If we love our pets so much, why do we treat their vets so badly?
Veterinarians, among their many gifts, have a way of making the remarkable seem ordinary. Take, for example, the vet who removed the prolapsed eyelid gland and abdominal cyst from my English Bulldog in a single afternoon, or the one who stitched up my 12-year-old dachshund and gave him six more years later. being hit by a Nissan.
The scope of work for a small animal veterinarian is dizzying: a general practitioner can move between surgeon, dermatologist, ophthalmologist, pediatrician, geriatrician, interspecies detective, bereavement counselor, and more, sometimes in a single shift. Generally, vets are bright, compassionate, and selfless.
They give their all for our pets, and many have debt and mental health issues as a result. Yet compared to doctors who treat humans, they get surprisingly little in return. It’s time for pet owners to show a little more love for those who care for our four-legged family members.
Nationally, the median salary for Doctors of Veterinary Medicine is around $99,000. That’s about half of what family physicians earn, despite the fact that becoming a veterinarian requires training with the hallmarks of medical school: hyper-selective admissions processes, an undergraduate degree plus four years of rigorous postgraduate studies and extremely expensive tuition fees.
In Massachusetts, veterinarians earn an average of $111,470, according to a recent analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data by Veterinarians.org. This may sound reasonable, but given the rigors of the position and factors such as tuition and cost of living, it is hardly viable.
Debt remains a major source of stress for veterinarians, and for good reason. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, the average debt for 2021 veterinary school graduates was $147,394, with significantly higher numbers for black and Hispanic or Latino graduates. (As usual, younger generations carry more baggage than those before them, with the average debt of veterinary students nearly tripling between 2000 and 2020.)
Despite this, the number of applicants to veterinary schools has increased by 19% in 2020 and continues to grow. For future veterinarians, practicing the profession usually means fulfilling a lifelong dream. “[Becoming a veterinarian] has been an unquenchable fire within me since I was a young child – I can’t imagine doing anything different,” says Dr. Monica Mansfield, president-elect of the Massachusetts Veterinary Medical Association and associate veterinarian at Medway Animal Hospital, who practices for 35 years and has a son in vet school.
Animal medicine obviously attracts animal lovers. But vets are also high achievers with a tendency to take on heavy loads – assets in a job with long hours and a high patient load – and provide an innate empathy during our pets’ worst times. However, there are downsides to this style of working. “While they’re wonderful traits for getting into vet school — and going through vet school and being a good doctor — they don’t always have an off switch,” Mansfield says.
Veterinary medicine will always be taxing, and that’s not to mention the added pressure during the COVID pandemic, from staffing shortages to hospitals at full capacity with few overflow options. Turnover is high. Diversity is low. Only a third of vets would recommend the job to others.
Veterinarians, vet techs, and support staff routinely confront the neglect, abuse, and other dark pet hypocrisies of our supposedly animal-loving culture. They are recalibrating treatment plans for people on a budget. They watch our pets deteriorate and tell us what we don’t want to hear, like the vet who told us that our dachshund, who survived that car, had finally had enough. Euthanasia – for illness, assault, and sometimes for no reason other than the owner requires – is an obligation that professionals working with humans do not have to bear.
As in human medicine, veterinarians have long reported higher rates of stress, depression and burnout. And veterinarians’ mental health has further deteriorated during the pandemic: Nearly one in 10 veterinarians reported “severe psychological distress,” according to a study published last month by Merck Animal Health and the American Veterinary Medical Association. (That figure is even higher among veterinary support staff.) And while the contributing factors are complex, veterinarians were already 2.7 times more likely to attempt suicide than the general population before the pandemic. Virtually every vet knows someone in the field who has committed suicide, Mansfield says.
Lately, there is growing recognition of this toll within the profession. Shortly after losing a colleague several years ago, Mansfield led the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Wellness Initiative, which grants veterinary practice employees and their families confidential access to person and referrals for mental health issues. (“I worry about quiet people who have no place to turn,” Mansfield says.) Wellness programs are becoming more common, as are workplace cultures that elevate self-care and work-life balance.
There are also pushes for bigger reforms: In a letter to the U.S. Department of Education last year, the medical association proposed changes such as allowing graduate borrowers to refinance federal loans at lower rates. lower interest.
If pet owners want to help veterinarians, we can start doing what we should be doing anyway. Set aside emergency funds. Get pet insurance when it makes sense (if, for example, you own a disease-prone French Bulldog). Trust your suppliers and talk to them before ranting online. And, speaking like someone who hasn’t always taken this advice, don’t confuse your bill with proof that your vet is ripping you off. In fact, Mansfield says practices struggle to reduce rising costs and lessen client shock, which means vets often undercharge for their services. Ultimately, it means less to pay vet techs, support staff, and the vets themselves.
Before complaining about your vet’s results, remember: the veterinary care system is not like the human system. There is no health insurance for dogs, insurance is relatively rare, and there aren’t many middlemen to mask the true cost of care. Whatever your vet asks for, chances are he’s getting less than he deserves.
Jeff Harder is a Connecticut-based writer. Send your comments to [email protected] If you feel suicidal or know someone who is, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.