Mars and Venus in the Exam Room: Do You Have a Vet Gender Preference?

Patty Khuly
Do you have a vet gender preference?Do you and your pets have a
veterinary gender preference?

It shouldn’t shock anyone to hear that female veterinarians tend to communicate more effectively than their male counterparts. But just in case you had any doubts, recent studies evaluating veterinarians’ communication skills find in favor of females on the issue of effective communication in general. Not surprisingly, this research corroborates similar findings in human medicine.

But what – if anything – does this mean for your pet’s healthcare?

Given that communication is considered so crucial for any successful adventure in veterinary medicine, does that mean those of you with pre-existing male vet allegiances suddenly switch parties? As an unabashedly biased female veterinarian, I might just have to agree with that kind of logic. Indeed, my own preferred physicians are female and communication is a huge factor in my decision making process.

But I don’t always choose female physicians. Neither do I eschew the Y chromosome when it comes to my own pets’ healthcare (my pets need lots of specialty care and more than half of my go-to specialists are men).

Because, to be fair, communication is just one of many variables pet owners should think about when making gender-based veterinary decisions. Here’s a smattering of other reasonable considerations based on how science has shown men and women’s brains differ:

Emotions

A veterinarian’s E.Q. is a big factor in his or her so-called “bedside manner.” Men are at a disadvantage here because research convincingly demonstrates they have a tougher time understanding non-verbal emotional cues. Meanwhile, women are more facile at intuiting the emotional subtext of an interaction.

This is thought to be because we have a larger deep limbic system in our brains; a fact that could prove significant should the conversation stray into emotionally fraught territory (think euthanasia, for example). The down side is that emotions sometimes have a way of taking us down not-so-friendly paths. Emotions not only interfere with linear thinking in the short term, they take their toll over the long haul (professional burnout is a big issue in veterinary medicine).

Left-brained?

We know that men are more left-brain dominant than women, which makes them more analytical and task oriented. Their inferior-parietal lobule is also more developed on this side, which is thought to makes them better at mathematical thinking. Women think more equally with both hemispheres of the brain, which means we tend to recruit more creativity to solving problems.

I honestly don’t believe one way of thinking is better than another, but it seems that specific problems lend themselves to more analytic thinking (many diagnostic challenges) while others require a more outside-the-box approach (addressing a multi-factorial house-soiling issue, for example).

Handling stress

When the proverbial crap hits the fan and your pet is in crisis, whose stress-handling ability would you prefer? We all secrete the calming hormone oxytocin when we’re stressed. However, the male hormone testosterone diminishes its effect while the female hormone estrogen enhances it. That’s why the traditional take on gender roles in an emergency is that men are the doers and women are the nurturers. Which is better in the middle of the night after your dog’s eaten a bottle of Advil? Hmmmm …

Language

Here’s where some of the communication issues come in: We women have bigger language-associated cortical regions in our brains. But language has other uses than just client communication. Digesting scientific literature, collaborating with colleagues, and directing veterinary team members are just a few.

Spatial abilities

Here’s one area where men really stand out. Males have a proven ability to mentally flip and rotate objects much more effectively than women. Me? I’m not so good at that. I’ve read that this is because we women have thicker parietal regions in our brains, which is apparently an anatomic hindrance to our spatial thinking skills.

So why should a pet owner care? In theory, great special skills should make male veterinarians better surgeons, radiologists and dentists. In theory …

Pet Preference

Then there’s this biggie to consider: What does your pet think?

Pets can be persnickety. Some, it seems, want nothing to do with male veterinarians. For some reason – presumably related to socialization (or rather, their lack thereof during certain important early weeks of life) – some pets warm more to women than to men. In my experience, the opposite is rarely the case.

For some reason (size, voice, movement patterns, or greater likelihood of females as early nurturers?) some pets – dogs in particular – simply prefer us women. In which case, all the communication studies and brain science in the world won’t make a difference; they’ll choose for you.

Your Take?

Every pet is different. As a veterinarian, chronic multi-pet owner, and serial fosterer, I’ve seen more than my share of up-close-and-personal examples of both human and pet preference in this arena. But, as always, I’m curious about your opinions. Bark away … I don’t bite.

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