Pandemic and Veterinarians – crisis in the veterinary field.

Many children dream of becoming a veterinarian; it is, in fact, reportedly one of the careers children dream about most. The reality of the veterinary profession, however, is high stress, high debt, lower than anticipated wages and sadly, possibly one of the highest suicide rates of any profession. Recently, a study has found that female veterinarians are 3.5 times and male veterinarians were 2.1 more likely to die from suicide as the general population – and this was prior to the 2020 Covid19 pandemic. The following blog post is written by Dr. Lori Bieber DVM, who is also a poodle fancier. 

Before the pandemic started, the veterinary community was changing, and not in a good way. Once the pandemic started, the veterinary profession changed immensely. 

One important aspect of being a veterinarian that has not changed over the years is that many of us are type A personalities, and want to attain as close to perfection as possible. Additionally, we suffer from compassion fatigue. Many of us are very compassionate and loyal to our job (which means to our clients and their pets) to a fault.  Due to this, we tend to suffer from mental health issues. It’s sad enough to watch your pet be put down or suffer. Imagine being present for those cases day in and out.

Sprig, one of Dr. Bieber’s poodles, competing in agility.

So what has been going on?  

To start, many of the more recent veterinarians are graduating with an unbelievable amount of school debt, some of upwards to $500,000. In 2021, the average student debt of a veterinary student  hovered around $200,000.  Despite the public’s perception, the starting salary of a newly graduated veterinarian is not as high as one might anticipate for the amount of schooling and debt carried. (Reportedly the average starting salary across all specialties is around $85,000 .) So despite that perception, in reality – we don’t!!  To think of all the schooling we have to go through to become a full fledged veterinarian (and learn ALL the different species of animals that exist) which gives us the knowledge to take care of all pets is sometimes overwhelming.  For perspective, a medical student only learns about the human body, while we must learn about many species in the years we are in school. For a veterinarian to reach that starting pay of $85,000, they must have 4 years of undergraduate schooling plus an additional 4 years of postgraduate education. Following this education, many go on to specialize. This means many years of missed income in addition to the debt we garner for our profession.  The debt-to-income ratio of a veterinarian is far greater than that of a human medical professional.

Then the pandemic hit… and everyone decided that it was the best time to get a puppy. Yep, I couldn’t even tell you how many puppies I saw between March 2020 until maybe May 2021, with the majority being doodles from Amish country – not far from where I practice.  And starting about that same time, we implemented the curbside service to decrease the exposure to not only the staff, but to the clients as well.  Most practices across the country implemented the same safety protocols.  At first glance, this would be every veterinarian’s dream come true – to deal with the patient without the client, since oftentimes the pet will feed off their owner’s anxiety and actually do better alone in the office without them!  

…But, that wasn’t the case.  

Examining the pets without the owners present wasn’t the problem.  It was the time involved with calling the clients on the phone to discuss with them our physical exam findings and more importantly, to discuss the ins and outs of owning a puppy for the first time or to communicate to the owner what tests needed to be done to diagnose a sick pet.  Understandably, with this calling of clients, we ended up spending more time on the phone. This meant longer wait times, which meant upset clients waiting in the parking lot.  Add to this the political aspect of the election as well as the mask mandates, people angry and unable to understand why they couldn’t come in with their pets, and we ended up with some very confrontational clients.  As a veterinarian, I find it hard to understand why clients can drop off a pet for a whole day so I can perform surgery, but they can’t seem to bring that same pet in by itself for a yearly exam. That still baffles me. I know from personal experience that I have been called a few names I don’t care to share, and my staff has definitely been harassed. Imagine the additional mental load this added to the profession. Additionally, our revenue was slightly lower than usual, but we worked longer hours, and really never got any breaks.

Fast forward to now… what the heck is going on with the veterinary profession now that things are returning a bit more to normalcy?  Why are you waiting weeks to see a veterinarian?  

I will tell you why.  In this country, over 12.6 million pets were added to US households last year!  Couple that with a slowly dwindling veterinary community of almost 3,000-5,000 vets per year because of baby boomers retiring and smaller graduating classes, and you have what is happening today.  Many people are waiting 3-4 weeks or longer to see their primary veterinarian, and even longer to see specialists.  I have heard that for every 1000 pets in this country, there is only 1 veterinarian! Sadly, many veterinarians are leaving this profession.  Some burned out by the compassion fatigue, anxiety and depression that we all feel during “normal” times, but accentuated by the pandemic.  Couple these mental health struggles with the pandemic with the anger of pet owners (who have no problem bashing us on social media or review sites) it’s no wonder we are struggling.  Lastly, we are losing many veterinarians to suicide because of these aforementioned reasons.  We now have the highest suicide rate among any profession.

I can tell you from my own experience that pet owners need to understand what it is really like to be a veterinarian. 

 It’s not just playing with puppies and kittens like we thought as children and perhaps some of the general public still thinks today..  It is dealing with the emotional roller coasters of our pet owners.  We have to be psychiatrists as well, and that in itself can really drain us emotionally.  Sometimes these pets are the last tie to someone who has lost a spouse or a child, and we feel helpless that we can’t do anything more.  When we have to prioritize what we think is the most critical pet that we need to see first, that, too, wears on us; it’s terrible  to have to pick between two very sick animals and choose the one we think we can save first. We do not enjoy doing this.  

Imagine an owner yelling at you, telling you that you are supposed to “love animals”, and that all you care about is money, when so much of your life has been dedicated to animals – but you still must make a living! Follow that up with a terrible review because the clinic couldn’t see a dog ASAP that has been limping for 3 weeks.  

I have been asked many times why I can’t stay “just a few minutes longer” to see their pet.  We have to have firm office hours to maintain our own sanity, but because pets mean so much to clients, they often have difficulty understanding when we really can’t stay longer.  Sadly, all of us take the dealings of the day home with us precisely because we do care about their animals, so it truly never stops. It is sometimes a very thankless profession.  So it’s really no surprise why veterinarians are quitting.

(A good video to watch is the TED video below…  you might gain a better understanding and appreciate who we are and what we do – EVERY DAY! What Being a Veterinarian Really Takes)

But, there are those moments that make us feel good that we are a veterinarian.  There is no greater joy than to save an animal’s life, or to tell a client that their pet doesn’t have a life threatening disease.  And the rewards we get when a client comes in ecstatic with a new pet, especially after losing one previously.  Those of us who can continue to do this job hope that we are making a difference in some pet and owner’s life.  I know personally that tomorrow is another day, and I pray that it will bring me joy so that I can continue in the profession that I worked so hard to achieve.

If I could ask pet owners anything, I’d ask that they please show compassion for us, so that we can continue to show compassion to them and theirs.

Dr. Lori Bieber DVM

Remember that veterinarians are people too, with lives outside their practice and are deserving of compassion just as anyone else. Consider writing them notes of thanks and support, or taking the staff a small gift (healthy is welcomed too!) to help lift their spirits. I know I want to for mine. 

A sincere thank you to Dr. Bieber for writing this guest blog post!