Nfld. & Labrador

A love for animals led them to be vets. High stress levels make it tough to stay

Mental health is an issue in every workplace, even when you spend your days with kittens and puppies. The organization that represents veterinarians is raising concerns about mental health, including a considerable risk for suicide.

National veterinary association draws attention to mental health concerns

Dr. Enid Stiles says the job of veterinarian involves higher levels of stress and burnout than most people might think. (Submitted by Enid Stiles)

People might not think a job that involves spending time with fluffy kittens and eager puppies would be a high-stress environment, but the organization that represents veterinarians across Canada says that would be an incorrect assumption.

In fact, the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association is raising concerns about high levels of stress and burnout in the profession.

"There's no other career where you look at seeing the patient as a baby and then also seeing it in its last minutes of its life," said Dr. Enid Stiles, president of the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association. 

"This takes a major emotional toll on us."

Stiles said it may not immediately be apparent why being a vet would be so challenging, but she hopes people will consider the impact on people in the profession. 

A 2017 survey of 1,403 Canadian veterinarians — published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association in February — found that 26 per cent of vets had considered suicide in the year prior to being surveyed. The number of veterinarians who completed the survey accounts for about 10 per cent of all Canadian vets.

Why idealizing vets is not ideal

Stiles said part of the misunderstanding about the stress vets are under may stem from the way the career is idealized, with people picturing veterinarians as doctors who enjoy their days in the company of cute animals.

"They think about how wonderful this profession might be, and playing with kittens and puppies and all the good stuff that comes with it," said Stiles.

"But what I think people don't realize is that we really do have a high level of stress in our profession."

Stiles said some of that stress comes from long hours of work, especially in rural settings, and also from the ethical conflict and moral distress that veterinarians face daily. 

Stiles gave the example of a client who brings in a puppy with a broken leg that can be repaired but at a higher cost than the client can afford.

"We've learned how to treat these issues, how to help these animals live a normal life," said Stiles.

"But now we can't provide that care because there are financial constraints. And that is a really, really difficult thing."

Suicides among veterinarians

Stiles confirmed some veterinarians in Canada have not only contemplated suicide, as the survey found, but that some have died by suicide. She did not know precise numbers. 

Stiles said others take time off for stress leave or seek mental health counselling, but some don't want to reach out for help because of the stigma of depression and other mental health issues.

A visit to the veterinarian. (AFP via Getty Images)

"We're trying to change that as an association and help our members and help the profession know that there is available help there for them, and to reach out and have those conversations before we get to a point where suicide is something that they are thinking about," said Stiles.

One thing that would alleviate the pressure on vets, she said, is if there were more of them to do the work. She said more veterinarians and animal health technicians are needed across Canada to meet the demand for care, but she acknowledged that recruitment and training are not going to make a difference immediately.

"We can't find new vets right now, but we can certainly help keep them healthy and happy in practice," said Stiles.

Hounding vets on social media not helpful

Stiles has some advice for pet owners who may be frustrated with access to care in their particular area of the country.

"Be thankful for the care that they can receive, because veterinarians are doing everything that they can to provide care for these animals," said Stiles.

What I think people don't realize is that we really do have a high level of stress in our profession- Enid Styles

"But we are only people, and we can't see everything and always be available."

She encouraged people to not engage in cyber bullying or attacks on social media that make it even more difficult for veterinarians to keep up their practices.

Stiles recommends dissatisfied clients find a way to communicate with vets privately and not in a public way that would cause even more stress.

"If we're not there because we are too sick and ill and fatigued to be able to do our job, then there's going to be no care for your pets," said Stiles.


If you need help …

Mental Health Crisis Line: 1-888-737-4668. Bridge the gApp: https://www.bridgethegapp.ca/adult/

Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566 (phone) | 45645 (text) | http://www.crisisservicescanada.ca (chat)

Kids Help Phone (24/7): 1-800-668-6868 (phone), 'CONNECT' to 686868 (text), live chat counselling at www.kidshelpphone.ca.

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About the Author

Bernice Hillier is a host of CBC Newfoundland Morning, which airs weekday mornings across western and central Newfoundland, as well as southern Labrador.

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