Ever since I was little, I have always thought of my Dad as having the coolest job ever. I would tell everyone I met that my Dad was a vet, despite them never asking. I was as proud as punch when Dad visited my school on career days with his stethoscope and model cat-skeleton in-hand.
I would accompany him to work on school holidays, and toddle through the clinic with my rose-coloured glasses on, cuddling the kittens and booping all the puppies. My Dad gets to do this every day? I would think to myself, this is the dream!
But as I have gotten older, I have had more candid conversations with my Dad about his job. I now know that veterinarians have a lot more shit to deal with, outside of kittens and puppies.
People like my Dad start vet school bright-eyed and bushy-tailed…Then they begin practice. Daily interactions with people who don’t share their level of compassion for animals can break their spirit.
Vets have one of the highest suicide rates by profession in Australia. They are four times more likely to die by suicide than everyone else. Results of a large scale postal survey of registered vets revealed that they have higher levels of depression, stress and burnout than the general population. Several factors unique to the vet profession have been cited to explain these deeply-concerning stats.
They deal with death daily
Performing euthanasia has been implicated as contributing determinatively to the heightened suicide risk and psychological distress in vets. There are obvious reasons for why completing this task is distressing. One factor that is flagged less, though, is the moral stress that this process places on vets.
Often, euthanasia is a way to end suffering, an exercise in compassion. But sometimes, people elect to euthanise their pets essentially as a matter of convenience. It is unsurprising that vets are plagued by internal conflict when clients request euthanasia because they are unwilling to care for the animal, or unable to pay for life-saving treatment.
Vets regularly go home with an overwhelming guilt over clients not being able to afford treatment, knowing how much the pet means to them. That is often on-top of clients accusing them of being money hungry (FYI, vets do not set prices and their salaries are borderline shit).
“Every day, (it) eats away at you….until you finally say ‘I am a horrible person,’” (Dr Kathleen Norman, President Ontario Veterinary Medical Association).
The toll of performing euthanasia though does not stop at physically administering the drug. Vets are charged with the responsibility of managing the grief and loss of humans during these procedures, increasing their emotional labour. Psychologists and counsellors spend years in training before they are qualified to deal with the complex emotions that vets must deal with as a side-effect of their profession.
Emotional labour imposes a major burden on vets. Veterinary wellness advocate Marie Holowaychuk, highlights incidences of vets being triggered during emotional situations, where they are forced “re-feel” their own feelings from previous events:
“Emotional labor is typically much more demanding than the physical and intellectual labors of the work that we do as veterinary care providers.”
Humans are the worst
While pets have always had a special place in the hearts of pet owners, in the age of ‘furbabies’, it is on a whole new level. It is now common for people to own pets as a complete replacement for children.
It appears that ‘pet parents’ are so consumed by their infatuation and concern for their babies, that they are forgetting to treat the humans helping them with respect. Vets are reporting an increase in volatile clients (see ‘When Clients Attack’).
At their worst, they are abusive and threatening. In January last year, a couple brought in a clearly deceased dog into a Mt Gambier vet clinic. “You have to save him!” They yelled at the vet. The couple had left their dog in the car with the windows up on a searing hot day. There was nothing to be done, and when the vets told the couple this, the man turned violent. He began smashing the clinic and cars in the street, the police were called.
Vets are constantly dealing with “clients from hell”. They answer their phone while the vet is mid-sentence and demand discounts on treatments (wtf this is not a market in Bali, quit trying to barter with vets people!). Dad calls them the “while I’m heres”, who book a 20-minute consultation, pull out a folded piece of paper and proceed to read a list of ailments that they expect to be resolved in said 20 minutes. “While I’m here, Fluffy has had this rash for 5 years, a limp, makes a weird squeaky noise when she barks and is missing an eye.”
Throughout all of this, they are still being pressured to think about the bottom-line. A prominent source of stress in vets is the obligatory dual nature of their jobs: scientific advisor for animal welfare, and customer servicers. They must do ‘X amount’ of consultations per day to align with profit margins set by people who have never examined an animal in their lives. They must adopt a ‘the customer is always right’ attitude. They bite their tongue (often while some creature is biting them) no matter how much they wish that a client had brought their pet in sooner (like, years sooner), hadn’t just googled symptoms, or declared their pet was a vegan.
One practice owner gives his vets the unorthodox Christmas bonus of allowing them to pick one client each year to ‘fire’. Dr Matthew Muir supports such decisions:
“As a profession, we all know we’re at risk of mental illness, compassion fatigue and chronic stress. If that one problem client is the straw that breaks the camel’s back, then do something about it.”
A shift in the profession
There is good news, though. Finally, the industry has begun to take this issue seriously. Vet schools are better-equipping their students for the trials of their profession. Emotional-intelligence competencies and mental-health education is being integrated into vet-science degrees alongside clinical skills. That sends a clear and necessary message that the two are equally important.
There is now more awareness that we must look after the people who we rely on to look after our beloved furry-family members. The vet students of the University of Sydney last year released their annual nude calendar to raise money and awareness for mental health (click on that link, you’re welcome).
I still believe that my Dad has the coolest job ever. But would I do it myself? Hell no. I’m proud as punch of his mental stamina. 30 years of his life he has been a vet (and grief counsellor/customer serviceman/conflict diffuser/chew-toy).
So, what can pet owners do to help alleviate the pressure on vets? The most insightful tip I would give, after 21 years of living with one, is…
Don’t be an asshole. They deal with enough of those.