BY KERRI WIEDMEYER, DVM, WVRC

It is not uncommon to think veterinary medicine consists of playing with rambunctious puppies and purring kittens. Unfortunately, these interactions are a rare highlight in what can be a grueling profession. A study published by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) in January 2019 showed that veterinarians are 3.5 times more likely to commit suicide than the general population. This may come as a shock to most people. How can someone around animals all day long be sad or depressed or have suicidal thoughts?

This increased rate of suicide in the veterinary field can partially be attributed to the personalities of those individuals who are drawn to the veterinary field. Veterinary school is a very rigorous program. Those who apply are typically very driven and hardworking, and many may even consider themselves to be perfectionists. Unfortunately, these qualities are also linked to increased personal performance standards, stress and anxiety. Veterinary school also comes with a huge financial burden, and it is not uncommon for veterinarians to be hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt after their schooling is complete.

For most veterinarians, our days consist of examining animals, assessing their problems and diagnostics, coming up with and discussing treatment options with owners, and record keeping. While that does not sound like a stressful day, it is compounded by the fact that pets cannot communicate what is wrong or where they hurt. This can add another layer of complexity and stress to the practice of veterinary medicine.

The wide range of emotional situations encountered by veterinarians on a daily basis also contributes to high suicide rates. For example, a veterinarian could be in an exam room where they had to patiently examine an overzealous, wiggly puppy, only to walk into the next exam room containing an older dog who, after examination, is found to have an abdominal mass which means a discussion of possible cancer with his owners. It can be quite the emotional rollercoaster. Breaking difficult or unexpected news to owners can be a very taxing part of the job, as is carrying out the difficult task of euthanasia. Veterinarians are trained to exude empathy and compassion in these situations, but this can take a toll over time. It may lead to an increased incidence of compassion fatigue in the field.

Client interactions also add an additional layer of stress to the profession. Often, clients will try and research symptoms on the internet and come to a presumptive diagnosis, which can lead to confusion as to why veterinarians may recommend certain diagnostics to determine the cause of their pet’s symptoms. In cases where even vast testing does not lead to a specific diagnosis, clients can become angry and frustrated that their veterinarian cannot figure out what is wrong with their pet. Long wait times at emergency facilities is another source of irritation for clients that can impact client-veterinary interactions. Clients are also typically emotionally distraught when dealing with difficult news about their pet. Sometimes, these feelings can be redirected as anger towards their veterinarian.

Finally, another reason the field has high suicide rates is that struggles with work/life balance can compound these other stressors for the veterinarian. They tend to work very long hours to accommodate clients and their pets, and they often stay longer than they’re scheduled to perform procedures, complete surgeries and finish paperwork. Over time, this increases emotional burnout that, if not corrected or treated, can increase the potential for suicidal tendencies.

When faced with feelings of suicide, unfortunately, veterinarians are also equipped with the knowledge of how to do it. They have access to anesthetic, pain and euthanasia drugs, as well the knowledge of how to combine them to be lethal; this can be used to facilitate suicide in a different or debatably easier way than the general population.

How Can You Help?

Finances are a large factor of stress for both the pet owner and the veterinarian. Owning a pet comes with its own financial burden. Vaccines, diagnostics, treatments, medications and procedures cost money, and owners should be prepared for possible costs that may occur over the years. Please keep in mind that most people do not become veterinarians for the money. It is not the lucrative job often associated with having “Dr.” before one’s name. Thus, it is unjust to think that a veterinarian is recommending a diagnostic treatment or procedure to pad their pocketbook. Payments go toward running a clinic, staff, equipment, medicine and upkeep. So having a separate emergency savings account for your pet and understanding the potential medical costs that come with pet ownership is ideal. Pet insurance is also a growing market and can be a cost effective option for routine wellness and emergency pet expenses.

Be patient. Your veterinarian is not making you wait on purpose. They are likely running around treating as many animals as efficiently as possible. This means they might not have not had lunch, gone to the bathroom or even had a drink of water.

Remember that your veterinarian is a human being who is just trying to do their job to the best of their ability. Treat them as you would want to be treated; with respect and kindness. Remember that they took an oath to do no harm, and they just want what is best for your pet. And please—the next time you talk to or see your veterinarian, say thank you. Those words mean more than you might think.

BY MEGAN TREMELLING, DVM, LVS

When people find out I am a veterinarian, many of them say, “Oh, I always wanted to do that!” They then go on to relate all the reasons it didn’t work out. Surprisingly, none of them have so far admitted that the reason was that they couldn’t pass organic chemistry.

The next thing they say is, “You’re so lucky! You must love it!” Well, yes and no. I feel about my job the way a parent may feel about a highly spirited toddler: I always love it, but I don’t always like it, and there are times when I wonder how long I can keep up with it.

Becoming a veterinarian is challenging, there’s no doubt about it. This is not a career you wind up in accidentally like real estate appraisal or furnace duct cleaning. It’s more of a calling than a job. Most veterinarians either knew from early childhood onward that it was their future or had some kind of epiphany later on. The process of answering that calling is long and sometimes painful. As the famous choreographer Twyla Tharp says about becoming a professional dancer, “[To devote years of your life] working very seriously, with complete commitment, for not a penny… You have to be either hopelessly passionate or very stupid.”

Getting into veterinary medical school is a challenge as there are more qualified people interested in going than there are seats available. Once you have gotten in, it is four years of very hard work to try to learn enough to take good care of every animal species on the planet except humans. It culminates in a crushing exam for licensure that not everybody passes. Tuition is a burden in most university programs; the days are long gone when a summer job could earn enough money to pay a year’s tuition and living expenses. I was fortunate enough to graduate with a debt load that was only about twice my first year’s salary. Costs have gone up since then. I regularly hear of young veterinarians graduating with $200,000 or more in student loans. Passion, it seems, has a price.

Fast forward a couple of decades, and my passion for taking care of animals hasn’t faded. Of course, there is nothing quite like the feeling of being presented with a miserable or dying pet, providing it with the skilled care to fix the problem and returning it to a grateful owner to live happily ever after. Routine care, like vaccinating puppies, doesn’t provide much excitement, but it’s still rewarding because I’ve seen what happens to the animals that don’t get that care, and it isn’t pretty. You only have to watch one puppy suffer through parvo or hear stories from the older generation who tried to treat dogs before the parvo vaccine existed to know that giving that vaccination is good and important work.

I don’t delude myself that I’m some kind of hero. I am not feeding the hungry or pulling children out of burning buildings. But I do see value in helping the critters that can’t help themselves and thereby helping the humans who love them. Pets are a source of companionship, stability and affection in a world that needs them desperately. By helping people to keep and enjoy their pets, I like to think I’m making the world a better place in my own small way.

As an emergency veterinarian, I work nights, weekends and holidays. This was my choice, and so there’s a limit to how much sympathy I can expect for it, but to be fair, somebody’s got to do it; so if I were not there at 2 am to help your pet, it would be some other veterinarian, equally sleep-deprived, over-caffeinated and vitamin D-deficient. Most veterinarians can only work nights for a couple of years before they burn out. I’ve been doing it for 20.

I enjoy problem-solving, and there is no shortage of problems at my job, but sometimes it becomes less of a fun puzzle and more of a frustrating labyrinth. There are patients that defy diagnosis. There are patients that don’t respond to treatment the way you expect them to. Living organisms are complex enough that it will never, ever be possible to know every variable in the system. This means that I am provided with ample opportunity to look like an idiot on a regular basis. The only consolation I have is that all veterinarians everywhere have the same problem. I’m in good company.

No sensible person becomes a veterinarian for the purpose of getting rich; that would be like moving to Seattle for the purpose of getting a good suntan. There are certainly veterinarians who do very well for themselves; there are also those who will never be able to scrape together enough money to buy a home or provide for a family. We could have made more money as engineers, lawyers, dentists or medical doctors. There’s no doubt about that. I have to admit that I seriously considered not going to veterinary school when I found out I could make more money as an optometrist. In my experience, optometrists are usually not working at 2 am. On the other hand, my patients are mostly cuter than humans are.

And then there are the clients. Most of them are wonderful people who want to do what’s best for their pets and appreciate my help. A few of them, sadly, seem to regard me as an obstacle rather than an ally.  Then there are always the ones who think that a Google search is an adequate substitute for four years of medical school (it isn’t) or that having owned several dogs in their lifetime provides equivalent experience to treating thousands of dogs in a career (it doesn’t). And lastly, there are those who just can’t understand why we veterinarians have to charge for our services. Unfortunately, unlike a dancer, no matter how passionate I may be, I can’t do my job for free. The tools and supplies we use cost enormous amounts of money. And ultimately, I also need to eat.

Lastly, being a veterinarian takes an emotional toll in many ways. I believe that performing euthanasia is a privilege that spares animals from suffering, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy for me. I’m not a fan of having people lash out at me because I’m a handy target for their grief, guilt or frustration.There are certainly times when I wonder why I have invested years of my life, endless hard work and large sums of money all to earn the privilege of being yelled at by a client who doesn’t understand that I’m trying to help.  And I could happily go the rest of my life without ever again having to call a devoted owner in the wee hours of the night to give them heartbreaking, bad news.

Do I Like Being a Veterinarian?

Overall, yes. Would I do it again? Some days yes; some days no. There are easier paths I could have chosen. Would I recommend it to anyone else? Maybe not. For those who think they might maybe enjoy being a veterinarian, I recommend considering other options. But there are those who hear the call, who feel the passion and who are willing to make the sacrifices. You know who you are. And it can be rewarding—assuming you can pass organic chemistry.