This proved to be a tricky and complex piece to write. It's also a piece that I have been repeatedly asked to write. It's a volatile subject that everyone has a strong opinion about. Being such a complicated issue its long, but please stick with it and read all the way through. It’s so important.
Firstly, let's start with the Not One More Vet movement. Suicide rates in the pet healthcare industry are unconscionably high. Vets and vet techs are under an enormous amount of stress. They are working long hours for unfair pay with emotional strain. They take the brunt of frustrated owners emotions. They have to deal with clients whose animals they treated and then the clients never paid. It's not fair to them. And I will say, this is indicative of a broken system.
I will also be forthcoming about my own bias. I have vet and vet tech friends. I have a huge amount of empathy for their struggles and have worked hard to understand their perspective. But I have also had a wide array of frustrating vet experiences and that does absolutely color my perspective. And, I want to be clear that as much I am trying to step away from my own biases, my lens on this issue is still that of an owner, not a veterinary professional. My frustrations are shared by many. And again, are indicative of a broken system.
If everyone is unhappy, it's not the pieces that are broken, it's the game. I hear a lot of people very supportive of the NOMV movement, as everyone should be. But I also see a lot of: we should support our vets because they have it rough, no matter what. And I think that there is both space for supporting all our vets when they need it and also understanding that client's frustrations are both real and common and there has to be a reason for that.
As I see it, conflict and frustration in the veterinary field stems from two different categories: systemic flaws and interpersonal communication. In truth, most problems in most fields can be boiled down to these to categories.
Chronically Under-Paying Staff- when you first look at this fact, and it is a fact, you may be baffled. Vets and Certified Vet Techs have extensive schooling. How then could vets and their staff be under paid? Let’s look at why that might be.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), “In 2011 veterinarians earned an average salary of $91,250 per year; while physicians and surgeons, which includes doctors, earned an average salary of $184,650 per year.” Yes, vets are paid on average less than half as much as a human doctor. The same long hours, the same stress (perhaps even more since most human doctors don’t deal with exclusively non-verbal patients nor have over-bearing, over-protective guardians to contend with), the same occupational burnout, yet vets are paid half as much.
Talking with a Certified Vet Tech friend of mine it became clear that much of this is resistance to increased vet bill costs. There is often such pushback to raised veterinary costs that vets hold off raising them, even when small increases in prices would allow vets and their tech and all other staff to make a fair wage (that also means a wage that compensates them for amount of stress their job entails).
Recently, one of the few 24/7 Emergency Vets suspended emergency services in the Seattle area. They simply did not have enough staff to continue offering emergency services. However, it later came out that the company the clinic belonged to had failed to raise wages of their employees, though they raised the wages of other employees at other clinics in the same area. However, those other locations had unionized whereas the struggling clinic had not. Accordingly, wages remained stagnant despite the COVID boom in the veterinary field, and many of those employees went elsewhere where they could be paid a living wage.
Occupational Burnout- this is one of the biggest issues that veterinary professionals face today. Not only is there a shortage of vets and CVTs but their suicide rate is 3.5 times higher than the general population. As I mentioned, before this tragedy has led to a huge and necessary outcry and push to raise awareness for the issue.
The Not One More Vet (NOMV) movement was created to help educate the public about the plights of the animal health field and support those veterinary professionals. The group includes a crisis hotline for such professionals. Think about that and really take that in for a moment. Occupational burnout and suicides rates are so high for those in the veterinary field that they have a crisis hotline.
I think many of the causes of occupational burnout can be realized by the empathetic clients. Vets and techs deal with sick animals day in and day out. As I left my vet recently I asked to bring two of my dogs who hadn’t had an appointment in briefly to weight them, the techs graciously agreed but asked if I’d wait to let them let a grieving client out first. I nodded solemnly and realized this was their reality: sick animals, grieving and emotional owners. And yet they were still kind, they still smiled when I wanted to check my dogs’ weight because at least I was trying to be proactive in monitoring my dogs.
Dog training can be stressful. I’ve had people yell at me, particularly when discussing rehoming or behavioral euthanasia. But it’s not a constant battering ram of emotion and passion. No wonder people get burned out.
And that isn’t even discussing the verbal abuse and lack of payments vets and techs deal with on a daily basis. People get emotional over their animals. They love their pets deeply and that’s a good thing. But that passion can make people irrational, unreasonable when their animal is in pain. When they don’t understand what’s wrong any more than their pet does. And so they take that out on their vet. They take it out on the techs. On the receptionists. It is the story of any industry with a customer service component, but because feelings are so super-charged, animal health professionals take much more of a verbal and emotional beating than most people could ever dream of or comprehend.
Shortage of Veterinary Professionals & Chronically Over-Working Staff
With COVID there has been a huge boom in the “pandemic puppy”. Waitlists for puppies are long, AKC registrations are up, and vet clinics are booked tightly and many aren’t taking new clients. Having talked with my vet and CVT friends, some of the issue is that with more people home, more people are noticing the small bumps and changes in our canine friends more. So a sniffle that might have once gone unnoticed was then rushed to the vet. But a large number of people also brought home dogs because they had more time.