Chris O'Toole
Chris O’Toole

Veterinarian Chris O’Toole was puzzled. His patient was a two-year-old male cat named Hercules that had been purchased from a shelter. The owner reported that the cat was having difficulty urinating. O’Toole thought there might be an obstruction and that a catheter could be inserted to relieve the pressure in the animal’s bladder, but despite his best efforts he was unable to find the cat’s penis to perform the procedure.

Eventually he realized the source of his confusion: Hercules was actually female. After surgery, she’s now doing fine. The owners decided not to change her name.

O’Toole laughs as he recalls that case; it’s just one of the more memorable interactions he’s had with the dogs and cats he treats every day at the Bloor West Village Animal Hospital. Although his practice is in the middle of a large city, he says that the community he’s part of has a very small-town feel.

Growing up in North Bay, Ont., O’Toole says he was always interested in animals. Becoming a veterinarian also satisfied his interest in medicine and solving problems. “It seemed like a very practical way to be able to work with animals,” he says. One of his older siblings is also a veterinarian; she’s the one who told him, “You’ll learn more in your first year of practice than in your entire veterinary school experience.”

During his training, O’Toole had the chance to work in various environments. “I did my locum in large animals in Sturgeon Falls,” he says. “The support structure there is definitely different from what I experienced working in Toronto. Here we have overnight clinics so I don’t have to be on call at night.”

He adds that there are pros and cons to both the rural and urban settings for veterinary work. “In rural areas, there are fewer specialists, so as a primary care vet you get to do more things. But even here, there are some people who will choose to have their primary vet handle the procedure rather than going to a specialist.”

And there’s one thing he finds people everywhere have in common: “They want the best for their animals. Rich or poor, city or country, people really do care about their dogs and cats.”

O’Toole adds that since leaving OVC he’s learned that the veterinarian’s relationship with the pet owner is vital. “You need to understand as a vet that you are working with people. You diagnose and treat the animals, but the pet owner is the most important member of the health-care team. The owners make the decisions.”

Not only does a veterinarian need to work well with pet owners, but he or she will have a staff to manage as well. “A veterinary practice is a team environment,” he points out.

He has high praise for his OVC education. “My professors taught us not to rely on memorizing stuff, but to research, figure out and test our diagnoses, and then develop a treatment plan. That’s the foundation for good veterinary care. I liked that they offered streaming, allowing me to focus on small animals in my fourth year. It allowed me to get more experience in some aspects of small-animal care.” Although he graduated before it was built, O’Toole also sees the Primary Heathcare Centre (PHC) as a great addition for veterinary students.

“Client communication is not the focus in many veterinary schools, but I see OVC really trying to address that,” he says. “I think the PHC helps students get more of a real-life experience with coaching to help them learn from it.”

The Bloor West Village Animal Hospital offers some alternative medicine options, such as acupuncture for arthritis in small animals. O’Toole’s wife, Julie, is a naturopath who is currently at home caring for their three small children and the family dog, Oscar.

For O’Toole, being able to offer innovative therapies and treatments is one of the things he likes about working in private practice. Veterinary medicine also offers the opportunity for life-long learning. “There are always new technologies and new techniques to learn about, and new ways to approach a case or particular health issue,” he says. “I love problem-solving, and I keep adding more tools to help me tackle those problems.”

But it’s still the animals that give him the greatest satisfaction. “I think what I like best about being a veterinarian is seeing the capacity animals have for loving humans,” says O’Toole. “No matter how crappy your day has been, you come in the office, and the dog wags his tail and licks you, or the cat rubs his face against you. Even the ones who are scared and hurting bring out your feelings of compassion for them. And seeing them get better is the most rewarding part of all.”