A Profession in Search of Hope
Veterinarians are accustomed to difficult conversations. I could talk in my sleep about atopy or diabetes, and I’ve discussed end-of-life care thousands of times. Very few questions are asked in the exam room that I don’t know how to answer. But recently, a client’s question made me pause. The family Dalmatian was battling congestive heart failure and concurrent renal failure and had an aural hematoma. Addressing these complex health conditions was the easy part of the visit. The hard part was when the owner asked for my advice about his teenage son’s path to becoming a veterinarian.
Ten years ago, the conversation would have been easy; I would have given this career a ringing endorsement. Even five years ago, when I was exhausted from balancing motherhood with veterinary medicine and practice ownership, I would have told him our profession is the greatest one of all. I would have advised the son without hesitation about getting into school and then mentored him along the way.
But now? When someone asks for advice, I pause. I evaluate the audience and the potential effect of my words on someone’s future. The thing is, I genuinely love being a veterinarian, but I know that many of my colleagues would not say the same. I see veterinarians struggling every day, mainly with the disconnect between what they expected of their careers and the harsh realities of modern clinical practice. I see the deep emotional toll that being a veterinarian can take. I no longer encourage anyone to join the profession unless they recognize the challenges.
The Dalmatian’s owner also told me that his son was considering becoming a physician assistant. I told him that while I love being a veterinarian, he needed to know that our profession is in crisis. I told him that three of my veterinarian school classmates have taken their lives and that emergency clinics all over the nation are closing because veterinarians and support staff are leaving in droves. I looked at this man and told him, parent to parent, that his son’s quality of life might be better as a PA. My client was grateful for the insight, but I found myself disheartened to actively discourage a young person away from the profession I love so much.
Why Are So Many of Us Walking Away?
Most readers here already know why veterinarians leave clinical practice faster than they enter. Some transition to jobs in teaching, industry or government, but too many thought the only way out was by suicide. Veterinarians are about three times more likely to die by suicide than the general population is.
Even before the pandemic, the veterinary profession was hard to endure. Bearing witness to the full range of human emotion is exhausting. In a single day, we often end multiple animal lives or make several people cry. Pretending that everything is normal in between those appointments is difficult. We are empathetic, but many of us are also introverts; giving our energy to other people day after day drains us. We have nothing left for our families and pets when we get home, much less the energy for hobbies or social lives. We are exhausted. Many of us are alone and desperate for connection but too tired to make it happen.
On top of that, the general decline of civility in society means that people are mistreating us more than ever. There is a tendency toward entitlement and blame-shifting by so many clients that recalling the good old days, when our profession was held in the highest regard and most people treated staff with kindness and respect, is hard. The average client expects us to provide a much higher level of care than was available in the past, but most of them have not accepted the higher prices required to provide that care. This growing disparity between expectations and reality means we regularly endure character attacks.
Now, pandemic pressure has been added to the overwhelming daily grind, and it’s easy to see why so many veterinarians quit full-time jobs to work only relief shifts or have left the profession entirely. Many people forget that we have been essential workers throughout the pandemic. Most clinics are short-staffed, pet adoptions have boomed, and the number of practicing veterinarians has decreased. As a result, our workload is unsustainable.
We know that pet owners are under unprecedented stress, too. Still, sometimes that stress comes out in the form of personal attacks: “If only veterinarians cared enough, pet owners wouldn’t have to wait so long, or we would be allowed inside, or we wouldn’t have to pay for services.”
Of course, we care! We have dedicated our lives to making things better for animals. We care so much that it hurts. But we are not machines. We have to say no sometimes. We can do only so much. We all have our limits, and many of us have reached them.
So, Why Do Others Stay?
Most people say our chosen profession is more than a career; it’s a calling. There are many reasons to encourage veterinarians to join our ranks or stay and fight. The lows are certainly low and sometimes overwhelming, but the highs can be great.
I’ve talked to other veterinarians about what keeps them going. Not surprisingly, the highest highs are about saving lives or knowing we have made a significant difference in an animal’s quality of life. There’s nothing quite like the feeling when I open the door to a hospitalized cat’s cage and it is hissing at me again. But there are other moments, too. One of the things that might surprise outsiders is that many of the highest highs involve making a difference for the entire family — the humans and their animals.
The people we interact with in this profession are the ones who can make us or break us. The unreasonable clients and the burned-out management hierarchy demanding more from us can make life miserable. However, grateful owners and supportive bosses can save us. Genuine connection is everything, and seeing the human-animal bond on display in moments of vulnerability, often at the end of a pet’s life, tugs at our hearts and reminds us of why we are here.
There are many examples of moments that keep us coming back, but it doesn’t mean we’re not hurting. So, what can we do to make things better? What can we do to fix the problems in our profession that have evolved over the decades? What can we do to make this career not just sustainable but enjoyable again?
Is Hope on the Horizon?
I ended my conversation with the student’s father by saying I hoped things would swing back in the other direction. I’m trying my best to make a difference for the animal care community, and I know that many others are, too. Together, we are stronger.
In March 2021, after learning about three more high-profile veterinarian deaths over a 10-day period, I knew I had to do more beyond the walls of my Florida hospital. So, I joined a small group of concerned veterinarians to bring to life the Veterinary Hope Foundation, a nonprofit organization that will offer resources for veterinarians and promote public awareness of the crisis we face. Great resources are already available to veterinarians in crisis, but we are trying to provide preventive care to support the mental health of veterinarians in the same way that veterinarians promote preventive care for the physical health of animals.
The Veterinary Hope Foundation is developing small-group programs — facilitated online by trained mental health professionals — to help veterinarians handle our profession’s unique stressors. We want to help build community in this modern world, as deep feelings of isolation are one of the barriers to mental wellness for many of us. We want to make it as easy as possible to empower veterinarians (and eventually support staff) with coping tools. We want to give veterinarians the trusted people to turn to when things inevitably feel overwhelming.
I’m proud to sit on the Veterinary Hope Foundation board alongside four other passionate veterinarians and a licensed psychotherapist with expertise in veterinary professionals’ mental health and well-being. With the backing of our geographically and demographically diverse advisory panel, we hope to become more than a foundation.
We want to start a movement, though we know that will take time. To truly stem the incidence of suicide in the veterinary profession, we need widespread public awareness of the startling statistics. We need veterinary corporations and industry partners to provide tangible support to veterinarians. We need management hierarchy to understand that promoting a good quality of life for veterinarians is good for business. We hope to reach millions of pet owners and thousands of veterinarians to generate change.
We want to get back to where we can collectively speak about our profession with passion and confidently encourage future generations to join the fold.
Dr. Elizabeth Chosa proclaimed at age 3 that she wanted to be a veterinarian. She began her career on active duty in the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps, and today she is a Merritt Island, Florida, companion animal veterinarian, practice owner and mother. She stays active in leadership through DVMoms, a support group for veterinarians who are mothers.
The Veterinary Hope Foundation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that focuses on providing education, connection and community programming throughout the animal care community to help manage and prevent the stressors and mental health issues that can lead to suicide. Visit veterinaryhope.org for more information and to discover how you can help.