During my years working in clinical practice, I often came across pet parents who shared with me their childhood dream of working with animals as a veterinary professional. It is still one of the most popular professions for many children—and why wouldn’t it be? We get to work with and help animals all day, and sometimes sneak a cuddle or two.
Many of us working in the veterinary field have always wanted to be in this profession since we were little. Some of us were influenced by the James Herriot series of a picturesque and idyllic life taking care of all sorts of animals for a living and forming wonderful relationships with our kindhearted clients. The vision is irresistible for sure.
But sadly, the reality of this profession is not so fuzzy and dreamy. Burnout is real, compassion fatigue is all too common, and depression rates in our profession are 2 to 5 times more likely than the average population. In one study, only 41% of veterinarians would recommend this career to a family member or friend. I imagine this percentage is significantly lower when looking at the larger veterinary profession—licensed veterinary technicians, veterinary assistants, and client service staff.
These statistics surprise a lot of people I talk to. “But why? You get to play with cute animals all day!” is one of the most common reactions I have received in the past. But there’s a stark disconnect between what the public perceives our profession to be and what the reality is.
1 in 6 veterinary professionals have contemplated suicide and many of us, especially licensed veterinary technicians, struggle to make ends meet due to the wide student debt to income ratio. Cyberbullying by the general public is all too common as well. This isn’t anything new—mental health struggles have been part of this profession for decades, but only in the last several years are we actively talking about it. It has only gotten worse since the COVID-19 pandemic. Cyberbullying ramped up, abusive language and behaviors in clinics became an everyday occurrence. While many pet parents understood the necessity for curbside practice, some struggled to grapple with it and instead harassed, bullied, and threatened us for not allowing them inside to protect our own health.
A few months ago, a veterinary specialty center was targeted for severe online bullying and harassment after a one-sided news story was made public. The veterinary staff were sent death threats along with threats to burn down the building. These were professionals working an incredibly difficult job of caring for the sickest patients with the most challenging illness. They work long hours with little if any break partly due to the chronic staffing shortage and often work with clients who have financial struggles. They extend endless compassion and humanity to not only the animals they care for but for the pet parents as well, because they of all people know how difficult it is to watch your pet suffer and feel helpless. These are incredibly talented and intelligent people that could be in a completely different profession making significantly more and having to deal with significantly less stress and emotional turmoil. And yet they come in to work day in and day out because they care and they are passionate about the impact they make. So to accuse, threaten, and bully them is not only absolutely reprehensible, but this also harms all pet parents as well as all pets’ health and wellbeing. Unsurprisingly, when these stories circulate, it leads to many more of us leaving the profession altogether, leading to further chronic staffing shortage and overburdening of the existing staff left to pick up the pieces.
Compassion is one of the staple terms used often in our field. But compassion is not an unlimited resource. There is only so much compassion we can give when we receive so little in return.
Fortunately, there are still plenty of us that are passionate about what we do and there are many future veterinary professionals that have a strong desire and aptitude to join this field to make a difference for animals. Telehealth is an emerging field in veterinary medicine, and some of us have learned the balance of remaining in this profession and continuing to help pet parents in an environment we feel safe in. Telehealth also has the potential to make a huge impact on access to care, particularly for those who have various limitations to access quality veterinary care for their pets. But there will always be a fundamental need for physical practices, and the future of veterinary medicine will likely be a union of the two modes of pet care. This means that we will be more intricately involved in communicating regularly with pet parents in order to provide the highest quality and curated care for individual pets. But we cannot help our pet parents to the best of our ability if the public continues to treat us the way they do today. We will continue to lose talent. This profession has many challenges to overcome, some that are beyond our pet parents’ control, but I believe the healing comes when our biggest allies are the pet parents we serve.
To start, pet parents can learn more about our struggles by checking out Not One More Vet; a non-profit organization founded by veterinary professionals and dedicated to tackling the mental health challenges in our profession. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that most of us know someone in our profession who has been lost to suicide. And at the end of the day, all it takes to brighten our day is a kind gesture or a thoughtful word from our clients. National Vet Tech Week is coming up in October, so this is a great month to start showing support!
We care about your pets and we are often pet parents ourselves. We dedicated our life for the health and wellbeing of animals. We understand that sometimes things can be emotionally distressing and financially challenging, and we are here to provide as much help and resources to the best of our ability. But we need your help and we need you to be our advocate so that we can continue to do what we love best and make sure you are with your beloved for as long as humanely possible.