There are so many aspects to being a vet that it is easy when you’re on the outside to only see the fun parts (puppies! kittens!) and think that the job is AWESOME,
….or to see the sad parts (when a much-loved family pet dies) and think that the job SUCKS!
As a kid, I read so many books on veterinary work that I thought I was an expert. While I was reading those veterinary books, and there were quite a few, whenever they touched upon the unpleasant side of the job I remember saying to myself “Well, that won’t happen to me”.
Nor did I take into account that the veterinary profession is not a static beast, but is in fact dynamic. The industry itself has undergone radical changes in the past 20 years and who is to say what the veterinary profession is going to look like in 20 years time (although I am well aware of the predictions – sad if they do come true)?
I was like the young woman with no kids, who after seeing a two-year-old throwing a tantrum, says that when she has kids they will never behave like that. Or when she has kids – her routine will never change. We all know someone who thinks they know everything – well I was one of them too!
And then we grow up …. We take off our rose-coloured glasses, and the truth hits us square between the eyes.
I wish I had really known some aspects of working in private veterinary practice prior to entering university. Would it have changed my course choice? Would I have been better prepared?
Probably! Or at the very least, I would have developed better coping strategies other than “it won’t happen to me” or “it will be different for me”.
Whilst they say that the only thing you can control is the way you react to something, when you are dealing with something as intense as a personal “calling”, it is never that simple.
1. The rate of suicide and depression in the veterinary industry is extraordinarily high – much higher than the average population.
In my late teens, the concept of mental illness didn’t compute in my brain, and it certainly didn’t occur to me that the profession I was hoping to be a part of had unfortunately one of the highest suicide rates. However, after working in this industry for over 25 years, I am surprised the stats aren’t higher.
I take my hat off to all of my colleagues who even though they are emotionally invested in all of the pets that they see, and even after 40 or 50 hours of work, are still able to hug their family or enjoy some “me time”, and are ready to tackle the next week’s roller-coaster ride.
Whilst there are many, many moments of joy, on some days, these are outnumbered by deep sadness.
It is not the rate of suicide that would have deterred me from entering the profession, but the fact that it is so well known. And often the blame is placed on the person with the claim of “mental illness”, not the work conditions of the profession that contributed to it.
2. On some days you will care more about the pets than the pet owners do.
This is a hard one to explain to those of you who love, care and cherish your pets, and who understand that they are a part of your life. You take emotional and financial responsibility for that.
But if you think of a day in a vet’s life like a dance where you are constantly changing partners … some partners are in the same rhythm as you, some partners are distant, and some partners just don’t have a clue on how the dance steps are supposed to go.
I am not going to dwell on this too much, but dealing with this is much harder than performing euthanasia.
3. Your version of a “healthy pet” will differ drastically from the pet owner’s version.
Unfortunately, the times you discover this difference is usually when you see the pet, struggling to walk or breathe, being carried into the vet hospital with the entire family in tow. No phone call or any warning prior to their visit.
The last time any vet had seen this dog was 12 years ago, and that was for something minor, like a worming tablet. Your heart breaks when you see the physical condition of this once beautiful dog, with the owner saying “He was perfectly healthy a few hours ago”.
As you look at this skeleton of a dog with a look of sadness in its eyes, you know the truth.
As you touch their head, you feel their pain as acutely as you do a knife stabbed into your own heart. The struggle comes with knowing that the pet had been in pain for a while, but equally knowing the love that this pet has for their family. It is because of this love that you treat the family with the compassion that their pet is asking you to give them – it isn’t a matter of whether the owners deserve it but an issue of always giving the precious animal in front of you what it is that they are asking of you – and that is to treat them, and the family that they are a part of with compassion, kindness, understanding and support.
It is always easy to give the beautiful animal that compassion; it is a real struggle, especially when you are experiencing soul-destroying anger and frustration, to transform those emotions into compassion and kindness to the owner too. In situations such as this, I can only conclude that it is ignorance, rather than wilful neglect – at least that is what I tell myself.
4. You will be expected to take on a responsibility that you never thought you would – the financial responsibility for the care of someone else’s pet.
It never occurred to me, when I was younger that pet owners would feel that that it was the vet’s responsibility to offer payment terms for any veterinary work.
Or that vets should offer, or be expected to offer discounts for their services.
Or that we should do stuff for free – even major stuff, not the minor stuff.
Or even that veterinarians are responsible, through the fees and services that they charge for the veterinary care that a pet may or may not receive.
To most pet owners out there, I know the previous paragraphs would seem strange. Most caring pet owners know that their pet is their responsibility, and they budget for the care of their pet. If needed, you take the actions that need to be taken to ensure that their pet is looked after (whether it is by treating the condition or euthanasia).
As you should.
Most vets out there, know exactly the situations that I am talking about. It never occurred to me that there would be some pet owners who would dictate to me how much they would pay, or when they would pay, or who would say it was my responsibility to set my fees at a level that was affordable for them.
5. I never knew that I would be expected to work at a level commensurate with “private practice”, not to the level of my training
It is often said that it is only when you are a practice owner that you truly appreciate the costs of running a veterinary business.
As the daughter of business people, I was already aware of the costs of business. In my parent’s business, the client was charged a fee that covered these costs, as well as provide an income for the business owner. Most people wouldn’t have a problem with that…. unless it seems the business owner is a vet.
In many businesses, purchasing cheaper materials usually wouldn’t have an effect on the outcome of the service.
In a veterinary business, however, it is totally different. If we use cheaper suture materials, it can cause suture reactions; if we choose cheaper anaesthetic drugs, then we may see more dead pets as a result; if we choose to have no or little anaesthetic monitoring equipment, then we will see poor anaesthetic outcomes.
No one wants our pets to suffer.
So as a vet, we choose quality instruments, good quality suture materials, invest in the latest equipment, keep ourselves up to date with equipment and knowledge, all to ensure that our pets are safe, and kept healthy. But it is hard to balance that out with the fees needed to cover the costs as well as ensure an appropriate income for the business owner.
After all, if we invested money to establish and run our business, shouldn’t we get a return on that investment? What makes the veterinary business any different to any other kind of investment?
The animals …. that is the difference.
People seem to think that because it involves animals, then there should be no money involved…. at all… after all, if you loved animals you would do it for free.
If I practised to the level of my training, all pets would get regular blood tests, intravenous fluids for all anaesthetics, and all tests necessary to identify the condition. In private practice (and this obviously depends on the practice culture and location too), too often compromises need to be made.
The diabetic dog doesn’t always get a urine culture every 3 months and dental cleanings every six months, or the renal cat has subcutaneous fluids at home rather than intravenous fluids in the hospital setting.
6. I didn’t know that many vets would be embarrassed or afraid to admit that they are a veterinarian at a party or function.
I admit to being one of these. It is one of the many many reasons why I could never recommend the veterinary profession to anyone (because I know that if it is what they really want to do, what I say will mean nothing, but if there is any doubt, it may deter them).
It never occurred to me that I would be scared to admit what my profession or business is at a function or party. I am not alone in this. Many of my fellow colleagues would state general terms such as “in business” or “secretary” or some other general job, rather than say that they were “veterinarians”.
The reason is either that you’ll get swamped with questions from people wanting free advice when you know that you can’t help them or their pet for legal reasons alone, or more commonly, you’ll hear a story of how expensive vets are, and how disgusting it is that they should ask for a fee before or at the time of examining a sick pet.
Last year, I sat at the dinner table with a colleague and an older lady, called Barbara from Brisbane. When Barbara found out that we were veterinarians, she told us a story of her experiences with her vet back home. I listened intently, eager to hear her story, only to be shocked at what she said. Her little poodle was sick one night, and her regular vet was closed. When she rang her closest Emergency Centre, she was told that she could come in straight away and was informed of the Emergency Consultation fee. She was upset that the after-hours clinic was expecting to be paid at the time. Her words were “It’s disgusting that it was all about the money”.
At another function last year, a florist from Penrith sitting at the same table became instantly unpleasant when she found out that I was a veterinarian. Her story was about her experiences with her little cockapoo, Moo Moo who was unfortunately hit by a car and died. She had rung her local vet for advice on what to do and her relaying of her experience broke my heart as a veterinarian and animal lover. How devastating to lose your pet so suddenly and unexpectedly was the first thought that came to my mind, and the pain she must’ve been feeling at the time would have been intense, especially as she said she had left the gate unlatched accidentally. Such guilt, such pain.
Sadly, according to the florist, she didn’t receive any sympathy or kind words from the veterinary receptionist, but practical information such as “Cremation will cost $X”. As the florist said to me that evening, all vets care about is the money.
At that moment, I felt sick – as this is not what our profession is truly about.
But by the same token, I do not see what is wrong with being expected to be paid either, or being upfront about that fee. We work and we, like any other worker, should receive fair recompense for our skills and knowledge.
If I was able to go back in my time machine, play the Twilight Zone music, and go into my previous dimension, would I still choose the veterinary life?
Well, there’s the problem.
I didn’t choose it, and I never had a choice.
Only those who truly understand or have experienced “The Calling”, will know what I mean.