Veterinarians face unique pressures

PHOTO: Jonathan Francisca on Unsplash

I apologize in advance for the somewhat more sombre tone of this column, but this is a topic that I feel very strongly about and one that I think deserves more attention.

Lately, there has been a significant amount of chatter in the veterinary profession about the types and the consequences of some of the stresses that vets and the employees in veterinary clinics face. Not to say that many of these emotional workplace hazards are unique to our profession, but there does seem to be a confluence of factors that have added up to some alarming statistics and some tragic stories.

Studies over the past few years, conducted in various places around the world including North America, the UK and Australia, have revealed that veterinarians currently have the highest suicide rate of any profession. According to an article from the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, the rate of suicide among vets is double that of dentists, more than double that of medical doctors and four times the rate of the general population.

There has been a large amount of attention paid to the “why” of this, and of course there are multiple factors; some relate to the kind of person attracted to this work and how that personality type lends itself more to isolation and perfectionism, factors known to contribute to depression. Some point to the access to means — the drugs and the knowledge of exactly how to administer them to end a life. A good portion of the attention has been focused on the workplace-specific factors that may contribute not just to the alarming rate of suicide but also other, albeit less dramatic, consequences like burn outs, breakdowns, and alcohol and substance abuse, which also occur at a higher than average rate in the veterinary workplace. These factors are the ones that are due solely to the job itself and how it can uniquely affect the people in it every day.

With virtually every vet or vet clinic worker I know or have ever spoken to, it has been clear that they entered this line of work and have dedicated their time and energy to it because of their passion for animals. Financial gain is well down their list of motivations. Almost all of us do what we do because we truly care about pets and the impact they have on their people. If you visit any of the popular online forums for veterinarians, veterinary technicians and others working in the field you will read this over and over. We all know that we could be earning significantly more than we are had we entered other, similar fields.

There are many frustrating things I hear or read online from individuals lashing out at veterinarians because they feel that veterinary care is over-priced. Not the least of which is the statement “of course they don’t care, they are businesses, so they can only be in it for the money.” If we were not “businesses” where would the money come from to cover our considerable costs? The only alternatives would be the government through tax revenue, like OHIP, or charitable donations such as the Humane Society. I don’t know a vet who wouldn’t much rather bill a third party for their work than have to face the daily stress and emotion of having to present clients with bills for their pet’s medical care. There is considerable variability in the type of care offered in veterinary clinics these days and the ones offering the most advanced and attentive care incur massive costs that make margins very tight. I can only speak for myself, but I can honestly say that the only way we could charge less for what we do is to not do it as well. I do not believe that this is what most of my clients would want. It’s certainly not what I would want.

Then there is the simple but so often overlooked fact that medicine is far from perfect. It is amazing what we can achieve these days and how far we have progressed but at the end of the day we are still working with what, in the grand scheme of things, is a much more limited knowledge of the workings of these living, breathing biological entities than we really appreciate. We can do some pretty incredible things, but we can’t see the future or fix things by magic. We can only do the best that current knowledge and technology allows and we can only do that when the unavoidable financial costs involved are met.

The most painful part of our work will always be when we can’t help a pet through an illness or injury and see them back to normal. This is what we are here to do; it’s why we went through years of intensive training and why we show up every day. It hurts to fail. Sometimes we can’t help because the cost to do so cannot be met and sometimes we can’t because it just can’t be done. These situations are heartbreaking just the same.

For myself as a practice owner and a vet with many years of experience, I find that for the most part I have found ways to internally deal with the pet owners who feel we are “ripping them off” or that we failed to help their pets when we did the very best that could be done. I know that these words are usually borne of a combination of strong emotions and ignorance, both of which are forgivable given the distressing circumstances.

What upsets me is seeing my staff, a group of people who I know for a fact could not be more dedicated, could not care more about the pets and people we serve, reduced to tears by a pet owner’s words. When we have done all we can and it’s not been enough, or when we can’t help because the work we need to do cannot be paid for, to be criticised for that and called uncaring, when in truth we care more than most people will ever understand, is especially painful. With an increasing awareness of the impact of the emotional challenges veterinary care workers face, at our clinic we have initiated a zero tolerance policy when it comes to clients being verbally or emotionally abusive to staff.  I will recommend to every vet I know that they do the same.

We love what we do and we are rewarded every day with our many success stories and we love nothing more than seeing the effect our good work has on the relationship between a pet and its person. I also have the most fantastic clients here in the Beach that I have ever worked with. Ninety nine per cent of the time, the appreciation and acknowledgment for our work is made clear. But it is quite shocking how quickly we can forget that in the face of the other one per cent.

The bond we have with our pets is a big part of what makes our work so special. It is also the part that makes the difficult moments fraught with emotion. Please remember that your veterinary care team is doing their best, that sometimes some battles can’t be won, and that if we could do it for free, most of us would.

Dr. Nigel Skinner is a veterinarian serving the Beach and East Toronto. Connect with him at

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