Veterinarian Talk with Dr. Heather Gunn McQuillan

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Veterinarian Talk with Dr. Heather Gunn McQuillan

Dr. Heather Gunn McQuillan has served as the Assistant Dean of Clinical and Professional Programming at the Atlantic Veterinary College (AVC) since August 2020. Prior to that time, she was the Hospital Director for the Veterinary Teaching Hospital (VTH) at AVC for nearly six years.

With more than fifteen years of practical experience in a diverse range of settings including companion animal medicine and surgery, large animal medicine (both health management and field service), emergency medicine, shelter medicine, remote outreach medicine in Canada’s North, and research/teaching in both academia and industry, Heather has brought this experience to overseeing and teaching in the Professional Foundations curriculum at AVC. Within that program, Dr. Gunn McQuillan focuses on delivering professional competencies in communication, conflict resolution, resiliency, leadership, wellness, diversity and inclusion, and veterinary business management.

Passionate about veterinary wellness, Heather is a Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT-200 and RYT-500 in-progress), a meditation instructor, and a certified MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) facilitator. She holds a graduate certificate in Mindfulness-Based Teaching and Learning (MBTL) for adult education and is in the process of obtaining her Master’s in Education. She teaches regular mindfulness courses to AVC students and has integrated mindfulness teaching into the core curriculum through the professional foundations coursework.

She lives in beautiful Prince Edward Island, Canada with her partner, Jarrod and their two kids, Finlay and Emma.


Veterinarians prevent, diagnose and treat diseases and disorders in animals and advise clients on the feeding, hygiene, housing and general care of animals. They work in private practice or may be employed by animal clinics, farms, laboratories, government or industry.

Job Forecast

For Veterinarians, over the period 2019-2028, new job openings (arising from expansion demand and replacement demand) are expected to total 3,600 , while 3,900 new job seekers (arising from school leavers, immigration and mobility) are expected to be available to fill them. As it was the case over the last decade, population growth should lead to an increase in the number of household pet owners. Improvement in the health services offered to pets and access to different pet insurance products are also expected to continue fueling the demand for veterinarian services. In addition, the ongoing reinforcement of animal food quality inspections and of livestock exports and imports should also contribute to employment growth in this occupational group.

Employment Requirements

This is what you typically need for the job:
Two years of pre-veterinary university studies or completion of a college program in health science and a four to five year university degree in veterinary medicine and Completion of national certification examinations are required.
A provincial licence to practice is required.
Entry into research positions may require post-graduate study.


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Complete Episode Transcript

We don’t have a lot of people who have done mid-career changes, but I’m not going to say we don’t have any.

Believe it or not, we’ve had human physicians who’ve decided, you know what, people aren’t for me.

Let’s go work with animals who have gone from human medicine and jump into vet med We’ve had lawyers who’ve jumped into vet med.

We’ve had dentists who’ve jumped into vet med, and it goes the other way as well.

So you can still do this mid-career big change.

But yes, it’s a lot of school.

It’s a lot of it’s a it’s a lot of hard work.

The Job Talk Podcast shares stories from people who are passionate and love what they do in their careers.

Through conversation, we explore their careers, past work experiences and the education that got them to where they are now.

We are putting together an ultimate career crisis interview series.

We are asking experts to give their best advice and guidance around work anxiety career pressures, career goal setting, and ultimately career transformation.

To learn more about this special interview series and get notified when it’s available, please visit our web page at Today’s guest is Dr. Heather Gunn-McQuillan Here’s our job talk with the veterinarian.

Heather, I think if you were to ask a number of kids what they want to be when they grow up, their answer would be veterinarian.

It would be very high on their list. 100%.

Are you the same? Did you always want to become a veterinarian? No, I’m a weirdo. I’m such a weirdo.

So I grew up wanting to be a human medical doctor.

And it’s really funny to even say those terms.

When I talk to human physicians, they’re like, What do you mean, a human doctor? Like, Well, there’s animal doctors.

But I wanted to be a human doctor.

And I had gone off to the University of Guelph to do biomedical science.

I was a really geeky, nerdy little kid in high school.

I was really into science and I wanted to work with cadavers.

And the University of Guelph had a biomedical science program where you got to work with dead bodies.

It takes a special teenager to be, like, jazzed by dead bodies.

But that was me.

And so I thought this is what it was going to be all about.

And the University of Guelph is famous for its agriculture and veterinary programs.

And I started to have this epiphany that maybe I was looking at the wrong species for medicine.

Yeah. Where did you grow up? I grew up in Nova Scotia, so normally you have to go to vet school by its region.

So I actually wasn’t eligible to go to the University of Guelph, the Ontario Veterinary College.

Without living there for a year and gaining my residency status there.

So I had to do that.


Let’s talk about your first experience studying veterinarian medicine.

What was that like? I loved it.

What was that like? I loved it.

Everybody has different experiences with veterinary medicine and with veterinary college.

It’s a hard program, but I think I’d worked out some of my kinks.

I did a full undergrad before I went into that school, and I think that helped.

I had a level of maturity that was maybe a little bit different than those who’d only done two years, and it made it a little easier to transition.

And I wasn’t quite as shocked by the amount of workload that was there.

And also the biomedical science program was really hard, so I was okay.

And what kind of programs are you going through when you’re in vet school? What are some of the course names? Yeah.

So you do a whole ton of different things and it’s changed a lot since I graduated.

So I’m feeling very old these days as I’m an educator now and I see the new students come in and I’m recognizing that I’m actually old enough to be their mom.

That’s making me feel a little old, a little humble.

But when I went to school, a lot of similarities.

We did anatomy, which, again, there’s your dead bodies, but you’re looking at all sorts of different species, mink and cattle and sheep and goats and cats and dogs and all sorts of things.

And we had histology, which is looking at essentially microscopic anatomy.

You’re looking at cells through the microscope to look for types of disease and the cell structure, all sorts of physiology courses on how the body works.

And then there were professional courses.

And even though I’m an old fart, I still got to do professional courses back then to in communication and leadership, resiliency, wellness, business, those kinds of things.

When you graduate, what do you graduate with when when you graduate from vet school? Yeah. So you’re a doctor? Yeah.

You have a doctor of veterinary medicine, a DVM.

Okay, yeah. You’re.

You’re still a doctor. Yeah. And do you.

Do you specialize in anything while you’re doing it? Like surgery? Is that a part of your designation? So this is what’s really interesting about vet med.

There are so many opportunities in so many different fields.

And so when you graduate as a veterinarian, you are a general practitioner like your human doctor, general practitioner.

But it’s so vastly different because you go to your doctor and they’re not going to do surgery on you.

They’re going to send you to a surgeon, they’re not going to do dentistry work on you.

They’re going to get you to go to your dentist.

They’re not going to do dermatology work on your skin or check your heart.

They’re going to send you to your dermatologist and your cardiologist.

But general practitioners in veterinary medicine do all of those things and so much more that said, you can still specialize.

So say you’re super excited about skin.

You can become a board certified veterinary dermatologist and look at pus all day long. Oh, wow.

Or or maybe you’re more into hearts because pus is gross.

You can become a cardiologist, a veterinary cardiologist, and then you specialize.

You have to do a whole lot more school and then all you do is do the high specialized work in those fields.

And then the general practitioner would refer those patients with the more complex processes off.

But one of my favorite things to do as a general practitioner was surgery.

I loved it. What was your first professional experience after you graduated from.

From school? Yeah, so very strange.

I went north.

I was a food animal veterinarian, which meant I liked working with cattle and pigs and production medicine animals that are used to feed us.

And I also did small animals, so this would have been a mixed animal practice in rural Ontario.

And it was way up north and I saw everything under the sun cats, dogs, sheep, goats, pigs, bison, elk, llamas, alpacas, horses, everything.

And so it was mixed animal practice.

And I was on the road most of the time and on call a lot.

So yeah, it was a busy, busy little practice.

And how far north in Canada was that.


So it was in a community called Fort Francis, Ontario, which for those of you who know northern Ontario, it’s halfway between Thunder Bay and Winnipeg.

So imagine driving, you know, an hour and a half or 2 hours to go see and test, which is something we did see.

to go semen test, which is something we did.

semen test one bull and then drive 2 to 3 hours back to the clinic.

Those are the things you do.

And how many years was were you in that position for? Just a little less than two years, so that I give my hats off to anybody who does that kind of work? It’s not lifestyle work, that’s for sure.

I was on call every second night and the hours were long.

It was about 80 plus hours of work a week, and after a period of time, I came to realize I needed something with a little bit more balance.

And at that point I switched into small animal practice.


Do you have a favorite animal that you like to work with? Yeah, I do.

So I have.

My old email address is Hog Doc because I was a pig vet and that’s sort of what where I came into my own was working with swine and I love pigs.

They’re so smart, but I also love dogs.

So when I was really young in my career, I thought, Oh, maybe someday I’ll on my own practice and I’ll call it hogs and dogs because it’s my two favorite animals to work with.

Oh, wow.

Let’s let’s talk about your position now and the.

Yeah. The institute that you work at.


So I’m the assistant dean of clinical and professional programing at the Atlantic Veterinary College.

So I’ve switched out of a role working with animals directly.

And now I work as an educator to help train the next generation of veterinarians.

I did general practice for about ten years and then came into academia, and I’ve really, really enjoyed it.

Working with the next generation of vet students is part of its exponential impact of leaving your mark on the future.

And it’s pretty cool.

What do you think the average age of your student is? Because the reason I started this podcast was I had made a mid-career change and I don’t think you have to commit so much time to becoming a veterinarian.

What do you think the average age and what kind of person is is a student in your program? Yeah, and you’re right.

We don’t have a lot of people who have done mid-career changes, but I’m not going to say we don’t have any.

Believe it or not, we’ve had human physicians who’ve decided, you know what, people aren’t for me.

Let’s go work with animals who have gone from human medicine and jump into vet med.

We’ve had lawyers who’ve jumped into vet med and we’ve had dentists who’ve jumped into vet med and it goes the other way as well.

So if you can still do this mid-career big change.

But yes, it’s a lot of school.

It’s a lot of it’s a it’s a lot of hard work.

So our average age of our students upon graduation is probably in their mid to late twenties.

You have to do a minimum of two years of an undergraduate degree before you come into the four year program with us.

So knowing that most students go in around 18 or 19, that kind of gives you a sense of where you land sort of in that 24 to 28 range.

And what kind of advice could you give to a student applying to your program to become a veterinarian? Yeah, everybody seems to think it’s just about marks.

And marks are important.

Don’t get me wrong, you have to there’s a threshold.

You have to hit that threshold to get in, but it’s so much more than that.

So having those well-rounded experiences and especially those life experiences that can help give you some resiliency because this is not a career for the faint of heart.

There are some big challenges with this career.

It’s emotionally demanding.

It can be physically demanding.

It can be really hard.

You’re dealing with the public, it’s customer service.

So having those life experiences that show you and show us that you’ve got what it takes to be resilient are huge.

And that could be previous training and working with animals.

It could be customer service experience showing that you know what it takes to work with the public, anything where you can show that you’ve got excellence in communication, that you’ve got some leadership abilities, all of those kind of things help build you out as a well-rounded applicant.

I imagine the competition is quite, quite high.

How many vet schools are in Canada? Yeah, it’s a great question.

So there’s only five in Canada and they’re regional.

So you’ve got Atlantic, which covers all of the Atlantic provinces, and then you’ve got the Quebec school, which is FMV, which is the Francophone College.

So it’s mostly for Francophone Quebec and a little bit of Francophone New Brunswick.

You have the Western College of Veterinary Medicine, which is in which is in Saskatchewan.

You have the Ontario Vet College, which only does Ontario.

And I should have said Western covers the western provinces with the exception now, I believe, of Alberta, because Alberta has got its own, the Calgary Veterinary College.

And so those are the five of us. Yeah.

Once you get your designation, can you take this anywhere in the world? Yeah.

This is a cool thing because this accreditation here, we’re, we’re recognized internationally.

We are part of the American Vet Med Association, Council of Education Credentialing.

So you can go anywhere in the U.S., you can go anywhere in Canada, you can go anywhere that’s recognized by that, including most of Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

So I mean, you’ve got the whole world is your oyster.

When you’re a general practitioner, you’re dealing with all kinds of animals.

All you got, including reptiles.

Yeah, anything.

So you’re zoo medicine too.

So I’ve worked on lions before.

Believe it or not, that’s maybe the coolest animal I’ve ever worked on.

I was doing some anesthesia work here at the college and again, remember, I’m just a general practitioner.

I’m not an anesthesiologist, and they needed somebody because I had a large animal experience to help anesthetize the lion.

He was darted.

He was asleep, but they needed somebody that put their hands and the tube down his throat.

And that was me.

I reached my hand down his throat and put the tube in and wow, I was really cool. Yeah.

How are animals when they come to see the vet or do you do you have a lot of problems with aggressive animals at all? Well, the lion the lion probably wasn’t the best behaved, but aside from him.

So he would have been heavily sedated.

But you’re right, it’s like us going to the doctor.

There are lots of people who don’t like to go to the doctor or the dentist.

And so there’s a number of cats and dogs that don’t particularly like coming to see us. Yeah, there are some strategies that clinics can use to help minimize the stress.

They can create what’s called a fear free environment, where dogs and cats don’t share the same waiting room, which is a good idea because they don’t tend to get along that well.

They can also use special diffusers that are like happy cat smells that make cats sort of chill out a little bit.

And a lot of this fearfully free clinics don’t have the vets wearing that big, scary white coat because animals tend to react to it.

So there are things you can do to minimize it.

But you’re absolutely right.

Safe handling of animals and dealing with animals that are fearful and aggressive is part of the job, especially if you’re dealing with large animals.

Although I’ll tell you, most of my injuries have come from my small animals.

That’s what this is a financial question.

If somebody brings their pet into you and they can’t afford the treatment, how do you handle that situation? Yeah, this is one of the emotional demands that we’re talking about and this is one of the reasons why resilience, leadership, communication skills, conflict resolution skills are so important in veterinary medicine.

And you’re right, this is a huge challenge.

Often people have not prepared themselves for a veterinary emergency.

We prepare ourselves for the things that we know we’re going to hit us or vaccine appointments and or pet food and things like that.

But we’re often not prepared for a big veterinary emergency, which can cost ten well, five, $10,000 more.

I’ve seen bills for $20,000 plus from a small animal patient that’s needed, open chest surgery and things like that.

So it can get to be very, very expensive and very complicated depending on what your animal needs.

If someone can’t afford that, that’s understandable.

I mean, quite frankly, that’s a lot for somebody to take on and bite off, especially if they don’t have pet insurance.

And so it’s about having the conversations with people in an honest, respectful way to say, hey, it’s okay if you can’t do this, it’s okay for us to look at other alternatives.

And other alternatives may mean something like humane euthanasia, and that’s always a very reasonable alternative when the injury is profound, when the animal is incredibly sick, and when either there’s not a lot that can be done or what can be done as well outside of the means of the animal.

But yeah, these are tough conversations.

Plus consoling somebody when when because these are these are part of the family.

When they bring pets in.

They are. And there’s always a lot of guilt there.

But the reality is, at the end of the day, you can only do what you can do.

And a good team works together to figure out the best solution for the individual.

What are some misconceptions about vets? Hmm.

Well, there’s probably lots.

One is that you only work with animals.

So like I like me right now, I most work mostly work with people.

And so there are veterinarians doing all sorts of different jobs in the world.

When you graduate from veterinary medicine, this is one of the most exciting things.

You can have a career in all sorts of areas if you don’t want to do general practice, if you don’t want to do specialty practice, you can work for government, you can work for industry like the pharmaceutical industry or the pet food industry.

You can work in research, you can work in teaching, you can work.

Heck, you can even be an astronaut.

So there’s an astronaut who is a veterinarian.

So I used to say the sky’s the limit, but the sky’s not even the limit anymore.

Like you can just you can do whatever you want to do.

There’s so many opportunities with this degree, and so that’s what I always coach my students in.

If you’re not happy and one facet of this profession, go find another facet, you’ll find something that makes you happy.

So that’s one of the big misconceptions.

What do you love about being a vet? And then I’ll ask you after what do you love about being an educator? So first question, what do you love about being a vet? Well, I think what I love about being a veterinarian is kind of what I love about being an educator, too.

It’s problem solving.

My brain is one of those brains that really likes to work through problems and see if I can fix them and to look at a big situation that’s in front of me and break it down into the parts so I can help.

The other big thing about being a veterinarian that I love and also another reason why I like being an educator is relationship building for me.

Part of the reason I did production medicine or farm animal medicine was it was about building communities and building people.

If you can work with a farmer and help them increase their yield of milk or beef or whatever, not only does it improve the health of that animal, it improves the health of the population and it improves the health of that firm and that community.

So it’s got that big exponential impact.

So that’s the stuff I love when you can kind of look outside the box and do something bigger than yourself.

Heather Would there be any reasons why you wouldn’t go into veterinarian medicine? Yeah, absolutely.

And and I think like many professions, every profession has its challenges.

So we’ve talked a lot about the rewards and the benefits, but there are challenges in this profession.

And some of those challenges are the cost of doing all the education.

And so that’s something you have to really look at.

Veterinarians graduate with quite a bit of debt, and so it may or may not be something that’s accessible to everybody.

And that that’s definitely a challenge.

Another big issue is mental health and mental wellbeing.

We talked a little bit about some of the challenges in dealing with tough conversations with euthanasia.

But what we didn’t talk about was some of the workload and burnout that can happen, the compassion fatigue that can occur, and this can has some fairly detrimental effects on veterinary wellness or wellbeing, especially if you don’t have the toolkit and the strategies for how to manage those.

And those in those toolkits are things like knowing when you need professional help and support.

So yeah, there’s definitely an issue with veterinary wellbeing and veterinary veterinary mental health that that’s a factor.

So it isn’t for everyone and that’s okay.

I don’t think I asked you start to finish.

What is the time commitment from when you’re first starting to when you receive your degree. Yeah.

So if you do the minimum education training, you would need six years of university education.

So you’re going have a two year undergrad and then a four year DVM.

But many people have a four year undergrad and then a four year DVM.

And if you want to specialize, I think it’s really important that we clarify that that’s a lot more school.

So people who specialize tend to do a rotating internship, then a specialty internship, and then a four year specialty residency.

So they’re doing six years on top of the six or the eight.

So it’s a lot.

Can you talk about one of your most challenging experiences when you were working with an animal and how you resolved it or helped help the animal? Yeah.

So I think some of the biggest, most stressful things is when you’re in the heart of the moment.

So for example, surgery, there’s not time to go say, Oh, I’m just going to hit pause and go look this up in a book.

You’re in the midst of it.

You’re knee deep or elbow deep, quite literally, in a situation that you’re dealing with that you have to keep working through.

And so it’s finding that resiliency, that inner strength to say, okay, something isn’t going the way I expected it to this this thing is bleeding more than I wanted it to.

What am I going to do? And finding that sort of stillness and calm to be able to rise above the panic of, oh my gosh, what is happening and work through the problem and break it down again into the manageable parts of What can I do right now? That’s probably true for any surgery that doesn’t go the way you want it to go.

I imagine so for sure.

Why would you recommend somebody become a veterinarian? Well, there’s I think there’s so many reasons, and I’m kind of touched on some of them.

The opportunities are endless.

So there are lots and lots of opportunities if you love animals, that’s great.

But you also need to love people.

If you don’t love people, this really is a tough profession because the animals don’t bring themselves in.

They come attached to a person.

So if you’re saying, Nope, I’m doing this because I don’t like people, it’s going to be tricky. It’s going to be hard.

So I recommend it to people who enjoy working with people who enjoy problem solving, who love animals and who want to make a difference.


What are you most proud of over your entire career? Well, that’s a tough question.

I’m most proud of.

Most proud of, you know, so a lot of what I do right now, I do a lot of counseling with our students, both in career counseling and a little bit of wellness counseling, too.

I’m not I’m not a psychologist and not a psychiatrist, but I do look at veterinary well-being and I do some research work and teaching in veterinary wellness and where I get the greatest impact is when a student comes back to me afterwards and says, Hey, you made a difference in my life.

You either shaped or changed the trajectory of my path in a positive way.

And because of that, I’m going to be able to impact others.

So now it’s not just me impacting others, it’s me impacting others who can impact others.

It’s not sort of the pass it on mentality.

Well, my son will be thrilled that I spoke to a veterinarian because he wants to become a vet.

So Heather, I’d just like to thank you for for joining us today.

Thank you so much.

You’re very welcome.

It was my pleasure.

And I wish your son so much luck on his career path forward as a veterinarian.

I know he can do it. Thank you.

Thank you for tuning in to the Job Talk Podcast.

For more information, please visit us at The Job Talk .com

Our podcast music was created by our friend Mike Malone in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

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