Veterinarians have adopted a host of measures to keep pets healthy, humans safe, and clinic doors open during the pandemic. These changes have added stress to a profession that already has its share.
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study showed veterinarians died by suicide at between two and 3.5 times the national average between 1979 and 2015. Mounting student debt (without the salaries “people” docs get), the physical and emotional strains of the job, scathing public criticism, and the ever-present shadow of death were among the reasons cited in a Washington Post story.
A second-career vet in the story struggled with debt, depression, and chronic illness that fueled gossip and anger in real time and online. A conversation with an “old friend” was the last straw. She wrote goodbye letters and, using drugs meant for euthanizing animal patients, prepared to end her life. Then she looked into the eyes of her dog and couldn’t do it.
Another veterinarian regularly treated animals who suffered some of the worst humans can do. On the way home from work one night, he considered driving off a California highway. Shaken, he sought help. He later became a founding board member of Not One More Vet, which seeks to support vets and staff members who may be on their own dark roads.
Others, such as well-known vet and trainer Sophia Yin, are no longer here to take that one more chance.
A veterinary well-being study in 2020, this one by Merck Animal Health in partnership with the American Veterinary Medical Association, also found high rates of suicide, substance use disorder, and burnout. Just over half the vets in the study would not recommend a career in veterinary medicine.
The researchers called for every practice to discuss these issues and encourage people to seek help if needed. Employers without employee assistance plans were urged to adopt them. Self-care measures such as stress management plans, limiting time on social media, and working with a financial planner were encouraged for individuals.
All of these efforts are great, but the rest of us — pet parents, others who work with animals, and animal advocates — have skin in this game. (Shouldn’t we all be watching out for each others’ skin anyway, just ’cause?) If difficult human clients and a lack of support from the wider community are part of the problem, for heaven’s sake, let’s fix it.
Here are a few thoughts about what we can do:
Respect the profession
Veterinarians have gone to school, learned multiple systems (“people” docs only have to study one), and done work most of us could not. Though I am not a fan of unquestioningly accepting whatever experts say, if you’ve done your homework and chosen a good vet or clinic, trust them.
Practitioners of complementary and alternative modalities such as massage, Reiki, essential oil therapy, etc. as well as vet techs, kennel owners, trainers, groomers, and more — would do well to work with vets as much as possible. We may not always agree, but we’re all in the business of helping animals and the people who love and care for them. Our collective efforts might just surprise us.
When a client wants to address a particular question or problem through animal communication or animal Reiki, my first question is always: When was the animal last seen by a veterinarian, and what did he or she say or do regarding the issue? I make it clear that I am not a medical or veterinary professional and do not diagnose. Anything I do is in support of — never instead of or against — veterinary care.
Does your veterinarian administer the dreaded annual vaccinations in such a way that your dog barely seems to notice, let alone mind? Was your veterinarian exceedingly kind and gentle with your cat … and with you … when you faced the gut-wrenching decision to put her to sleep? Did your veterinarian come in on a Sunday when your dog got stung by a bee … again? Is your veterinarian patient even when your little darling is doing a spot-on Tasmanian devil imitation?
Notice. Say something. Your comment, however small it may seem to you, could make a big difference if your vet just had to put an animal down because the pet’s owner basically didn’t care, if an angry review just turned up on Facebook or Yelp, or if it’s simply been a long day.
Be aware, and use discretion
If you have reason to believe your veterinarian is struggling with a physical or mental health challenge, especially if it’s affecting his or her work, carefully consider the most kind, fair, and discreet way forward. You’ll have to decide whether you feel comfortable asking him or her directly or taking your concern to the clinic owner or even a state licensing board.
Whichever option you choose, do so in the spirit of help and accountability, not getting even. Likewise, anything you say on the subject to others in real time or on social media — and the best choice may well be to say nothing — should be in that same spirit.
Do your bit during the pandemic
Yes, “doing your bit” was a World War II homefront thing, but surprise! The concept still works. Follow instructions. Be patient. Offer a smile (genuine, please) instead of a sigh when the vet tech picks up or returns your dog to your car. On the phone or online, offer an encouraging word instead of a criticism. If what you’re about to say on social media isn’t true, kind, or helpful, delete it and log off.
During these angry and confusing times, or in seasons of your own pain, it may seem that nothing you do matters.
Trust me, it does.
(Note: This updates an earlier version of the story to include the 2020 study and the changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.)
Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko from Pexels