Dr. Karen van Haaften is a behavior resident at the UC Davis Clinical Animal Behavior Service. School of Veterinary Medicine. She has helped us the past two years with case studies and panels and we cannot express how grateful we are for her! Rumor has it, she's even been featured on Pet Tales.
What was your track in vet school?
What's your favorite animal?
Cats all the way!
Do you have pets? What are their names?
I currently have 2 feline senior citizens: Mozart (pictured in his tux) and Midnight. They are great company! I also foster and pet-sit a lot, so there is often a dog or two in my life, as well.
Why did you decide to go into veterinary medicine rather than any other field?
I have always had strong interests in animal welfare, science, and medicine. I spent time working in vet hospitals in high school, which helped me gain a realistic understanding of the career. By the time I started my undergraduate degree, I was focused on vet med as a career.
As an undergraduate, what were some of the challenges you faced and how did you over come them?
Balancing my studies with all the other social and educational opportunities available to undergraduates was a challenge. We all know vet school is competitive. At first I put a lot of pressure on myself to get the best grades possible, even if that meant sacrificing experiences. Gradually I managed to find a healthier balance. Looking back, I value the friends that I made and experiences I had much more than any final grade.
What's the best advice you would give to an undergraduate?
If you're willing to work hard, I truly believe anyone can get into vet school. Decide for yourself what is and is not possible. I would recommend making sure that you have a realistic idea of what daily life is like for a vet. There are lots of careers where you can work with and help animals. Make sure you know what you are looking for, and that you would enjoy the lifestyle of a veterinarian. It's not an easy career, but I have found it to be a very rewarding one.
What made you decide to specialize in behavior?
In small animal practice, I was often stumped when my clients asked me for advice on behavior problems. I recognized clinical behavior as a gap in my veterinary education. I found some good textbooks, and made an effort to attend continuing education lectures on the topic. The bug bit when I started applying this knowledge with my clients. There is nothing as satisfying for me as repairing a broken bond between pets and their owners. I think as veterinarians we are getting very good at caring for animal's physical needs, but often their emotional health is overlooked. I wanted to learn all I could and bring more knowledge from this important field to vet students and practicing clinicians.
What is a day typically like as behavioral resident at UC Davis?
Doing an academic residency means no 2 days are the same! I spend most of my time seeing clinical cases, teaching senior vet students, and reading/researching. I also have ongoing research projects and ongoing communication with my active cases. There are never enough hours in the day!
What is the most interesting case you've worked on?
So many, but they're too complicated to address [in an email interview] in full. I love my dog aggression cases (which make up the bulk of my caseload). Usually there is a communication problem between the pet and the owner. I get to help them understand each other better, and they tend to be very rewarding.
So how exactly do you specialize?
Essentially one has to complete the requirements of a residency by the licensing board (in my case, the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists or ACVB). This involves completing a residency program involving extra classes (animal behavior, neurobiology, psychology), seeing a minimum number of clinical behavior cases, writing detailed case reports, and publishing research. Once the residency requirements are met, you have to pass a big, scary licensing exam. I'm expecting my residency to take 3 years, which is about average for academic residencies. Planning ahead is helpful for most specialties, but not essential. In my opinion, the most challenging part is deciding whether you want to specialize, and what you want to specialize in. I was in practice for 5 years before coming back to do an academic residency. Every type of practice I worked in (emergency & critical care, general practice, and mixed animal) was challenging and rewarding in different ways. Some students seem to know right away what their ideal career is, but clinical behavior wasn't even on my radar in vet school. Like many others, I needed some experience in practice to realize what my strengths are as a clinician and where my passion lies. Don't feel like you have to rush in to a decision, and try to be open to new possibilities.