World Veterinary Day: Shining a Light on Mental Health - BC SPCA
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World Veterinary Day: Shining a Light on Mental Health

April 22, 2022

Veterinary work is extremely rewarding, but it can also be one of the most stressful occupations a person can enter. Whether it’s handling a harrowing emergency or helping a client grieve the loss of a beloved pet, working in the veterinary field can take a tremendous toll on staff. Although your veterinarian chose their job because they are compassionate towards animals and people, they are often dealing with demanding, exhausting and disheartening scenarios every day.

Which is why the BC SPCA is encouraging all pet guardians to send a thank you card and or message of support on World Veterinary Day (April 30) to celebrate the unsung heroes who take such good care of our animals. One of the ways you can continue to show appreciation for your veterinarian throughout the year is to take the time to understand their job and the challenges they face on a daily basis.

Challenge #1: Not Every Appointment is a Cute Healthy Puppy

From the outside, it’s easy to think that a majority of the time is spent with cute puppies and kittens, but that is only a small portion of the cases veterinarians see. “In vet school we’re trained on everything from nutrition to emergency and for different species, unlike a human doctor who studies one species and then specializes in one area of medicine after graduation. How we treat a cat is entirely different than a dog, and we need to be ready for whatever walks in the door,” says Dr. Hatley McMicking, the BC SPCA’s general manager of veterinary services. While the profession is moving more towards specialization services due advancements in medicine and resulting client demand, the veterinarian you see regularly has a much wider scope of daily duties than you may realize. “It can be easy to compare a vet practice to a family doctor’s office, but on many days a local vet hospital runs more like a trauma centre or surgical facility,” says McMicking. “This is particularly true for rural communities who don’t have access to emergency or specialty referral services.”

Veterinarians also provide compassionate euthanasia, and while it is a blessing to relive animal suffering, there is still an emotional impact on the veterinarian. “When a client loses a pet, we also go through a grieving process for both the pet and the client.”

McMicking says veterinarians are so passionate about their jobs that they typically work overtime or won’t take a vacation in order to keep their clinic running – a situation made worse by the growing vet shortage. “When you don’t have enough people to provide care, it means that level of stress increases because people aren’t taking a break.” If they take a break, she says, “they know an animal might not receive the care they need because no one can fill in. When you have people in a high stress, high intensity environment, burnout and fatigue is inevitable.”

Challenge #2: Mental Health Isn’t Easy to Talk About

With these added challenges, the mental health stressors in a veterinarian’s life have been exacerbated. One in five Canadian veterinarians and technologists have reported burnout and depression. While the veterinary community has been open about mental health within the profession, including having crisis intervention training and suicide awareness and support groups, McMicking says not a lot of people outside of the profession are fully aware of the high suicide rates among veterinarians or the serious mental health challenges facing the profession for nearly two decades. “Veterinarians show endless empathy for animals and people, so compassion fatigue is common. Like many health care providers, veterinarians can feel their role is to provide help, not ask for it. This means many veterinarians aren’t practicing self-compassion and are suffering in silence.”

You might be wondering why your veterinarian hasn’t spoken to you about the mental health crisis facing their profession.  “Talking about our own mental health when the client and pet are going through their own crisis just isn’t the right time,” says McMicking. “When a client is in front of me, it’s 100% about their animal, that’s all I want to talk about. While our profession has been speaking out on the matter for years, it is only recently that mass media has picked up the story. This has been a huge help to inform the general public, and as a result, I now have clients asking me for more information. Not all vets will want to talk, but having an open dialogue, particularly between clients and vets, can be a great place to start”.

Dr. McMicking and her dog, Ferris

Challenge #3 Online Bullying

With the rise of online trolling and reviews that can’t be verified, McMicking cites rampant accounts of online bullying towards veterinarians.  “Vets have received death threats from people who aren’t even their clients.”  She says it’s important for clients to understand how much veterinarians do care about their pet. “Veterinarians spend many years in training to provide the best care possible because they love animals and want to help. Some clients become angry when we can’t give our services away for free or don’t have enough staff on hand to see their pet that day, but the reality is we have the same bills as the human hospital down the street, and without the government backing. There is no ‘vet discount’ when purchasing medical equipment and supplies, so a clinic can spend years paying off the debt for a new diagnostic tool your pet needs, and this is reflected in the cost of care to the client.”

When it comes to showing appreciation for your veterinarian, McMicking says a little goes a long way. “The most important thing I can say to clients is – be kind to your veterinarians and vet staff. There’s nothing more to it than that.”

Challenge #4 There Aren’t Enough Veterinarians and Staff to Meet the Demand

The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association predicts by 2023, British Columbia will be short 500 veterinarians. Veterinarians have always worked long hours and often stay late, but what was once a weekly event is now becoming a daily expectation. This is unsustainable for both veterinarians and staff.  BC SPCA CEO Craig Daniell noted in a 2020 Vancouver Sun op-ed: “The reality is that the veterinary profession, without whom we could not do our work, is in desperate need of additional support. There is a desperate shortage of veterinarians in the province, [and] coupled with disproportionately high suicide rates and daily work demands, is leading to a crisis that will negatively impact our entire province”.

Without enough veterinarians to meet demands, animals and people suffer. When animals don’t see a veterinarian regularly or have access to prompt veterinary services when required, things that weren’t a big issue can become an emergency. “When vets are only available to provide urgent care and emergency services, it means basic care needs go unmet” McMicking says. “When animals don’t have access to basic veterinary care services, treatable problems become emergencies, may now be incurable, and usually cost more to treat.”

For pet guardians, the veterinarian shortage is most felt when your regular veterinarian says they have no capacity to see you in the schedule. “Veterinarians wish they could say yes to everyone, but if they did, patient care would decline,” says McMicking. “If a practice turns someone away, it’s because they are not able to provide the appropriate level of care, whether that’s because there aren’t enough staff or already hospitalized patients are requiring intensive, all-hands-on-deck care”.

Challenge #5 The Pandemic has Changed Veterinary Medicine

According to McMicking, the COVID-19 pandemic has widened the gap between the number of animals in B.C. who need care and veterinary access.

“When you go into more rural areas, communities that already had limited access to veterinary resources are having even greater challenges,” says McMicking. But COVID hasn’t just affected rural communities. In a poll conducted in 2020, residents right across B.C expressed they are struggling to access veterinary care.

“People are bringing more animals into their homes, which is very positive because becoming a pet guardian has so many benefits, particularly for mental health,” says McMicking. “But more pets means more demand for veterinary services, increasing the pressure on an already stressed profession.”

McMicking says veterinarians who own clinics have also been coping with increased safety concerns for themselves and their staff during COVID. “Many of them have been on the frontline of patient care throughout the pandemic and haven’t been able to take a break,” says McMicking. “You just can’t socially distance when caring for animals, and people are risking their lives to treat animals during the pandemic. More than one person is needed up close to perform a physical exam on a pet. If someone at the clinic contracts COVID, the whole practice could shut down. That’s not only a huge burden for staff on their health, but they don’t want to be shut down for even a single day because that means animals won’t be able to receive care.  The veterinary profession was already overwhelmed with brewing mental health challenges, but we’re now facing them to the extreme because of the pandemic.” For British Columbians in particular, the pandemic has accelerated the predicted shortage of veterinarians to a critical point, and if we don’t increase the veterinarian workforce in B.C, both people and animals will suffer.

You can make a difference

Veterinarians give so much of themselves to ensure our beloved pets are safe and healthy. Let’s all do our part to celebrate and support them this World Veterinary Day!

Express your thanks and appreciation to your vet for all they do for your pet.