An Interview with Dr. Karen A. Moriello


This author and dermatology professor thinks the increasingly urbanized public is losing its perspective when it comes to animals and the veterinary profession. "Veterinary medicine is most commonly associated with dogs and cats-people forget that veterinarians are the caretakers of the food source."

Karen A. Moriello, DVM, DACVD, is a professor of dermatology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's School of Veterinary Medicine and a member of the Veterinary Medicine Editorial Advisory Board. She is the author of numerous journal articles and books, including Self-Assessment Colour Review of Small Animal Dermatology.

What is the most exciting change you've seen in veterinary medicine?

When I graduated, animals were still dying of diseases that we can now prevent with vaccinations. We take vaccinations for granted. But everyone needs to have at least one conversation with a veterinarian from a country where rabies is a real human health threat to appreciate how much vaccinology has changed our profession and the animals we treat.

Photos by Sandra Newbury, DVM

What is the focus of your current research?

The practical aspects of diagnosing and treating dermatophytosis. The pictures in this article were taken by my close friend and colleague Dr. Sandra Newbury, who envisioned and made possible the first Dermatophyte Screening and Treatment Program in an animal shelter. This model is being copied in shelters throughout the country.

Who was your most memorable patient?

A 2-year-old Persian cat named Monet. Through a calamitous series of events, she developed feline skin fragility syndrome due to exogenous glucocorticoid administration and toxic epidermal necrolysis from a sulfa drug administered to treat diarrhea associated with a "designer diet" being fed by the owner. The protein-deficient diet (Ah! Cats are not vegans!) really complicated the situation. The end result was literally a skinned cat—with skin sloughing from her neck to her lumbosacral area. The prognosis was grave, but the owner was a pediatric nurse who simply would not let Monet die—and she didn't! Over a year's time, Monet's skin healed, and she regrew her hair. The only telltale sign was contraction of the skin over her head making her ears too close together.

What was the best professional advice you ever received?

From a medical perspective: "More is missed for not looking than for not knowing." In other words, slow down, look, and think. From a career perspective: "Just remember academic veterinarians are mere mortals, and those pedestals people get put on are built brick by brick." When you are a new graduate, you look at successful private practice and academic clinicians with awe and think "I can't do that," all the time forgetting that everyone starts at the same place and that the only difference between getting what you want and not getting what you want is persistence.

Ken a loud-mouthed, charismatic kitten with severe dermatophytosis, which was successfully treated through the Dermatophyte Screening and Treatment Program at the Dane County Humane Society in Madison, Wis.

What would you advise a new graduate?

Veterinary medicine is a lot like the army—It's not a job, it's an adventure. But don't forget, adventures are not always fun while you are having them.

Are you a cat person or a dog person?

A cat person. I have three nocturnal house-wrecking predators that are the delight of my life. All three are refuge rejects. Henry, a not-quite-tame black cat, slides between feral and pet. E-1, a big yellow tabby, is a former research cat; his name comes from his ear tattoo. He's sweet but not too bright. Tink, a humane society rescue cat that had a broken leg, is affectionately known as the old lady. She is very attached to my son, so much so that she yowls in disapproval when he brings a young lady to our house. I'm fine with my son's dating, but Tink is not.

What book would you recommend?

Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande. I credit this book with helping me develop self-discipline, not just in writing but in overcoming procrastination and getting over the notion that I need "inspiration" to get X problem done. It was written in 1934 but is still in print.

Do you have a bad habit?

I am a world-class worrier and catastrophizer. I can take a small concern and morph it into a class I panic attack in just minutes. But I've developed a coping mechanism. In a short story titled "The Worry Box," outdoor humorist Patrick McManus describes keeping his worries in a little mental box lest they take over his life. His box just had a lid; mine is padlocked and, just in case the lock breaks, duct-taped closed.

What do you consider the greatest threat to the profession?

The urbanization of the country. Veterinary medicine is most commonly associated with dogs and cats—people forget that veterinarians are the caretakers of the food source. There is a great need for veterinarians in the food supply area of veterinary practice. People are also losing their connection with the food supply. A lot of children do not realize that the fast-food hamburger they had for lunch came from a cow.

Which animal health needs are currently unmet?

The needs of animals owned by elderly clients living on limited incomes. For many of my clients, these pets are their only purpose in life, their sole companions. It's heartbreaking when these clients come to the clinic and can't pay for care because of their limited income. Much to our credit, I'm increasingly noticing that veterinarians are providing "elder pet care" discounts to long-time clients who are now on fixed incomes.

What changes in veterinary medicine do you hope will occur in the next 100 years?

It is not what I hope changes, but what I hope does not. A recent survey reported that veterinarians are in the top three trusted professions. One important reason for this, in my opinion, is that by the nature of our profession we spend a lot of time with our clients face-to-face discussing their pets' care. Clients are involved in the decision-making process. I hope as a profession we never develop the "doc in the box," "get 'em in and get 'em out" approach that seems to be so common in human medicine. I hope that in 100 years we are still in that top three!

What makes a good veterinarian?

Students ask me this all the time. The best I can do is tell them what I would look for if I were hiring: someone with enthusiasm about the profession, who showed initiative, who looked for something constructive to do when things were slow, and who had a good work ethic but was not a workaholic. Someone with a good sense of humor, who knew when to ask for help, had good animal sense, and was honest and humble. Someone who had failed at something important and had gotten back up on his or her feet.

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