The significance of a stethoscope

Farm Forum

Who was the last person you saw using a stethoscope? Most likely it was a doctor or nurse examining you or a family member in a hospital or clinic. It could also have been a veterinarian giving your family dog his annual checkup. I suppose it could have even been some crook trying to crack a safe in an old crime movie on TV!

Simply put, a stethoscope is a tool. It’s a simple combination of metal and rubber tubes hooked to a disc that allows a person to hear sounds inaudible to an unaided ear. In the medical world (we’ll forget about the safecrackers for now), these sounds can be important pieces of information. The first organ we think of using a stethoscope to hear is the heart. Is the heart beating too fast or too slow? If “whooshes” or splashy noises are audible among the beats, they can be tipoffs to valve problems or even defects in the heart chambers.

Likewise, the simple movement of air through a person’s or animal’s airways and lungs can be heard through a stethoscope. If that sound is rough, scratchy or squeaky, that usually indicates something is getting in the way of that air movement – a collapsed airway, fluid or infection, for example. In large animal medicine, we often use stethoscopes to listen to sounds in the belly, too. The lack of abdominal “gurgling” noises in a horse with colic might indicate the intestines are blocked and that further evaluation is necessary. Flicking a finger on a cow’s belly and hearing a “ping” like the bounce of a rubber ball is a clear indication of a displaced abomasum (“twisted stomach”) in a dairy cow that’s off feed.

When we see someone with a stethoscope, it’s not the uses of the instrument that register with us, though. We subconsciously recognize that the person using a stethoscope has some advanced training that the rest of us don’t. After all, it’s one thing to hear noises through a stethoscope; it’s another to recognize what those noises mean and to do something about it.

I am thinking about stethoscopes because today at SDSU we are honoring our pre-veterinary students who will be going off to vet schools next year by presenting each of them a new blue-tubed 3M stethoscope. SDSU’s Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences Department teams up with the South Dakota Veterinary Medical Association to buy each student a top-notch stethoscope for them to start their careers with. This is the third year we have done this, and it’s a very meaningful thing for the students and their families.

For most of them, this will not be the only ceremony recognizing the start of their education as veterinarians. Most vet schools have a “white coat” ceremony, where the students don a white lab coat as a symbol of their entrance into the veterinary profession.

At SDSU, we’ve chosen to present students with stethoscopes instead. Not so they can wear it as a cool status symbol — our “Jackrabbits” are more grounded than that. Rather, we want to give them a tool with which they can help their animal patients and the people who care for them. One could consider a white coat a utilitarian tool also, used to keep all the various substances shed by animals from getting on your street clothes! But it is also used as a symbol of distinction, a separation between the doctor and his patients and clients.

A stethoscope on the other hand, connects the doctor to his patient. For these students, we want the stethoscope to serve not as a symbol of status, but of the deep and personal connection these students will forge with their animal patients and the community in which they work. By having faculty or veterinarian mentors present them their stethoscopes, we also want to remind them of the connections they already have with our university and the veterinarians who have helped them. The next time you see your veterinarian pull out her stethoscope, think of the valuable connection that person has with the health of your animals and the success of your community.

Russ Daly, DVM, is the Extension Veterinarian at South Dakota State University. He can be reached via e-mail at or at 605-688-5171.