I wouldn’t blame you for thinking something along the lines of “just like everyone else,” but I’m here to tell you otherwise.
Being a veterinarian is a lot like being a human doctor. Besides the fact that both professions practice medicine, albeit on different subjects, they both require top grades and many years of school. They usually necessitate one to go into debt, to work long hours, to have extreme empathy and to be on call for days at a time.
Given their similarities, we’d expect them to have similar mortality rates and causes of death, but that isn’t the case. Veterinarians are at an extremely elevated risk for suicide.
Studies find that veterinarians are between 4 and 8 times more likely to kill themselves than the general population. A study of 1,551 American vets from 1966-1977 found a greater than 100% increase in suicides, and a 2012 Canadian Veterinary Medical Association survey found that 19% of respondents had seriously considered suicide, with 9% having made attempts. These risks seem to exist for vets around the world.
But why though? These high rates don’t seem to be mirrored in their human-treating counterparts (though some studies do find the rates of suicide in physicians elevated, but to a lesser extent), and appears to directly oppose the correlation between lowered mortality rates and graduate degrees.
Studies have identified a few risk factors in particular. General stress, similar to that experienced by a human doctor, is caused by long hours, high stakes, low levels of support and heavy workloads. Like doctors, veterinarians have a deep knowledge of, and access to, drugs that could end their lives. Indeed the vast majority of vets seem to end their lives via poisoning.
While doctors may work in hospitals or offices with many coworkers, veterinarians often work in small clinics, or even alone. They can’t often refer patients to experts, consult with coworkers or even ask for help. The resulting isolation has been implicated as a major risk factor for vet suicide.
Most veterinarians love animals. If they were in it for the money, they’d have gone into medical school instead (Human doctors make on average twice what vets do, and vet schools are usually harder to be accepted into than med schools). But care for your patients can rapidly cause compassion fatigue, especially when dealing with financial issues or uncooperative owners.
Veterinarians are the first line response for cases of animal abuse, and are responsible for reporting when they think an animal is being abused. But these reports aren’t always taken seriously by law enforcements.
Animals can’t advocate for themselves, and the relationships between owners and pets vary much more than the ones between human patients and loved ones. An owner may stop at nothing to get their rabbit the treatment they need, but an attitude of “it’s just an animal” is quite common.
In countries like Canada, with socialized health care, individuals rarely have to make decisions about their loved one’s health with cost in mind. But with veterinary medicine costs often play a role in what treatments occur. Owners may not give the same respect and trust to animal physicians as they would to human physicians.
Vets do have the right to refuse treatments, but they also have an obligation to prevent animal suffering. If an owner is set on a treatment, they’ll often just go elsewhere if refused, making it fairly futile for a vet to say no.
This can lead to an animal experiencing undue stress while undergoing surgeries likely to fail, or it could mean perfectly healthy animals being euthanized. Owners may refuse to inject their diabetic cats with insulin because of their own fear of needles, regardless of the cat’s declining health, or be forced to let their rats be euthanized rather than pay for expensive medications. As animal lovers, these moments can be heartbreaking to a vet.
Euthanizing animals might be routine for vets, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect them. Studies have found that more than 90% of vets approve of euthanasia for humans. Veterinarians have a unique relationship with death, due to their close proximity to it, and many have cited this as a reason they consider suicide.
We, as a society, have done well acknowledging how difficult it can be to be a human doctor (possibly due to the influx of dramatic television portrayals of these difficulties). Now it’s time to do the same for vets.
Two separate studies have found that only about 50% of vets would enter the profession if they could choose their careers again. It’s not all puppy hugs and kitten casts. We can’t ignore this, and we can’t pretend it’s ok.
Veterinary work is a tremendously difficult undertaking. The least we can do is acknowledge that difficulty.