woman holding dog
Photo: Getty.

SocietyJune 30, 2019

More than just puppies and kittens: the dark side of life as a vet

woman holding dog
Photo: Getty.

How do we expect vets to care for our animals when we don’t always care for our vets? Ellen Sinclair reports on the struggles of an industry that is far more complex than it seems.

Veterinarians and vet nurses commit their lives to helping our beloved pets, but few animal lovers are aware how rife high stress levels and poor mental health are in the veterinary profession.

The expectations are just so high, says an ex-vet, who wishes to remain anonymous. She is taking a break from the industry to spend time with her family, but isn’t sure whether she will return at all. “We are doing it for the animals, and we get blamed and told the opposite. It’s one of the biggest reasons why I don’t want to go back to being a vet when I go back to working, it’s just the way people treat you,” she says. “People don’t want to pay for the service they are getting and yet they expect the same kind of care that they would get for human medicine.”

She says clients don’t realise or appreciate what goes on behind the scenes, or where their money is going. A friend of hers paid $1000 for a whole list of things for their pet; dentistry, a lump removal, anesthetic, ultrasound and blood tests, and then complained about the cost. “I put it in perspective for her,” she says, comparing the care to human medicine, “an anaesthetic fee is $1000-2000 just on its own.

“People blame you for their problems, they blame you that you can’t fix things… how does it make you feel? You just take it all personally, and it’s really hard to step aside from that because we do love our job, we are doing it for the animals and we get blamed and told the opposite.”

And she is not alone.

While exact statistics in New Zealand are unknown, overseas research suggests vets and other animal care professionals experience a disproportionately high rate of suicide. Alix Barclay, an ex-clinical vet currently working in a different field of animal care, says “it’s quite scary numbers. I think suicide is the tip of the iceberg of a much larger mental health problem.”

Barclay says young graduates from vet school struggle when faced with the reality of their profession. After a five-year degree, and a commitment to helping animals, they enter the workforce and realise “the real world is a bit different.” They are presented with cases where they are unable to help or save an animal, perhaps because of an incurable disease, which takes a toll on the vet, says Barclay.

“What’s more punishing for a vet, mentally, is when it is a treatable disease but there are no funds to do so. This may be because the owner doesn’t have the money to treat the animal or they have a budget that they need to stick to, and this will often result in euthanasia of an animal that could otherwise be treated. Now that’s going to have some significant mental burden for you, right?”

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Experiencing this burden over and over again means vets often find themselves bearing the guilt, says Barclay. This guilt might be a contributing factor to the rate of vets taking their own lives. “We’re in a profession where we deal with death, and high emotions on a daily basis,” says Shalsee Vigeant, CEO of Auckland’s Emergency Care Centre.

Andie McDowell has been a vet nurse for 12 years and has seen how badly some pet owners treat their vets and nurses caring for their animals. “That gets a bit hard sometimes, to be told that you don’t care [or] ‘if you cared you’d do this for free’, because they can’t afford it or something like that,” she says. “If I didn’t care, I wouldn’t be doing this and I wouldn’t be standing here copping your abuse.” Vets get a lot more respect from clients than the nurses, McDowell says. “They’ll be downright rude and nasty to us on the phone or in person and then they go into the vet and butter wouldn’t melt.”

Through years of dealing with how she felt, McDowell “just needed someone to listen and to be able to empathise with what I was feeling and what I was experiencing”. She met Vicki Lim, an Auckland vet, at a conference a few years ago and learnt about Lim’s Riptide Project.

Lim first got involved in vet mental health while at university. At a camp in her first year, “the people made mention of depression and suicide in the industry. But at that point, you’re so excited and you don’t actually take notice of it.” She then began connecting with other professionals and, seeing a lack of an informal mentorship and conversation programme in New Zealand, she set up Riptide as a way for others in the profession to help each other. The Riptide Project is a platform for vet professionals around the world to share their stories and experiences, and volunteer for the ‘cuppa system’. So far around 200 people have volunteered to be paired up and meet with a fellow vet or nurse to talk.

Founder of The Riptide Project Vicki Lim.

“That blows my mind,” says Lim, “just the amount of people out there who are really keen to help.” Barclay says the creation of this network, and other similar programmes, “indicates that there’s people recognising that there’s a problem and trying to do something about it.”

The project is effective, says McDowell, “because I’ve seen vets that have struggled with stress and carrying the burden and the guilt – they’ve got their own lives outside of here and you don’t know what’s going there. It only takes one thing.” Over 2,000 people now like Riptide’s Facebook page, sharing experiences and feeling like they’re not alone. Lim also made sure to include a mix of professionals, because “vet nurses are often overlooked. I have a much easier job being a vet because I have amazing nurses.”

When clients show respect to their vets and nurses, it can make a huge difference, says Lim. “We’re in it for the animals because we love animals, but when a client just says to me ‘thanks so much for taking care of Fluffy’, that makes me happy, I get a lot of joy from seeing some of my favourite clients. But at the same time, there are people that really cause you a lot of grief.”

She says vets have not done the best job of teaching pet owners how to respect the profession, because “we let people focus on the fact that our fees are expensive rather than explaining to them why we actually do these things.

“I think no one gets emotionally upset by a dog trying to bite them or cat trying to scratch them. But it’s really difficult when you’re trying to do your best for an animal and clients blame you for being money grabbing.”

The “money-grabbing” accusation is common, says Barclay, because “people think it’s okay to emotionally blackmail a vet. If we compare vets in this regard to some sort of other profession, like a plumber, if your toilet is broken and you really need it fixed, you are not able to emotionally blackmail that plumber into fixing your toilet for cheap.” He recommends pet insurance, so vets are able to give their patients the best care possible. “This leads to better outcomes for the pet, better outcomes for the owner, and better outcomes for the vet.”

Clients should try to bring their pets in earlier, says Lim, to prevent their condition worsening to the point of becoming fatal, and trust in their vet’s advice on medication and treatments. She is seeing an increasing amount of owners opting for alternative medicine or raw diets, which is not often the best for the animal. When vets tell clients this, they tend to get upset, says Lim, but “I’m not trying to sell someone something just for the sake of it. I’m trying to be an advocate for the animal and its health.”

At the end of the day, Lim says she loves her job, and there’s nothing else she would want to do. Vets and nurses are compassionate, empathetic people who have chosen to dedicate their lives to the treatment of sick animals. Unfortunately, they can often be taken for granted, misunderstood and left unable to cope with the pressure.

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