As a small animal veterinarian 16 years out of school, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been asked how I knew I wanted to be a vet.
The assumption is usually that I must have always just loved animals and wanted to take care of them. And to be honest, that’s pretty much spot on for me. I was the one who tried to rehabilitate the baby birds with broken wings wearing sandwich bags as gloves and who saved some baby bunnies from the clutches of my golden retriever.
On family vacations I always found the opportunities to go horseback riding on the beach or swim with the dolphins. All of my kids had/have animal themes for their baby blankets, nurseries and cross stitch birth announcements. I could go on and on and on….
As a child and young adult preparing to save all the world’s precious critters, I was blissfully unaware of how much I would be interacting with, and in a big sense taking care of, people in my job as a veterinarian.
It soon became apparent that if I planned to hide my introverted self away with puppies and kittens or any other of God’s amazing animal creations all day long, I was sorely mistaken. As I treat animals (in my case right now, dogs and cats), I treat people.
Supporting humans by supporting animals
Over the thousands of years since dogs have become domesticated and cats have deigned to (sort of) domesticate themselves when it suits them, these critters have gone from being commodities to being loved members of the family alongside or in place of human children.
As such, their owners (or parents, if you will) want and expect their fur babies’ healthcare to mirror or exceed their own human healthcare.
So to keep the family and all of its members healthy and happy, pets need regular preventive care and access to me and my fellow vets for sick visits and emergency care. This includes at least annual exams, more frequent juvenile and senior exams, regular vaccinations and parasite prevention, wellness bloodwork, nutritional counseling, behavioral consultation, surgery, dentistry, and much more.
When a pet is suffering, their owner/family suffers too. By keeping pets healthy and attending to them when they are sick, I am supporting the emotional wellbeing of the pet’s family.
The human-animal bond
Research summarized by the Pet Effect from The Human-Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) highlights the physical and mental benefits to owning a pet: lowered blood pressure, lowered risk of stroke/heart attack, lower rates of isolation and anxiety/depression, help with managing PTSD, reduced rates of allergies, and help with interactions for autistic individuals.
HABRI also reports that most doctors would consider writing a prescription for a pet for their patient because they recognized the health benefits to having a pet.
Animals serve in therapeutic roles for people in so many different ways. Just look at the huge increase in the number of emotional support animals we now see.
Animals support human health in many other ways by detecting low blood sugar or an oncoming migraine or seizure in their human, providing physical support for an individual who has trouble with balance, and being the literal eyes for those with vision impairments, just to name a few.
I have treated animals who provide therapy to hospitalized human patients and their families, sometimes in a patient’s final hours of life. Another former patient of mine frequently visited the library and had young children read to him. Another could recognize the early signs of a panic attack in her bereaved owner and respond to them without ever having been trained to do so.
As I and other veterinarians care for these amazing animals, we support their owners’ needs and wellbeing.
Vet care for pets and humans
By caring for animals in any role, veterinarians also help to keep humans physically healthy.
As a small animal veterinarian, I regularly counsel my clients on very real threats to their own health. Intestinal parasites, flea and tick-borne diseases and zoonotic diseases (diseases animals can give to people) like Rabies and leptospirosis can cause serious illness and in some cases death in humans. By preventing and/or treating these conditions in their pets, and by educating owners about how to protect themselves, I am directly supporting human health.
Other veterinarians support and protect human health by monitoring the nation’s food supply and keeping our food animals safe and healthy. Still others work for pharmaceutical companies or do research to help design treatments that will be used to treat human diseases.
So we’ve established that a veterinarian’s duty is not only to the animal but also to all humans. As a result, I can’t just be good at diagnosing and treating the animal. I have to be able to communicate the what/why/how to the owner.
I have to be able to pick out the clues in the history given to me by the owner to fill in the gaps left by my patients’ inability to articulate how they are feeling. I have to be able to educate my clients and empower them to make appropriate decisions for their pet and to follow my recommendations once they leave the clinic. And I have to be able to deal with the stress that can often accompany interpersonal interactions.
Vet care in uncertain times: Burnout and Covid-19
Veterinary medicine and those who work in it are facing challenging times. Burnout, exhaustion, and lack of work/life balance are just a few of the serious problems in the veterinary industry due to their widespread presence.
The onset of the Covid-19 global pandemic saw some veterinary professionals make the difficult choice to leave the profession due to loss of childcare and/or concern over coronavirus exposure.
What’s more, many clinics were already short staffed in terms of doctors and support staff. And with a major boom in Covid pet acquisitions and many more pet owners spending more time home observing their pets, it’s easy to see why most clinics quickly became overwhelmed and booked out for weeks on appointments.
It’s not uncommon now to see emergency clinics with 8 hour waits for a pet to be treated. Veterinary clinics of all kinds are sometimes forced to turn would-be clients away due to their overbooked schedules. In many of these situations, tensions run high and patience runs thin.
For veterinary staff, this can mean contentious interactions with clients who are concerned about their pets, their finances and their wait to be seen. These negative interactions really wear on the veterinary team.
Not One More Vet
We pride ourselves on working hard, showing compassion to animals and humans and sacrificing our time and energy to help as many patients and families as we can. But when we give all that we can and more and still feel like our clients are dissatisfied, it can become too much to bear. This and other stresses drive some veterinarians to leave clinical practice or to leave the profession entirely.
Tragically some also make the decision to take their own lives. There are some great resources out there for veterinary team members who are having thoughts about suicide or who just need support. These include Not One More Vet and the newly formed Veterinary Hope Foundation, just to name a few.
In many cases, veterinarians and staff who are experiencing significant stress can also benefit from support groups, individual therapy, and/or medication. Sometimes stepping away from practice to prioritize physical and/or mental health is also needed.
In conclusion: Making a difference together
All veterinarians and veterinary staff should know that they are not alone. That there is help, and that the work they do is so important and valued.
The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in increased stress for virtually all human beings. If we as veterinary professionals can give ourselves more grace and know that any negativity directed toward us is very likely not personal, it can help us to endure some of the challenges of our profession. And if the pet-owning public can remember that we as veterinarians took an oath to protect animal health and welfare, and that we are giving so much of ourselves to keep not only your pets but also you healthy and safe, we will all experience less stress.
There is certainly work to be done to make veterinary care more accessible to all the pet owners who need it and to lessen the stress on veterinarians and their staff. Appreciation for veterinarians and pet owners as partners in this endeavor is a vital first step for all.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255.