He treated our pig’s stomach ulcers, arthritis, and congestive heart failure. He saved our hen’s life. And when our beloved border collie, Sally, lay dying in our bedroom, he came to our home, and while I held her and sobbed into the bedspread, he eased her out of her illness.
It’s hard to think of many people in our lives more important, more integral, or more venerated than our veterinarians. To those of us who love animals, veterinary medicine is one of the world’s noblest professions.
So it was with shock and dismay that I learned that veterinarians suffer alarmingly high rates of depression and suicide.
“It’s a big problem,” says Stephanie Kube, a veterinary neurologist and pain pathologist at Veterinary Neurology and Pain Management Center of New England in Walpole. “The profession is truly plagued.”
A 2014 federal Centers for Disease Control online survey of 10,000 practicing veterinarians published last year found that more than one in six American veterinarians has considered suicide. Veterinarians suffer from feelings of hopelessness, depression, and other psychiatric disorders two to three times more often than the general population. Two studies published in the British Veterinarian Association’s journal, The Veterinary Record, found suicide rates are double or more those of dentists and doctors, and four to six times higher than the general population.
The tragedy is counter-intuitive: Most veterinarians have wanted to go into animal medicine since childhood. They are among the lucky few who achieve their dreams. Devoting careers to saving animals’ lives, why would healers choose to end their own?
These findings came as a surprise to veterinarians too. A 2012 survey of veterinary professional association directors across the country and practicing vets in Alabama found only 11 percent of veterinarians were aware that suicide is a problem in their field.
Yet if you ask your vet, chances are he or she knows of a colleague or classmate who has quit the profession, burned out, or killed himself or herself. And almost all American veterinarians have heard about the tragic 2014 case of New York veterinarian Shirley Koshi.
A good Samaritan had rescued a sick cat from a nearby park, and brought him to Koshi, owner of Gentle Hands Veterinary Clinic in Riverdale. Koshi treated the animal and adopted him. Weeks later, a woman appeared, demanding Koshi give her the cat. She claimed the cat was hers because she left food for him, and a number of other cats who roamed the public park. The woman sued; angry demonstrators picketed Koshi’s office; organized hate groups attacked the vet online. Koshi, 55, killed herself at her home.
“People have a misconception that being a vet is all about vaccinating puppies and kittens all day long,” says Marie Holowaychuk, a specialist in emergency and critical care in Calgary, Alberta.
While veterinarians deftly deal with patients who may bite, scratch, and kick, it’s often the human clients, vets agree, who push them over the edge.
“Most of our clients are awesome, and we love them. But all sorts of people have pets,” Kube says. Some adopt or rescue pets who can’t take care of them. Some want healthy pets put down. Some pet owners have emotional disabilities. Some are too financially strapped to pay for veterinary care. “And some think vets will do everything for free, because we love animals,” Kube says. “And we do — but we can’t.” Many veterinarians, she mentioned, carry huge debt from vet school, which can cost as much or more than medical school. But most veterinarians will earn less than a third what doctors and dentists do, mainly because they charge less and don’t get reimbursed by Medicare, Medicaid, and insurance. (Pet insurance does exist, but few people have it.)
Yet veterinarians have to witness, and often assist, in the healer’s most wrenching moment, far more often than doctors. “Many of our patients die during our career,” my vet, Dr. Chuck DeVinne of Animal Care Clinic in Peterborough, N.H., told me — simply because companion animals’ lives are shorter than humans.
Vets encounter death frequently, along with some moral issues doctors never face. Consider the vet who needs to counsel an owner forced to choose between a costly operation for their pet or sending their kid to college — or worse, a vet who operates on a pet who despite good care still dies.
When things go wrong, veterinarians take it hard. “Many veterinarians have devoted everything they’ve got to their profession,” says DeVinne.
When these stresses combine with long working hours and on-call pressures, it’s easy to see how anyone could melt down. And because vets can offer gentle deaths to their patients with euthanasia, they may see death as a way out of pain. All of them have easy access to drugs that can kill.
What can be done to prevent burnout, depression, and suicide? Holowaychuk took up yoga and meditation, and today, as a certified yoga and meditation instructor, incorporates these practices into wellness retreats and workshops for fellow vets. (Read more about them at www.criticalcarevet.ca/wellness.) She also recommends that clients purchase insurance for their pets so that cost of care isn’t an issue. DeVinne points out it’s important for veterinarians to develop interests outside of their work: He’s a nationally-ranked target shooter and gifted banjo player.
“Educating the public is a first step” to healing these animal healers, Kube says. I urge you to do as I do when I bring my puppy in for a visit: Tell your vet — and their staff — that you’re grateful for what they do.
Sy Montgomery is the author of 21 books on animals. Send your animal questions to Sy Montgomery and co-columnist Elizabeth Marshall Thomas at firstname.lastname@example.org.