Stress, pressure straining veterinarians needs to be addressed

·5 min read
Veterinarian Dara Gottlieb works in the emergency and critical care department at the Alta Vista Animal Hospital. (Félix Desroches/CBC - image credit)
Veterinarian Dara Gottlieb works in the emergency and critical care department at the Alta Vista Animal Hospital. (Félix Desroches/CBC - image credit)

When Dara Gottlieb was in veterinary school, her curriculum didn't include how to interact with clients who are in distress — something that is a big part of the job.

Her time at the Alta Vista Animal Hospital is spent in the emergency and critical care department dealing with the most ill patients. Gottlieb describes her everyday interactions as "highly stressful." She regularly has tense pet owners who have brought their animals in with an unexpected illness or injury that requires immediate, and often expensive care.

Financial burdens and misconceptions 

Vet bills can cost anywhere from $60 for a checkup to paying thousands of dollars for weeks of treatment. For pet owners who are unprepared for the cost, Gottlieb and her colleagues are often the ones receiving the brunt of their anger.

In emergency and critical care, she said it's often difficult for a client to hear that their pet is in pain and the cost to save them is more than they can afford. Sometimes they don't understand where the cost is coming from or why it is so expensive.

"There's this notion that vets are scam artists and that we're in this for the money," said Gottlieb. "It comes up enough that it's a repetitive stress for us,"

Submitted by Dara Gottlieb
Submitted by Dara Gottlieb

Working at the Alta Vista Animal Hospital, which is owned by VCA Animal Hospitals Inc., Gottlieb has no control over the cost of care. She said veterinarians do their best to shave off costs — but sometimes, that's impossible.

"You're just doing your job. It's really a moral dilemma the number of pets that don't get care because of finances but at the end of the day a lot of these decisions come down to money and that's a soul-sucking position to be in as a veterinarian," Gottlieb said.

"Even the nicest of people who can't afford vet care, that's just as hard on us because we know something can be done but someone can't afford it."

Submitted by Dara Gottlieb
Submitted by Dara Gottlieb

'Huge issue'

After Andrea Kelly, a veterinarian based in Ottawa and Quebec, took her own life in late July, it sparked conversations about the workload and pressure vets face.

Shannon Reid, the veterinary programs co-ordinator and professor in the veterinary assistant and technician program at Algonquin College, worked as a registered veterinary technician before she entered the academic world 10 years ago.

Reid said veterinarians that own a practice have to juggle the cost for their facility while also appropriately paying their veterinary professionals. External factors such as the pandemic, the rising cost of equipment and supply chain issues causing delays have made being in the industry more difficult and stressful.

Reid said over the years, she's noticing more accusations on social media and that's putting more pressure on an already stressful profession.

"It's this constant kind of abuse from people talking about how [vets] don't care about the pets, they only care about money, it's a huge issue."

Not trained to handle emotional burden

Ian Cameron, the owner of the Westboro Animal Hospital, said that in many cases veterinarians get attached to their patients, especially when they've developed relationships with pets and their families.

"You lose cases that you thought were going to get better and you're a little too close," he said.

"You have to develop that wall. You have to be able to compartmentalize some of this and if you don't you're in big trouble."

Submitted by Ian Cameron
Submitted by Ian Cameron

Cameron said vets fit as many patients as they can into a day, some working 60-70 hours a week to help as many clients as possible.

He said that in 30 minutes he'll perform multiple tests like taking urine, blood and x-rays to make a diagnosis.

"When you lose a patient that's really important to you, it's just overwhelming and some people can become depressed … but some people aren't comfortable talking about their feelings."

The road ahead for vet professionals and pet owners

Reid said a lot of students come into the program excited to work with animals, unprepared for the interpersonal aspects of the job.

To help ease the burden, Reid said, some veterinary programs are reviewing their curriculums and adding necessary lessons to help better prepare students. At Algonquin College, discussions about compassion fatigue, coping mechanisms and euthanasia are being integrated into the program.

But it's not just vet schools that need to change. Facilities where veterinary professionals are working need to address issues that workers are bringing up — whether it be setting boundaries for client interaction, time off or appropriate pay.

"There's a lot of things that I think managers are doing to make it a more healthy, a healthier place, mentally speaking for technicians to work," said Reid.

Reid, Gottlieb and Cameron all stressed the importance of insurance for new pet owners.

"That not only takes the pressure off of them as an owner financially, but it takes the pressure off the veterinary team because the last thing a veterinarian wants to do is not be able to help a pet because the owner can't afford it," Reid said.

She said the industry is losing a lot of vets due to high stress.

Gottlieb hopes social workers can be brought into the industry to help pet owners and veterinary professionals deal with emotional trauma to create a better work environment.