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On the Job: The Pet Whisperer

Vets are as interested in people as they are in animals. The ups and downs of caring for our four-legged friends.

Veterinarian Monica Murphy, 31, is specially trained to treat the medical complaints of iguanas, hedgehogs and other exotic creatures, but she mostly sees dogs and cats at the Animal Kind Veterinary Hospital in Brooklyn, New York. Growing up in suburban Maryland, she stoked an interest in horses as a stablehand. She believes most vets are extroverts who are as interested in people as they are in animals.

How complex are pet personalities?

A lot of animal behavior is pretty primitive. There's so much projection of ourselves onto our pets. When I'm talking about my dog, and I say how neurotic and ridiculous she is, I'm kind of talking about how neurotic and ridiculous I am, but in a less confessional way. Animals actually absorb some of our personality traits, so we can try to describe our animals in an objective way and still end up describing ourselves.

How else do people project feelings on their pets?

Right off the bat, the owner often volunteers a narrative: "She is very unhappy being here today. She hasn't forgotten about that spay surgery last year. So, she's not going to trust you during this exam."

Sometimes the owner will disguise complaints through their pet, like, "My dog really hates waiting in that lobby." But I tend to find that pretty endearing. It chokes me up to see them peering inside the carrier where the cat is curled up, saying, "Don't worry. It's going to be OK."

Can a pet change her owner's personality?

You oversee about one euthanasia procedure per day—do you find it draining?

Grief management is a huge part of my job. A client's most tender goodbyes to her pet are happening right in front of me—it's a warped intimacy. Sometimes people feel self-conscious. That's often the beginning of a story, such as, "I'm really upset about losing this animal because this is my husband's dog and he just died last fall." Or, "This cat, I got her when I left my husband; she helped me through the whole thing." I have to be prepared, not only to help people with the immediate grief, but with a much larger grief.

How do you keep from not crying yourself?

I cry. I think good vets cry sometimes. Many of us don't have a lot of opportunities to release our sorrows. Even if you're crying in the veterinary office, over the body of your pet, you are really crying for a million reasons—all these reasons you've saved up.

Are people sometimes too dependent on their pets?

People have elevated animals to a more privileged place in the household. I don't think our pets are surrogate boyfriends or children, but I do think we crave coming home to the same face every day. We like to talk out loud in our apartments, even if there isn't a human ear nearby, and the animals do help fill in some of those empty places. My job wouldn't be nearly so complicated if people just thought of an animal as a transferable good—like, "The dog's broken, I guess we'll get a new one!"

Which are smarter, cats or dogs?

I don't think I'm ready to come down on one side. Dogs are definitely better patients, but I have a lot of respect for cats. [They] refuse to give in to me. I give them credit for being their own beings more than dogs are.

Are cat and dog owners fundamentally different?

Not so much. When you get into the exotic pets, you can really start typing the owner. The reptile owners tend to have more tattoos than the general population. Guinea pig owners are pretty harmless. I'd never worry about meeting a guinea pig owner in a dark alley.

What kind of pet do you have?

I have a whippet named Mia. She is gregarious, the life of the party. She and I moved from St. Paul to the University of Pennsylvania, where I did my internship, then Seattle, and then New York, where I [got married and] started being more of a grownup. From city to city, we set up shop. As much as I love my situation now, I think there is something romantic about being one girl, one dog