In middle school I interviewed my family’s equine veterinarian for a career-day assignment. I remember it like it was yesterday, propping my clipboard (covered with horse stickers, of course) against the fence beside the barn and scrawling in seventh-grade cursive everything she said about her life as a veterinarian.
She talked about not only how strenuous vet school was but also how exciting. She recounted the dangers of the job—not hard for me to imagine, as she’d once arrived at our farm with a missing front tooth. She described the ample time on the road as well as the privilege of working with horses and their owners daily.
Because of her and many others who lectured at 4-H meetings and Pony Club camps, I had an early admiration for equine practitioners. And I wanted to be one—that’s why I chose that school paper topic in the first place. My vet’s answers to my questions and, later, a friend’s comments about the more emotionally taxing aspects of vet school gave me a lot to think about. Ultimately, I didn’t pursue the pre-vet path because I desired a more predictable day-to-day work schedule.
Fast-forward a few decades. Now I’ve worked with equine veterinarians daily for more than 19 years—vets in private practice, academia, and other parts of the industry. Many of them have become great friends.
I’ve heard them describe their joys and disappointments, their achievements and frustrations. Some days I envy their job and wish I had pursued that career route. Other days I’m thankful I work with words and can use them to describe what vets do from a safe emotional distance.
I’ve heard keynote speakers at the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) convention talk about compassion fatigue and work-life balance. I’ve also seen the figures about suicide rates among veterinarians, the elephant in the room that caused me to pursue an in-depth article about stresses equine veterinarians face. Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reported at the 2018 Veterinary Wellbeing Summit results from a study on mortality rates from suicide among 11,620 vets who died 1979-2014 (398, or 3%, died by suicide). They found male veterinarians were 2.1 times as likely to die by suicide as members of the general U.S. population—female veterinarians 3.5 times as likely (JAVMA, bit.ly/2Oz9QY8).
Indeed, veterinary medicine is a demanding profession, and issues of mental health and well-being among vets are important ones that organizations worldwide, including the AAEP, the American Veterinary Medical Association, and others, have made a priority.
I understand that the stresses our equine vets face are just a piece of the puzzle, but it’s a valuable piece. As several of my sources for the feature story said, owners need not feel responsible for their vets’ mental health or well-being. But a little effort to understand the professionals who care for our horses, a little perspective, a little empathy, never hurt anyone.
This Viewpoint first appeared in the September 2018 issue of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care. This edition includes articles on stresses veterinarians face, the costs of older horse care, smart antibiotic use, feeding broodmares, barefoot hoof biomechanics, and more. If you aren’t already a subscriber, pick up an issue here.