Being A Veterinarian Takes A Huge Emotional Toll

by Kristen Mae
Originally Published: 
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Years ago, I had a bad experience at a veterinarian’s office. I had reluctantly returned to a vet’s office that had been recommended by a friend. I thought maybe the first time I’d gotten a bad feeling was a fluke; the workers had seemed rushed, had hardly looked at me or my dog, then a puppy, and had tried to upsell me on various products when I checked out. The second visit was worse though. They were hurried and rough with my little 12-pound Gizmo, and he was scared and hiding his face in my armpit, his tail tucked between his legs. The tech saw this behavior and labeled it as “guarding” and “aggression,” and said she was going to get a muzzle. Somehow I convinced her not to muzzle him, but I decided then that I was finished with that vet’s office. I never went back.

It was years before I took my dog to the vet again. I know it’s weird that I didn’t just find a new vet for the next annual checkup, but I was paranoid that the same thing would happen and I’d have to convince another impatient tech that Gizmo is not aggressive but just a shy pup who needs some interaction before submitting to rectal thermometers and needle sticks. The vet we go to now is wonderful. When I had a health scare with my dog in the fall and thought he might need surgery, the tech sat with me when I burst into tears, worried about my dog, worried about the expense. The veterinarian himself is patient and gentle, paying more attention to Gizmo than to me. Gizmo still gets nervous, but it’s clear he trusts this kind doctor. I no longer have anxiety about taking my dog to the vet.

This is how I’ve thought about veterinarians up to now — in terms of how I felt about them, and how they impacted my day, my dog, my wallet. My experiences with vets have always been a story about me.

But the other day I stumbled upon a Ted Talk on YouTube that has made me rethink how I view veterinarians. In it, Dr. Melanie Bowden first describes the 10 years of school she had to attend before she could become a veterinarian. She left school with $286,000 of student debt, which she “affectionately” calls her “brain mortgage” because it amounts to a monthly payment of $1,100 for the next 30 years of her life. She tells us about the high attrition rates in the veterinary field. She tells us how, of the vets who have died since 2010, 10% of those were deaths by suicide. 75% of those suicides are small-animal veterinarians — vets who work with dogs and cats.

She then describes a typical day as a veterinarian. The moment she arrives at work, a tech meets her in the parking lot and implores her to hurry. They have an upset client with a pet who seems to be dying. Dr. Bowden rushes in, examines the pet, and gives the client the grim prognosis. The client begs her to save her pet. The team gets to work, but in the process, the animal passes away.

As Dr. Bowden hugs her devastated client, a tech pokes her head around the corner trying to get her attention. A different client is waiting in another room, furious that Dr. Bowden is 20 minutes late. If Dr. Bowden can’t be respectful of her time, she plans to leave and put her experience all over Facebook. Dr. Bowden peels herself away from her grieving client, takes a deep breath, plasters on a smile, and greets her waiting client with a profuse apology and her full attention.

She describes the rest of the day — a litany of sick-pet situations ranging from minor to serious — and we begin to comprehend the intense emotional ride of a veterinarian’s day. Dr. Bowden is catapulted back and forth between joy and fear and heartbreak, all day long.

Vets are expected to live up to impossible standards — giving in to unscheduled appointments means asking her exhausted staff to stay late. Clients accuse her of being incompetent or uncaring, and sometimes even sue her.

Dr. Bowden describes one case that she says she’ll always remember, about a cat named Ollie. His owner brought him in because he’d been straining to urinate for several days. Dr. Bowden hoped Ollie’s situation would be easily fixable, perhaps with antibiotics. But Ollie had an obstruction, which would require the client to take Ollie to the emergency clinic. The client said she couldn’t afford that. In explaining the various options available, Dr. Bowden mentioned euthanasia. The treatment for Ollie’s condition was not guaranteed to work, and the condition would likely recur. It was causing him intense suffering. The client turned to her and said, “Dr. Bowden, you’re going to make me murder my pet because I am poor. Why are you even a veterinarian? You clearly don’t care about animals.”

Distraught by the accusation, Dr. Bowden made an impulsive choice. She treated Ollie even though the owner couldn’t pay, and even though it was against the clinic’s policy. The next day, Dr. Bowden was berated by the clinic manager and her pay was docked the amount that she had discounted for the client.

“There is nothing more soul-crushing in life,” Dr. Bowden says in her Ted Talk, “than having the skills and ability to help something helpless and you can’t do it because someone can’t afford treatment.”

This was the line that hit me in the gut. It’s easy to forget that veterinarians are in the business of pet healthcare because they love animals. No one becomes a veterinarian because they think it will make them rich. With an average student debt of $183,000, the typical salary of around $100,000 per year certainly isn’t funding anyone’s country club dues.

Dr. Bowden implores us to have more compassion and empathy for the doctors that treat our animals. She says the general public needs to better understand what it takes to be a responsible pet owner. For every client that comes in with a new animal, Dr. Bowden recommends they get pet insurance or set up a special savings account for that pet’s care. The one guarantee she can make is that your pet will at some point get sick and need care, that it will get old, and that it will eventually die. And we have to be willing to commit the time and energy necessary to be a good pet owner — to train and socialize and exercise.

But more important than anything, Dr. Bowden says, is for pet parents to show up to their annual exams. If a vet sees your pet on an annual basis, whether they need vaccines or not, they are more likely to identify health issues before they become chronic or life-threatening.

I didn’t have a good experience with my first veterinarian. Maybe I was unlucky and caught them on two rough days. Or maybe they should have done better. I’m happy with my new vet, but one thing I know for sure is that next time I’m frustrated because my wait feels longer than necessary, I’ll remember that someone’s beloved fur baby may be on death’s door a few rooms over. My patience and kindness may be the difference between my veterinarian having a terrible day or a day where he feels seen and appreciated for the work he does. And that’s the very least any of us can offer the people who work so hard to keep our fur babies healthy.

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