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Warp and Woof

Steve Rabinowitz’s passion for animals fueled a grueling road to becoming a vet 

 

The unofficial “greeter” at the clinic is Yodels, a massive Bernie’s mountain dog whose exuberance better befits a puppy than a 100-pound adult dog.  Yodels belongs to clinic partner Dr. Steve Rabinowitz, DVM, who himself belongs to an even rarer breed:  frum veterinarians. 

Steve Rabinowitz knew he wanted to be a veterinarian since he was in fourth grade.  “I grew up in a house where we had dogs, cats and rabbits,” says the Queens native. “Both sets of grandparents, and my aunt and uncle, had dogs.  In the summer, we’d go upstate, and my mother would take us to horse farms.” 

He leads us back into the treatment room, where an anesthetized beagle is lying on a table, her eyes glazed and her tongue lolling out.  Her teeth are being treated today for accumulations of tartar and fractures. “There’s no way to do this without anesthetizing the dog,” Dr. Rabinowitz says, his hands in her mouth. “Some dogs today even get braces and root canals.” 

His own pet, Yodels, is actually due for a vaccine, of a sort that is squirted into the mouth.  To demonstrate the procedure, Dr. Rabinowitz leaves the beagle in the hands of an assistant and now leads Yodels into an examining room (this one contains a hoist for larger animals). Yodels suppresses his natural friskiness to obey his master’s commands to sit and lie down, which are issued with gentle authority and reinforced with dog biscuits.  Eventually Dr. Rabinowitz is able to open his mouth to spritz in the vaccine. 

“A dog exam is much like when you bring a child to the doctor,” he says. “We check ears and throats for infections, verify that the eyes have no discharge, listen to the heart for murmurs or valve disease, and check for skin irritations or allergies, which are common in Houston because of the humidity.”  He palpates Yodels’ belly to rule out any masses, and manipulates his legs to check his joints.  The most common presenting complaint for pets, he says, is ADR—“Ain’t Doing Right”-- meaning the animal has low appetite, is sleeping more, and generally isn’t acting like his usual self. 


The Path to Here 

 Dr. Rabinowitz always liked science in school, and even considered going into medicine as he attended MTA high school (which was followed by a year in Eretz Yisrael at Netiv Aryeh, and college at Yeshiva University).  Ultimately, however, he decided to combine his love of science with his love of animals, encouraged by his family.

He’d begun preparing the path well before college.  Few people, he says, are aware just how difficult it is to get into vet school.  There are only 26 schools in the U.S., each one offering only 80-120 slots.  The acceptance rate is only 12 percent, making it more competitive than medical school.

 

In order for a prospective student’s application to stand out, he needs to show that he worked at animal-related internships prior to applying to vet school.  “The expectation is that you’ll have done about 1,000 hours,” Dr. Rabinowitz says.  “Most people start in high school, working in clinics, zoos, farms, or with wildlife.”  He himself found his first internship through family friend Dr. Edward Burns, Dean of Albert Einstein Medical School, working with laboratory mice.  His second internship was in the pathology department at the Bronx Zoo, dissecting dead animals to determine the cause of death and, when applicable, prevent the spread of disease. His most memorable case was dissecting a sea lion.  “He was 600 pounds of blubber,” he recalls. “They had to bring him in on a hoist.” 

In his application essay, he wrote about the Torah prohibition of harnessing an ox and a donkey together.  Since the ox chews its cud, the donkey may think the ox is being fed while it’s not, thereby becoming jealous.  “I included it to show the kind of sensitivity we’re supposed to have towards animals,” he says. 

The essay must have worked, since he was accepted at Tufts University, in the Boston area.  Vet school is set up like medical school:  The first two years are academic, while the second two years involve clinical rotations. Toward the end of the first two years, he met his wife Tova, who grew up in St. Louis and West Hempstead; they married in between his second and third years.  “When I was dating, people kept referring to me as Vet Man,” Rabinowitz says. “But being a vet is only one part of who I am.  I wasn’t even necessarily looking for an animal-loving spouse!”  As it turned out, Tova is a graduate of F.I.T., a graphic designer and talented artist who was fine with owning a dog, even an enormous one like Yodels. 

The couple moved to Brookline after the wedding, where they could maintain a Jewish life.  Steve even managed to continue with daf yomi, and as it happens, the cycle was up to Chulin while he was there. “The Bostoner Rebbe used to pull me aside to clarify points from time to time,” he recalls.  Tufts, being a Northeastern university, was extremely tolerant of diversity—such as his need to be Shabbos-observant—and yet doggedly atheistic.  When they studied developmental anatomy, for example—cell development—it was presented as proof of evolutionary theory. “It wasn’t a proof to me,” Dr. Rabinowitz comments. “It’s just a proof of Hashem’s wisdom.  It’s all too complex to have happened on its own.” 

Shabbos was a tremendous challenge, because Friday was the day tests were administered.  Shabbos in Boston comes in before 4:00 in the winter, so he always had to leave early.  On Saturdays, he missed anatomy classes and lab reviews.  “I depended a lot on helpful classmates, and I had a lot of hashgachah pratis,” he says.  “The head of student affairs was Jewish, and she worked with me.” 

Perhaps the biggest challenge was getting around seerus, neutering and spaying, which is halachically prohibited.  In vet school these procedures are taught in a core class vet students are expected to attend, and they’re required to learn and practice the surgery. Rabinowitz had to get official permission from the school as well as halachic guidance to find the right path around it. In the end, he was allowed to assist as an anesthesiologist, and operate only to open and close the animal’s abdomen. 

The last year of vet school was especially grueling, as he had to train in North Grafton, 40 miles from Brookline, where he was living. He would wake up at 4:00 a.m. to make the commute, get home at nine or ten, and still have work to do.  Tova was expecting their first child, and on the advice of two rabbanim, they moved to Westboro, MA, much closer to North Grafton.  “They said we should do it for shalom bayis,” Dr. Rabinowitz says.  “Baruch Hashem I was married! It gave me stability; it anchored me and gave me responsibilities, and a life outside of school.”  He was told there was a Chabad House in Westboro, but when they got there, minyans were spotty.  On a Jewish level, it was a tough year.  

“Vet school is a very hard journey,” he says.  “You should only do it if you’re really, really committed.  As a frum Jew, you’re on an island by yourself, with challenges other people don’t have.  A lot of people get bruised along the way—their learning suffers, or their davening suffers, or their social life disappears.  It helped so much to have a wife.” 

In the bucolic setting of North Grafton, Dr. Rabinowitz learned both small and large animal veterinary science.  At one point, he and his fellow students were taught to herd sheep.  They were assigned a herd, running all around, and had to figure out how to shepherd them into the pen.  “I felt like I was in the time of the Avos,” he says with a grin.  

Interestingly enough, he reports that the profession has become quite female dominated; at Tufts, there were 10 men and 80 women in his class.  In large animal care, the ratio is more like 50:50.

He enjoyed working with large animals. “It was fun riding around in a truck from dairy to dairy,” he says. “It was a hard day’s work! 

“Large-animal requires a very different approach.  Farmers depend on their animals for their livelihood—they’re not pets.  Discussions about treatment aren’t based as much on sentiment as on dollars and cents.”  He briefly considered specializing in that area, but working in farm areas didn’t seem practical or natural for a city-bred Orthodox Jew.  “The only way that would have worked would have been if we’d made aliyah, and I went to practice in Israel,” he says. 

So small-animal practice it would be, and when he graduated, the next hurdle arose:  finding a job. 

 

Lone Star State 

When Dr. Rabinowitz graduated in 2012, the economy in the Northeast was in a slump, and there were only a handful of good jobs.  For Tova, it seemed obvious their choices would be either in the Northeast or Eretz Yisrael.  “Family and Israel were our priorities!” she says.  

As a Shabbos-observing Jew, Steve faced more obstacles than just the economy.  First of all, he could not spay or neuter an animal.  “Those procedures are a big part of a vet’s practice,” he says.  He also needed a practice that would accept a vet who wouldn’t work on Saturdays, a vet’s busiest day of the week.  “I felt like I was back in my immigrant grandfather’s shoes, knocking on doors trying to find someone who would hire a shomer Shabbos Yid,” he says.  The Northeast was more challenging than other regions, because there were many non-observant Jewish vets who worked on Shabbos and didn’t worry about seerus. They’d tell him, “I’m Jewish, and I work on Shabbos!”  

Rabinowitz’s minimal requirement was that his job would have to be within 40 minutes of a minyan; for every job listing, he’d look on godaven.com to check out the proximity of the job to a shul. He found three listings in Houston that offered him interviews; two of them offered him a job. 

It almost seemed as if Hashem had prepared his path to Houston.  Of his four roommates in college, one had married a girl from Houston.  Hence, he was aware there was a Jewish community there.  Another went to medical school in Houston, and a third had moved to Houston to work in oil trading.  The two job offers pressured him to make a decision quickly.  Before they knew it, Steve and Tova were preparing to move to Houston.  

“A lot of new vets take a job and are worked to the bone at the beginning,” Rabinowitz says.  “Once they get some experience, they move on.” (Many of them start with 150-200,000 dollars’ worth of debt; starting salaries average around 90,000 dollars.)   Fortunately, that hasn’t been the case for him.  He joined a congenial practice with nine vets that had been around for 50 years and maintains a warm family atmosphere.  One of the owners is Jewish, and he has been well treated and well respected—so much so that recently, after over seven years there, he became a partner. 

The Meyerland Animal Clinic, where he works, is in a section of town that’s heavily Jewish, but not Orthodox.  There’s even a local clergyman who runs a “Bark Mitzvah” every year for all 13 year old Houston dogs, in the parking lot of his temple. (So far, Dr. Rabinowitz has declined to attend).  “In Houston, however, even the non-religious Jews are quite traditional,” he says. “The non-Jews are also quite religious! This is the land of mega-churches.”  He finds it easy to relate to the Jewish bubbies who bring their pets in for treatment, and estimates he has about 30 frum clients who own a dog or cat. 

A typical day runs like a pediatric office, with him administering routine care like vaccines or protection from parasites and fleas.  While there are vets who are highly specialized, a general practitioner like Dr. Rabinowitz might deal with everything from stomach issues to itching, heart problems, surgery, dentistry, and internal medicine.  There are dogs and cats who develop diabetes and are treated in similar ways to humans, with disks against the skin to monitor blood sugar and insulin shots twice daily. (Cats, who can develop diabetes from obesity, can be regulated more often through diet alone.)  There’s an animal hospital in Houston, the largest in the country, which has an emergency room and 50 vets in 15 different specialists, offering MRIs, CT scans and radiation therapy.  While Dr. Rabinowitz is covered by malpractice insurance, it’s nothing like what doctors for humans are obliged to pay. “Legally, a pet is considered property,” he says, “so damage to a pet requires replacing the value of the property, more or less.” 

Today he’s doing an ultrasound on a cat named Donut.  When an animal presents with fever, the vet will run blood work and other tests, but may need to do scans if those results aren’t helpful making a diagnosis.  This ultrasound suggests a bladder infection, but of course you can’t ask a cat to urinate into a cup to verify.  Instead Dr Rabinowitz, using the ultrasound as a guide, inserts a needle into the cat’s bladder to withdraw urine.  

Perhaps the most demanding part of a vet’s job is dealing with the emotions of the pet owners.  Vets receive training for dealing sensitively with clients in school; Steve recalls actors coming in to role-play interactions with clients, those sessions videotaped and analyzed.  “People become deeply attached to their pets,” Steve says. “They may have a very hard time accepting that their dog is dying, even if it’s 15 years old.  You learn, as a vet, that you’re treating people even more than you’re treating animals!  You kind of have to be a natural at those kinds of interactions; you become the therapist, the advisor, and the doctor rolled into one.” 

Very often owners have to decide whether to spend a lot of money treating a pet illness like cancer, or euthanize their pet (halachically permissible if the animal will suffer from the disease).  Treatment at the local animal hospital starts at 1,000 dollars a day, and only a small percentage of owners take out insurance for their pets.  This creates wrenching decisions for poorer owners, as to whether to overextend themselves or put an end to the animal’s suffering early.  Steve finds his days are often an emotional roller coaster—he might go from vaccinating an exuberant new puppy in one room to making euthanasia decisions for an old, beloved family pet in the next. 

Some clients euthanize for reasons like an animal has become too aggressive, incontinent in the house, or simply because they no longer feel able to care for them.  “Vets have the highest suicide rate of any profession,” Dr. Rabinowitz says. “Putting down so many animals can make you desensitized to euthanasia.” On his more difficult days, he admits, sometimes he asks himself, “Why didn’t I just become a dentist?” 

Hospice has also become a new option for pets, giving them palliative care from three months to a year.  Dr. Rabinowitz administers pain medications, appetite stimulants, and encourages movement to prevent bedsores, raising the pet’s quality of life.   

Another new area for vets is reproductive medicine. Breeders are able to produce test tube puppies; vets can take ultrasounds to check on the health of fetuses.  Some breeds of dogs, such an French and English bulldogs, have notably difficult labors and are sometimes best delivered through C-section. 

Like any doctor, he has to keep current.  “My old textbooks from ten years ago are already outdated,” he says.  He often has to go home and read up on anything from heart to kidney to gastric issues.  His medical knowledge has made him his own family’s unofficial doctor. “He goes to every pediatric appointment he can!” his wife Tova later told me.

The Rabinowitz family’s move to Houston felt sudden, as if they were being swept away.  But now they’ve been here seven and a half years, and they love it.  “It’s a small community; it feels like a bungalow colony,” Dr. Rabinowitz says.  He’s heavily involved in the Young Israel shul, and is proud to say he was one of three members of the committee that oversaw the construction of the new shul building, which includes the Kollel.  (His own father is a contractor who built the Shor Yoshuv and Ohr Hachaim yeshivas in Queens, and he regularly called his dad for counsel during the process.)  People have come to know him as not just a “one-trick pony,” who is only about animal care, but a devoted husband and father who also loves learning and being active in the community (which, in a small community like Houston, is practically unavoidable). 

Being a vet is a tough road, and not for the faint of heart.  It’s hard, sometimes dirty work that often sends Dr. Rabinowitz running to the shower as soon as he gets home.  But the rewards are also great. “You develop longstanding relationships with people and their pets,” he says. “When you help them out, their gratitude is immense.” 

 

So You Want to Get a Pet 

Children have a natural affinity for pets, and rare is the parent who hasn’t heard a child plead, “Can we pleeeease get a dog?” 

City dwellers rarely have the space for a pet, but out-of-towners with yards may find it harder to resist the pressure. Dr. Rabinowitz offers some things to consider if your kids are wearing you down, or you yourself are an animal lover: 

 

  • Do your research!  Consult with a vet before you acquire a pet to ascertain how you will feed and maintain it.  “You should factor in at least an extra 1,000 dollars a year for a dog,” he says.  “Sick visits for a pet can cost 180 dollars, and grooming runs around 100 dollars.”  He adds that owning a pet is often a ten-to-20-year commitment.  “You might want to try fostering a dog for a few months, which you can do through an animal shelter,” he says. 

 

  • Make sure you have the time to invest in training your animal.  It will need to be housebroken and learn basic commands.  Do you have the time to walk a dog, give him some attention?  Dr. Rabinowitz says it pays to invest a lot during the pet’s first two months in your home to train him properly.  You can even take him to classes to socialize him to behave well around other dogs. 

 

  • Basar v’chalav is a problem even for pet food, as a Jew cannot benefit from mixing meat and milk in any way.  Avoid pet food containing whey or casein. 

 

  • Make sure you have the space for a pet.  A small apartment for a large dog may border on tzaar baalei chayim

 

  • Be aware of any family allergies to pet hair!  “Some people get ‘hypoallergenic’ dogs, which means dogs that don’t shed,” Dr. Rabinowitz says.  “But those are actually worse for allergies if they’re not groomed every six weeks, because then those pets turn into one big dander ball.  You might be better off with a dog who sheds and a Roomba used often.” 

 

  • If you intend to buy a specific breed rather than a rescue dog (who’s probably a mutt), you’ll want to research breed-related diseases associated with narrow gene pools.  For example, Golden Retrievers are prone to cancer, while boxers are prone to heart disease; German shepherds often suffer from hip dysplasiadislocation.  Large dogs have a shorter lifespan than smaller ones.  Steve notes that there’s been a trend in recent years for people to adopt (“rescue”) abandoned pets, and that’s often a good option for frum families because such pets tend to have been spayed or neutered by the previous owners.  “But follow your heart,” he advises. “Large dogs are often better for families with children, as long as you choose a breed that’s not high strung.  Larger dogs tolerate roughhousing from kids, and if they swallow something, it passes more easily through their digestive tract.”

 

  • Cats are comparatively low-maintenance, although less affectionate.  “You’re the cat’s pet, not vice versa,” Dr. Rabinowitz jokes, while acknowledging that some cats are more playful and cuddly.  Cats need a home environment that can tolerate scratches to the furniture from their claws.  “In New York, it’s illegal to declaw cats,” Dr. Rabinowitz says. “Here in Texas it’s legal, but it’s frowned upon in the profession.” 

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