Updated: Dec 29, 2019
I’m going to get straight to the point. The embarrassing, plaid-covered point. The reason why I wanted to cover this topic is because it took me way too long to figure out what to wear in practice. I had no guidance, no uniform code, and clearly no clue.
I knew what I had seen elsewhere in equine practice, but I could tell immediately once I began practicing where I lived that the “equine uniform” didn’t fit my region. Thus, I embarked on my own quest of professional fashion discovery. Clearly it was an experiment so that I could teach you what not to do later. Obviously.
Although I have a decade of experience in large animal practice, I want to make this for everyone, so I’ll talk about some general ideas first, then come back around to my large animal tips (then you small animal people can peace out!). If anyone on the small animal side has any tips, feel free to add them down in the comments section at the bottom!
You’re going to evolve as you go.
First off, more likely than not, as you go through practice, you’re going to figure out what works for you and what doesn’t. For me, I decided I hated the “equine polos,” and I never want to wear one again. And that’s okay.
I look at many equine students who are in vet school now, and I see me. I wore what I thought I was supposed to wear because I was equine, when in reality I was rather uncomfortable. Turns out, I really don’t like the collar touching the back of my neck. It’s just a thing.
I also constantly struggle with my weight, so tucking shirts into my pants emphasizes my weight, making me feel self-conscious, while not tucking a polo in makes me look sloppy. And khaki? Not a forgiving color.
However, there are other things I can wear that totally avoid this issue and flatter my body shape much better. Mainly I have the self-confidence now to know I can be an equine vet while wearing literally anything: being an equine vet is who you are, not what you wear.
Be a professional.
It’s not a fashion show. Men, I’m going to ignore you for a minute here and speak as an elegant lady. Fashion is just miserable, and the more aesthetically pleasing and/or in-fashion it is, the more misery-inducing it is.
I’m arguing that you can’t think as well when your feet are painful, you’re straightening your clothes constantly, or they’re a bit tighter than is comfortable. Not being able to think well makes you not-fully-there for your patients and clients.
I’m going to admit that I hate shopping. Absolutely abhor it. But my recommendation is to go shopping and use the following check list. If your answers don’t match these, don’t get it:
Is it comfortable? Yes
Can you move around well in it (try squatting or stretching)? Yes
Will you feel self-conscious in it, as in not at all? No
Will you will be adjusting it throughout the day? No
Does it fit the image that you are trying to portray with the brand of your clinic? Yes
(Not sure what your clinic’s brand image is supposed to be? Explicitly ask your boss for clarity, or work to develop a clear idea of what you envision.)
Trust me, for those of you that are questioning whether clothes that fit these criteria and are appropriate for work exist – they do, and I’ve found them. It may take some time, but you will, too.
I would also recommend that you get shoes that you could stand in literally all day. And don’t hesitate to spend decent money on them. Your feet will hate you in a few years if you don’t. Get new shoes if your feet start hurting. Remember, you’re in this for the long haul.
Unless you really want to make your life difficult, get machine-washable fabrics. Hopefully you’ve realized this already, but you’re going to be getting a lot of fluids on you, as well as things you’ve never considered yet!
In my experience, just about everything comes out rather easily but mineral oil (I’ll note that I don’t do much slide staining). My best tip for getting mineral oil out is to use the local spot removers plus soak your clothes for a few days in water/laundry detergent before you try to wash it.
I see two different versions of durability in a veterinary wardrobe.
Permanence: I’ve had a random pair of shorts in use since 1997, and they’re still not giving up. Accordingly, what would you choose? A slightly pricey pair of pants or shirt – with a classic design, of course – and it lasted for 10 years versus something for half the price, but it fell apart or was out of fashion in 2 years. The problem is that we can’t foresee the future, but the older I’ve gotten, I’ve begun thinking more about investing in a few things that I like, that will last instead of lots of things that I sort-of like that will just fall apart quickly. When Marie Kondo’s books first came out, I was immediately a fan. If you’ve not yet fallen into this cult, come join us, Danny…….
Fabric: Snagging is such a stupid little thing that can ruin a wonderful piece of clothing, and will get small and large animals alike. Evaluate your clothes before you buy. If you buy something that is likely to snag, it’s not a matter of if, but when. (If you’re large animal, and can’t think of what might snag – it’s often hooves. Nails and jagged edges. Also wood.)
Name Tags vs. Embroidery
First of all, you will have identification on you because you’re a doctor, and your clients need to be able to recognize who is the doctor and who is the support staff. Even if you are the only one present, this is still the case. I say all of this out of hindsight, as I did not used to do this, and I now understand how unprofessional it was.
Two. The question is then name tags or embroidery? Putting the safety risks of name tags aside, I’d say hands-down embroidery over name tags for scrub tops or dress shirts where embroidery is appropriate. It gives a sense of permanence and weight that name tags do not. This is your career, not your job.
Defer to your boss on this one, but I am a huge fan of branding, and part of that is having a “clinic color” or colors. Another regret of mine as a practice owner was not suggesting a "uniform color" sooner – not to be confused with a uniform. My main practice color was blue, and once we all started wearing blue, once again, the professionalism level was significantly increased. We then appeared on a client's farm as a coordinated team, which a client might extrapolate to our ability to do our job well. A clinic color also begins to cement you in your clients’ minds: if you always show up wearing blue, they may begin to connect the color blue with you when they think of “vet.”
Scrubs vs. Dress shirts
I’m a complicated person. I like rules to be followed, but at the same time, I think you need to be reasonable. When it came to the dress code for my clinic, I did not hand a one-style-fits-all shirt to my new employees. They selected the shirts they wanted, and then I paid to get a certain amount embroidered.
We’re all shaped differently and are comfortable in different styles, and I think stringent uniform policies which do not consider individual variations actually decrease your employees’ self-esteem while working. I used to work at Kroger when I was in high school, and the pants they wanted me to wear??! I would have been self-conscious the entire time I wore them (somehow I snuck by for years wearing my own).
My recommendation is to fit your company’s brand image, but wear what allows you to be both professional and comfortable in your own skin. The beauty of our profession is that scrubs can be professional. At the same time, some people feel like slobs in them, or get sick of wearing them. I went with a combination: scrub top, but either shorts in the summer or jeans in the winter. This ended up being what worked for me, my clients/area, and what I needed to accomplish as a veterinarian.
Large animal: Additional considerations
Layers are your friends as you move through the seasons. All sorts of layers. Long sleeves, vests, light weight coats and fleece, and of course winter coats.
I’ve also slowly found gloves that allow some level of dexterity so I can still wear them and work. With that said, I can’t say what people up north do regarding surgical gloves during the winter. It’s a special level of hell when you have to wear surgical gloves outside during the winter, especially when they’re wet. Readers who live in cold climates: feel free to drop your tips down in the comments!
Now, this is my special area of expertise! The annual daily high for humidity in my area is 85 percent. The summer highs often get into the 100s, and it rarely gets below freezing.
Tolerating this weather takes coping mechanisms. I moved here from up north, and was used to wearing the “equine uniform:” polos and khakis. It became obvious very quickly that the clients were very laid back and that outfit was way too formal, not to mention I was killing my ankles in my Danskos (great for hospitals – not for the field).
I was the sole doctor in a satellite practice, and I had no guidelines for a uniform, so I asked my boss if it would be okay if I wore shorts – I mean, it was really hot. In hindsight, I don’t know how I lasted during the summer in pants. He approved this, so I began my embarrassing, non-supervised period of patterned Southern shorts (did I mention, no guidance?). I more or less had swung the pendulum from too formal to too casual. It’s mortifying to even think about. I wish someone at that time had given me any rules to follow to avoid that social embarrassment.
After a few more years of failing to find what I wanted at department stores, I discovered what is the mecca of Bass Pro Shop, and their wonderful selection of durable, breathable, and veterinary-appropriate clothing. Hallelujah! (Second favorite: golf clothes.)
Additionally, I completely discontinued traditional polos. It’s just too hot in the south, and that additional fabric on my neck was unnecessary. I found some breathable, high quality scrubs that fit me well in my practice colors. And – oh my god – the pockets! Why did I resist pocketed scrubs for so long?!
Finally, I will say that if you work in an area of extreme heat, you need to take care of yourself. I’ve nearly passed out twice on calls: they were both cow dystocias that weren’t going well, and I was prioritizing the success of the patient over myself, and the worse I got, the fuzzier my brain was working. On one, I very vaguely remember the farmers dragging me into their truck and sticking me in the air conditioning. The cow died and was going to die no matter what I did. The situation was just a loser. Heat exhaustion is a real thing, no matter how strong and determined you think you are.
Just to be clear, water-resistant is not waterproof. Make sure you have a lightweight waterproof jacket, or you’ll regret it eventually.
Nothing is worse (in my southern-living opinion) than cold feet and hands. Spend money on high quality, durable snow boots. I live in the south and these have even been valuable to me! Consider not just that you will be outside, but you are going to be stuck outside for very long periods of time.
You may even want to invest in electric warmers or socks. I have personally found the air-activated ones to be ineffective.
Safety is clearly a concern – I’m sure you’ve figured that out by now – but for me, it’s been a balance. Maybe this is my own personal problem, but I cannot stand hot feet during the summer. I couldn’t do boots, and I’m obsessed with biosecurity, so my summer go-to were gym shoes (and no, I never got stepped on).
If I was still working now, I think I’d try these, and I wish I had known about them sooner! They combine the safety features of boots with the style, breathability, and comfort of a gym shoe.
And did I mention biosecurity? Can you disinfect your shoes?
Let’s go straight to leather, my footwear pet peeve. Can you clean leather? Yes. Do you? If you’re wearing them as a practicing veterinarian, you better be, otherwise you’re a fomite (same for any other shoe you don't clean).
However, we all learned in school that you cannot disinfect organic material, leather obviously being one, so if you’re doing your due diligence to your patients and clients, perhaps consider another alternative. I personally want something non-organic that I can throw in the washing machine – for my patients as well as my own animals at home.
Another shoe consideration is color. FYI, if you've notice a lot of tan/brown shoes around large animal clinics, there’s a reason why: it hides dirt and stains better than anything else, even a lot of blacks. Grey has also held up somewhat nicely for me.
And when you're shopping, don’t forget all those dumb little white details and soles (which black ones almost always have). Those are going to be white for about a week.
If you lean towards gym shoes instead of boots, like me, I find that hiking shoes tend to combine a lot of these factors together.
One other consideration is additional safety gear. We get put into dangerous, life-threatening conditions frequently, and you’re usually not planning on it, so it’s better to be prepared in advance.
Even if you can’t have the full, professional rescue gear, what about a safety helmet to protect that brain that you just spent hundreds of thousands of dollars educating? I just threw my riding helmet in the car because I owned one, and it was going to waste.
We worked on down horses and weird rescues all the time, and it’s a huge safety risk. Eventually I realized I should be committing the fashion faux pas of a helmet while attempting the lift.
Want more safety recommendations? Go here for lots of resources and specifically their ASAR Equipment List towards the bottom.
Do you have any other thoughts or recommendations? Add them below in the comments!