A recent headline that came over my Google alerts caught my attention: “Majority of veterinarians don't recommend the profession”. At first, I was surprised, but when I considered this statement further, I realized that I am one of the mentioned majority. It is not uncommon when someone learns that I am a veterinarian to tell me their (insert applicable family member here [daughter/son/niece/nephew]) wants to become a veterinarian. I usually smile in return, but in my head (and sometimes said out loud) I’m thinking do they have any idea what being a veterinarian is all about?
This is one of the reasons I believe the profession is struggling. Too often students are drawn to veterinary medicine because of their love for animals or their desire to help pet owners. They frequently have an idealistic view of the profession that was shaped by veterinary shows on TV, trips to the vet with their family growing up, or visits by the veterinarian to their farm. What they do not realize simply due to lack of transparency on the part of the veterinarians they speak to, is that veterinary work is difficult.
Veterinarians often work long hours, make less money than human care providers, and deal with sometimes unruly or ungrateful clients. Contrary to popular belief: veterinary medicine does not involve cuddling vaccinating puppies, kittens, and foals all day long.
One of the things that triggers me during these conversations with people is the comment that the son/daughter or niece/nephew has “wanted to be a veterinarian his/her whole life.” This is when I become most cynical. I remember wanting to be an Olympic athlete (basketball of course) or runway model (I was always tall for my age) throughout my childhood years, but as I grew and matured I knew that these career aspirations were not suitable for my talents, (looks), or abilities. I am cynical then, when I child decides at the age of 5 after a trip to a veterinary clinic that they, too, want to become a veterinarian and whether they fully understand what sort of career they would be committing too.
Despite growing up in a family with both parents as veterinarians (my mom was a small animal veterinarian for > 40 years and my dad worked in regulatory medicine / animal welfare for > 35 years), it was not until I was immersed in my clinical externship during my 3rd year of veterinary school that I really appreciated what this profession is all about. Don’t get me wrong, there are some incredible points: healing sick patients; performing life-saving surgeries; connecting with incredibly committed pet owners; feeling a sense of satisfaction working cohesively within a team; and knowing that while the work is hard, there are many pet parents who remain eternally grateful.
However, I think it behooves us to share with those who are considering this profession the realities of practice and the staggering statistics associated with this profession. Being a veterinarian often means working outside of the conventional Monday to Friday 9AM-5PM schedule; many veterinarians are also on-call or work off-shift if in a 24/7 practice. Being a veterinarian means not getting paid a large salary, especially in comparison to the amount of student debt that is acquired, sometimes exceeding $200-300,000 (NOTE: the average US veterinary student debt in 2017 was $138,000). Being a veterinarian also means having to deal with disgruntled clients, manage conflict with co-workers, and sometimes euthanize animals that could be helped when an owner does not have the finances. The last situation, which happens relatively commonly given that veterinary medicine is not publicly funded, results in moral distress, which is the leading cause of burnout and compassion fatigue among veterinary care providers.
Which leads me to my last point and that is the statistics regarding the mental health and wellbeing of veterinarians. While a recent study revealed that American veterinarians are not more stressed than the general population, male practitioners < 45 years of age and female practitioners of all ages have higher rates of serious psychological distress. And another recent study surveying 10% of the currently working US veterinarians found that thoughts of suicide were entertained by 1 in 10 practitioners. This is a startling finding and accounts for rates of suicide in the profession that exceed those for other occupations and is 4-6X higher than the general population.
So, is it any surprise that only 41% of veterinarians recently surveyed would recommend the profession to a friend of family member?
I will end by saying that I whole-heartedly love the career that I have chosen and am passionate about the work that I do. But I am increasingly concerned about the mental health and wellbeing of veterinarians and want to ensure that those choosing this profession are aware of the burdens and demands that it places on people. If they understand this information and are given adequate tools to mitigate these stressors during their training, then I welcome them into the profession with open arms.
Marie K. Holowaychuk, DVM, DACVECC is a small animal emergency and critical care specialist and certified yoga and meditation teacher with an invested interest in the health and well-being of veterinary professionals. She facilitates wellness workshops, boot camps, and retreats for veterinarians, technicians, students, and other veterinary care providers. To sign up for newsletters containing information regarding these events and veterinary wellness topics, please click here. More information can be found at www.criticalcarevet.ca.