Dr. Pam Wittenberg’s first step toward her dream of starting a veterinary camp was throwing an animal themed sixth birthday party for her daughter JoJo, an aspiring veterinarian, complete with stuffed animals and radiographs.
Now 9, Jojo is her mother’s assistant at Dr. Pam’s Animal Vet Camp, hosted each summer by the Santa Rosa Recreation and Parks Department. Students practice surgery by stitching up bananas and learn about skeletal systems, cancer and amputation by meeting The Captain, Wittenberg’s three-legged dog.
During the school year, Wittenberg, 46, teaches veterinary technician courses at Santa Rosa Junior College and hour-long after school enrichment classes through Santa Rosa City Schools.
She also continues to practice medicine at the Four Seasons Animal Hospital in Lafayette, which she joined after graduating from the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine in 2000.
Q: Tell us about your childhood pets.
We always had animals cycling in and out of the house. I think we had three cats and three dogs and a bunch of fish at one time. We also lived with a creek in the background, so I had a lot of experience with nature. That really made me love animals and science and want to pursue a career in that.
Q: There’s a difference between loving your own pets and practicing medicine. What about animals made you want to become a veterinarian?
It’s like I tell the kids in my class. You have to love animals, but you can’t spend all day loving animals. You have to also like talking with people. I was a really social child. I always got in trouble for talking too much in class.
As for animals specifically, I always say that animals are more perfect creatures than humans in so many ways. They’re amazingly adaptive, kind of like kids, and they’re fascinating.
Q: What’s the attraction between kids and pets?
No. 1, they’re cute. No. 2, they’re fuzzy. Every kid is drawn to animals in some way, whether it’s a reptile or a dog or a horse.
Q: What’s the difference between teaching kids and teaching adults?
If you put 100 adults in a room and ask, “Anyone ever have diarrhea? Anyone ever have lice?” none of the adults would admit that they have. But all the kids do. They’ll spend hours telling you about their GI distress or how horrible the lice infestation was in their house. It’s great.
Q: What’s the best piece of advice you give your students?
We talk about studying hard in school, especially science and math. But any job you have, you should be able to find joy in it somewhere. That’s the magic of veterinary medicine — you always have the animals there to give you that sense of humor you need along the way.
Q: What do you enjoy about practicing medicine rather than teaching it?
There’s a lot of crossover because every day at work, I’m teaching people about how to take care of their animals. It’s the perfect job for me because I get to talk to someone about their animal, talk about science, solve a problem, meet really interesting people and really interesting animals.
Q: Are there any special cases that stuck with you?
We had a little chihuahua who suffered cardiopulmonary arrest. She couldn’t see, couldn’t hear, couldn’t walk and couldn’t eat on her own. She was managed around the clock for more than three weeks by our amazing team of emergency and critical care veterinarians. This, combined with dedicated home care from her owners, allowed her to recover. We see her a few times a year for routine medical care, and she is treated like a celebrity.
Q: What future challenges do vets face?
The cost of education. Veterinarians make a fraction of what human doctors do, but they spend the same length of time in school. And veterinary medicine is moving ahead, just like human medicine is. There’s so many specialties and so much new technology.
Q: How do you know when enough is enough with surgeries, chemotherapy and other costly lifesaving treatments for pets?
That’s always an individual decision. I tell my clients that there’s always things we can do, but it’s always a question of what we should do. Chemotherapy is very useful for some animals because you can achieve a cure sometimes. But if they have a terminal disease, we don’t always think it’s humane to put those dogs through chemotherapy if they’re going to have a poor quality of life.
Q: Is chemotherapy controversial among veterinarians?
Not really, because chemotherapy in veterinary medicine is very different than chemotherapy in human medicine. (Animals) shouldn’t lose their hair, vomit or feel horrible like people do on chemo. What I tell people is, “Don’t think of it as chemotherapy; think of it as medication to make them feel better.”
Q: In what ways do you think humans are responsible for the welfare of animals?
Pretty much in every way possible, especially for our domesticated animals. It’s very important for us to be advocates for them because they can’t advocate for themselves.
The Captain, who’s a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, has a host of medical problems because we have selectively bred over time for this breed. Mitral valve disease can lead to heart failure, and almost all Cavalier King Charles Spaniels are affected by age 10. The Captain has a mild heart murmur as well as hip dysplasia and deafness, two other common problems of the breed.
Q: What is your dream pet?
We don’t really have room for dream pets because we end up collecting animals nobody else wants. But we’ve had so many pets and so many good qualities over the years. If I could mash them all into one perfect dog, that would probably be my dream dog.
Dee Dee and Rudy are Miniature Pinscher mixes who came from the Sonoma County Animal Services shelter in Santa Rosa. They were strays about a year old when we adopted them. The Captain was a rescue dog who was going to be euthanized due to a tumor in his leg. We adopted him and amputated his leg a few years ago.
Q: What have you learned from the animals you’ve treated over the past 30 years?
Not to complain so much when I’m sick. We have animals who come in on death’s door, and they’ll still wag their tails and try to please their owners.
“What I Do” is an occasional series that profiles Sonoma County people and their jobs.