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Emotional Health in Veterinarians

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Emotional Health in Veterinarians

Imagine you are at work and you are working on a very important project. You have some background information, such as things that have been going wrong, but not much else. You don’t have an instruction manual. All you know is what you see in front of you. Your goal is to find out exactly what is going on and figure out how to fix it as quickly as you can with as little money spent as possible. Stakes are high, and emotions run deep. If you solve the mystery, you will look like a hero. If you don’t, or if you do, but it cannot be fixed, you will be considered incompetent and blasted on the internet for all to see. You have just entered the minefield of a veterinarian’s mind.

lump on a dog's rib cage

Competing With Dr. Google

I think there is a disconnect between what many clients perceive as reality and actual medicine. First off medicine, whether it is human or veterinary, is not clear cut. Every individual, every case, every situation is different. We cannot plug a patient into a computer for the answer to print out. Plus there is so much that is still unknown. Sometimes cases are predictable, but sometimes they do not act the way the textbook says they will.

Secondly in the Information Era, we are now competing with Dr. Google and other countless people who have strong opinions on medical topics they are not qualified to comment on...and people scared and vulnerable believe them! We are then challenged with trying to change their mind with science, experience and a methodical approach.

It is a lot harder than you might think. Once someone believes in something, like all raw diets or not vaccinating, it is not easy convincing them that the risks well outweigh the benefit (if there is any) and can actually be more harmful than helpful.

Thirdly often there is not a magic shot we can give to make everything all better. Unfortunately it isn’t that easy. Just like in human medicine, we see some very sick patients and complicated cases. Sometimes getting an answer can take time, additional tests, and several visits. This can be interpreted as veterinarians running unnecessary tests just for the money. This is unethical and illegal and does not happen as much as you may think. Are there some bad eggs out there? Yeah, maybe. But they are very few and far between.

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What is actually happening is a thorough doctor running through a methodical thought process of interpreting information and ruling out most likely causes before starting treatments that can be unnecessary or harmful. It would be irresponsible not to follow up with an abnormality if detected. It would also be incredibly frustrating for owners if we just tested every dog with every test in the book right away to come up with an answer immediately, especially for stable patients.

This is why many cases are approached step-by-step, so the appropriate tests and treatments can be selected at the appropriate time and only if necessary. Also I think it is important to note that negative results are also very valuable. Ruling out a disease can be just as important as ruling one in.

Most Pets Don't Have Health Insurance 

dog's heart is beating fast

People slander veterinarians online, accusing them of killing their pet or only caring about money. This is bullying. What is often left out is that the dog has been coughing for months and they brought the dog in with difficulty breathing due to congestive heart failure, which could have been managed for improved quality of life months ago.

But because the owners do not understand the medical complexities of the disease, and cannot take any responsibility for their carelessness, they just dump on the doctor who offered care, but was declined because the owners did not want to pay for what it costs to treat a critically ill animal.

We get accused of not caring for pets because we charge for our services and because it’s more than what they get charged at their doctor visits. The difference is that they have health insurance and most pets do not. If you actually look at a hospital bill, you will see how outrageous these bills are.

Of course we do care about animals, but that does not mean we can work for free. We still have bills to pay, and need to put food on the table for our families. It costs money to have a nice, welcoming facility and have a well trained staff who is knowledgeable and caring. It costs money to have and maintain equipment that will help us diagnose and treat your pets.

And it costs a LOT of money, time, and energy to go to school to earn a Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine degree. Most of us did not become veterinarians for the money. I can list some exotic cars (cars, plural) that I could buy for the amount of my school loans.

We go to vet school because we are driven by the science behind it. We fall in love with the power of the human-animal bond, and are compassionate to a fault about our patients and our clients. We love the puzzle of going through a case, putting the pieces together and coming up with a reasonable explanation for why this creature who cannot directly talk feels badly.

Most of us have Type-A personalities and do not handle failing well. Unfortunately animals, like people, do not live forever. They get terminal illnesses and sometimes they don’t make it.

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Euthanasia: a Blessing and a Curse

That brings up the sensitive topic of euthanasia. Veterinarians are both blessed and cursed with the ability to end ultimate suffering, thus ending a life. This is a decision with medical, ethical, emotional and religious connotations. It is a procedure that is never recommended lightly, and never gets easier no matter how many times you’ve been through it.

It is our responsibility to be the animals advocates and do our best by them. Even if everything was done perfectly by the book, it still does not always go the way we wish it would. These are cases that we may hold onto for a very long time, that may replay over and over in our minds. Is there more that could have been done?

The Cumulative Effects of Stress

Now put all of that together.

  • The tremendous school loan burden and upside down debt-to-income ratio.
  • The pressure of always having to be right.
  • Being charged with finding an answer, sometimes with financial constraints limiting the diagnostics that can be performed.
  • The strain of knowing the pet can be saved, but not being able to because the surgery or medicine is too expensive.
  • The internal struggle of a patient not doing well despite the proper technique.
  • The trouble of owners blaming you for their pet having a disease that cannot be cured.
  • The stress of working long hours with a poor work-life balance.
  • The immense pressure and responsibility of knowing when to recommend euthanasia.
  • The grief associated with losing patients or seeing horrendous animal abuse cases.

All of that wrapped in a person that is always striving to be perfect in imperfect situations, it is no wonder veterinarians are up to 3.5 times more likely to commit suicide (CDC 2018).

The purpose of this article is not to make you feel bad for veterinarians. It is to make you aware of the struggle we sometimes face. Modern medicine has come a very long way, but we are not gods. We are human just like you.

How can you make a difference? Just be kind. Say please and thank you for your vet working through his or her lunch and staying late beyond an already long day. Think twice before blasting your vet on social media for something that might be out of their control.

Instead, if you have concerns, please reach out to your vet and work it out with them. Please realize that we are not in it for the money. We are making recommendations based on the information in front of us, our scientific knowledge, and the highest standard of care we hold ourselves to so that we can provide the best level of care for your pet.

We took an oath to do no harm, to protect animal welfare and relieve animal suffering (see Veterinary Oath). We all want the same thing. We are on the same team.

References

New Study Finds Higher than Expected Number of Suicide Deaths among U.S. Veterinarians. 2018. https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2018/p1220-veterinarians-suicide.html.

Veterinary Oath. https://www.avma.org/KB/Policies/Pages/veterinarians-oath.aspx.

About the Author 

dr eric

Dr. Eric Weiner is a small animal veterinarian practicing in Orlando, Florida. He is a third generation veterinarian as both his father and grandfather are vets. Although he grew up following both of them around and wanted to be a veterinarian himself, he took a bit of a detour and attended Hofstra University originally as a music major.

Eventually realizing his true passion still lays within Veterinary Medicine, he switch majors and graduated in 2010 with a BA in biology and dual minors in biochemistry and music. Dr. Weiner attended Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine and graduated in 2015, concentrating in mixed animal medicine and surgery. During his clinical year, his favorite rotation was which ever he was currently on. He especially enjoyed spending time at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, where he worked closely with search and rescue dogs, diabetic alert dogs, and even cancer detection dogs.

When Dr. Weiner is not working with animals, he enjoys riding his motorcycle and playing baseball. He is married to his high school sweetheart and they are enjoying their brand new baby girl. In addition, they live with their therapy dog Murphy, and two cats, Stella and Luna.

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