End-of-Life Care for Pets & Their People
Unique Care for a Unique Profession
by Elizabeth Allen
The person who goes into veterinary school is not the same person who graduates, just as the person who reads this will not be the person who finishes. We are life in motion, and we are at our best when we are in the flow doing what makes us happiest, and for many that is listening to a calling and following it. In the case of animal lovers, it can translate into caring for animals and the people who love them. Let’s call them Veterinarians and let’s look at why we seem to be losing so many when we need them most.
To address the subject of why Veterinarians are leaving before their time, we must first step into humility and say we couldn’t possibly know the answer to such a question. But if we take a compassionate look at some of the unique aspects of the industry and the nature of those who are drawn to it, we might find some answers and some solutions to the challenges associated with one of the most unique professions on planet Earth.
When we look at folks who are Firefighters, Doctors, Dentists, we don’t think Veterinarians will be number four on the list of professions with a high suicide rate. We might assume this is a joyous profession with man’s best friend and what could possibly be stressful about giving Bella a tummy rub after a spay or Delilah the precious Calico a dose of penicillin after a run in with the neighbor’s tomcat. Think again.
The professional challenges that more than 120,000 Veterinarians in America face have led to disproportionately high suicide rates, according to the CDC. Almost four hundred veterinarians died by suicide between 1979 and 2015. Veterinarians are 2.7 times more likely to kill themselves than members of the general population, female Veterinarians 3.5 times more likely from a Merck Animal Health Study in partnership with the American Veterinary Medical Association. We would not be amiss as classifying this as an epidemic.
Hello - Not One More Vet - founded after Californian Veterinarian Sophia Yin died by suicide in September 2014 at age forty-eight. She served on the executive board for the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior and was an award-winning columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. This was founded by Jason Sweitzer who knew if he didn’t do something pro-active he too might follow Sophia.
Animals love unconditionally. We’ve heard it a million times, but still nothing diminishes that fact. They are the guardians of the earth, and we are their guardians. Imagine the responsibility one person takes on for caring for many, multiples, hundreds, thousands in a lifetime. Yup, that’s your vet.
Maybe the optimistic graduate starts life in a small-town practice, thinking this is a sweet life – and it is – for a while. What about the veterinarian who is drawn to emergency care, the fast pace of it all? Or let’s look at the veterinarian who is drawn to working solo, as a mobile vet, doing end of life services, personalizing every aspect care. There are so many choices, but what is the one constant is that animals will get sick, and they will die. They will have shorter lives than most humans and they will never be able to tell us how they are feeling. They will never utter a bad word because animals accept the conditions of their lives just as they are. They have already become masters of non-attachment.
Let’s push on a few years ahead; college debt unpaid, mounting stress, more animals than ever popping up with age-related conditions, cancer, fatalities, abuse and hundreds of pet euthanasia appointments – how is that graduate now? What kind of support do they have - weekly, monthly meetings to address their challenges, their cases, their lives, their finances? Who supports them at their practice after a tough day? Who meets them when they get home? Who asks them what they need? Who asks them anything except – hey, can you take a look at my animal?
I have a friend who is a Veterinarian and she says anytime she is out and someone asks her what she does, she fibs. She has found that once someone hears you are a Veterinarian, the floodgates open for stories about their pets, their losses and their challenges and she has no room for it. It didn’t feel negative when she said that. It felt like self-care.
So, what is self-care for Veterinarians and if they don’t naturally have it - can it be taught, and if it can’t be taught, should it be mandated? Is the soul who is drawn to this profession a highly-sensitive being? Are they supported at home? Are they inclined towards solitude? What kind of training did they receive on the art of dying and non-attachment? Do they have qualities that might make them susceptible to the unique nature of caring for sentient beings and the responsibility for decisions that are made without the patient’s consent?
Maybe veterinarians should not be making high-stake decisions alone. Maybe if they had more support staff to bridge that gap of isolated decision making – there would be less of an emotional and spiritual burden for them to carry because they came to the decision as an inter-disciplinarian team. Maybe the contracts they sign with their practices might include a contract to themselves for continued self-care and employee benefits might include regular sessions with an appointed therapist and ways to track their mental health? Maybe the practice has a dedicated employee on staff for the other staff to confide in when they notice a team member who might be struggling and in need of support. Maybe a four-day work week becomes the norm and before the day gets going the staff, the practice and the animals receive a blessing.
UC Davis VetMED counseling program is constantly growing, the VIN Foundation receives emails from Doctors asking for help and Not One More Vet has grown to more than 20,000 members in six years. UC Davis has a 24 hour helpline for Veterinarians who are contemplating suicide. My company The Caretakers offers Industry Professional support via phone and Zoom. People find us when they need us and hopefully before.
I admire and respect my Veterinarian. It’s evident she cares, but what is not evident is how she feels after the end of a busy day. What I do know is that she is, positive, responsive and pro-active. And I sincerely hope that she knows that the health and wellbeing of my pet is not her responsibility. The decisions we must make will be made together, and I will assure her, as best I can, that it takes a village and in that village, she is only a villager, and at the end of the day she should go be with her people and bless the lives of the animals that moved into non-physical that day. Because when all is said and done, death is not a failed medical event, and we are not in charge. Animals are on their own trajectory, and we are along for the ride..