with people who look like them," she says. "We are not diverse, and we've not yet figured out how to reverse that pattern."

But Leininger says there always will be challenges for the profession and each practitioner, ranging from the medical and financial to the emotional and metaphysical. But the key to personal fulfillment is to focus on the solutions instead of the obstacles.

"The challenges are not the issue; how you respond to them will define whether or not you will be satisfied," she says.

While she has responded to challenges with seemingly endless fortitude, she quickly credits her moral compass, people savvy, persistence and spouse—above all—as the hallmarks of her happiness and success.

"No one ever achieves anything alone. You need to be able to depend on someone who helps you make the right choices, even if they are hard choices," she says. "And you need someone who can tell you what isn't right. Knowing what's going wrong is the first step in making it right."

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