Not One More Vet

I love being a veterinarian. I love the energy of the new kittens and puppies and the calmer disposition of the older animals. I enjoy the challenge of figuring out what is making an animal not feel good. It’s so satisfying to remove a Cuterebra larva from a small kitten, stones from a bladder, or a rock from a dog’s stomach. But it isn’t all fun, and the days can be long and tiring.

When I arrive at the clinic in the morning, I have already checked emails to see what sick animals will need to be seen, read over questions that clients have sent (and looked at accompanying pictures of diarrhea or wounds), and possibly gotten a text that one of my staff is out sick. I try not to think about work on my 20-minute drive on the Beltline by listening to a book on tape or singing along to music instead.

When I get in, I see cars in the parking lot and try to smile at everyone waiting. We are still escorting people and pets into the building (although with the increase in Covid-19 cases, we are back to curbside only), so they are waiting for someone to answer the phone or come out and get them. I get a smile and “hi” from my receptionists, and head to my office. I pile up notes scattered on my desk, look at my recall list of the sick animals I saw the day before, and grab lab sheets from the previous day. If I don’t have to go into an appointment right away, I get started analyzing laboratory results, thinking about diagnoses and treatments, and trying to get a few emails written.

As of this writing, I’m glad owners are back in the exam room! Pets are, for the most part, less stressed when their owners are present. I get a better history about problems and know exactly which lump is concerning. I also get to hear about new (human) babies, upcoming surgeries, marriages or divorces, and other life changes. I enjoy getting to know my clients; chatting and smiling help my mood, and having that rapport helps when decisions need to be made about a pet’s care.

As a Fear-Free certified practice, we spend a lot of time decreasing anxiety for pets. We don’t just move ‘em in and move ‘em out. We go through a lot of peanut butter, hot dogs, cheese sticks, and whipped cream! Sometimes a dog or cat is so anxious that we don’t do our exam or give vaccines, having to instead reschedule them for another time. This can be aggravating for the owner, but we do it for the pet.

Appointments range from wellness exams, which include a full physical exam, weight assessment, vaccines, and lab testing to answering any questions the owner has. If there is a new lump, a new limp, a painful ear, or an odd behavior, that will all be addressed in the 30-minute appointment. Urgent care and sick exams are interspersed in the schedule. These exams often require more diagnostics: bloodwork or x-rays obtained, slides examined under the microscope, and sometimes sedation of the pet to explore a wound on a paw or because the animal is too nervous to be examined. Same-day urgent care appointments are often filled by 9:00 a.m. If we don’t have an appointment opening, we try to offer a drop-off appointment so we can fit the pet’s exam in between appointments or surgeries or over the lunch hour, but staffing and cage space can limit how many patients we can see.

Some mornings I do surgeries, which is often a dental procedure with multiple tooth extractions, lump removals, spays and neuters, and the occasional urgent exploratory surgery because the pet ate something that isn’t passing.

After the morning appointments, I grab my lunch and eat while looking through emails. The rest of the lunch hour is spent looking at animals that were dropped off earlier, calling their owners to go over diagnoses and treatments, and letting them know when they can pick up their pet. Lab results need to be reported to owners, emails answered, x-rays viewed, and minor surgeries performed. Every animal in our care gets our full attention.

Afternoon appointments go much like the morning but with really sick animals squeezed into the schedule instead of dropped off. We have a great support staff of certified veterinary technicians and technician assistants, not to mention the receptionists who are fielding all the phone calls. Most of the time, we are able to get everything done and the clinic cleaned and ready for the next day within 30 minutes of closing. Sometimes I stay late finishing emails and phone calls.

As the business owner, my job is never really done. There are bills to pay, employee reviews to do, payroll, and client concerns to be addressed. But the variety of cats, dogs, people, and interesting medical cases makes the day fly by and gives me something to write about in my articles and blogs. I can’t imagine a better career choice for me.

Still, the job is stressful. The suicide rate for veterinarians and veterinary technicians, particularly females in both positions, has been increasing. The CDC reported in 2018 that female vets and vet techs are 3.5 times, and male veterinarians are 2.1 times, as likely as the general U.S. population to commit suicide. One in six veterinarians has contemplated suicide. Across the board, females in caring occupations (such as vets, nurses, and doctors) have the highest rate of suicide by far. The demands of practice, the long hours, and the work overload (all those new pandemic puppies!) are real and all-consuming, which leads to a poor work-life balance. I should stop looking at my emails after hours, but I feel obligated to my patients to be available if something serious happens.

Other causes for the high suicide rate revolve around money. The stress of having owners ask that services be performed or medications given at a discount because vets are “supposed to love animals.” The stress of having to euthanize a pet because the owner is unable or unwilling to pay for treatments (which we didn’t do for free). The financial stress, especially for new graduates, whose average debt load is around $180,000 (with some up to $400,000) and an average salary around $86,000.

Many clients are very appreciative of their vets; they thank us for helping their pet, for getting a sick pet in quickly, for helping them let a critically ill pet die peacefully. Unfortunately, even though the thanks and 5-star ratings far outnumber the criticisms, like most people, it’s the complaints that we internalize and stress over. Looking through Google reviews from Madison-area veterinary clinics, I read “terrible, terrible vet!” This vet “failed me.” “Almost killed my cat!” “Tragically incompetent.” “Only out for more money.” “Not professional.” “Rude and greedy.” “No compassion, unethical, incompetent, overpriced.” And my favorite: “they should know because they are veterinarians.”

It would be nice if veterinarians could know exactly what was wrong with your pet without having to run diagnostic tests, try a few different treatments, and do it all for free. I wish we could save all the animals and help them live long, healthy lives. We definitely love animals, but we also like being able to enjoy time away from the clinic, paying our bills, and not living in fear of cyberbullying.

I understand the stress that all of us have, especially through the pandemic. We need to help each other, work together, and be slow to judge others. Not just your veterinarian, but all people in any occupation. Our lives depend on it.

Lori Scarlett, DVM, is the owner and veterinarian at Four Lakes Veterinary Clinic. For more information, visit fourlakesvet.com .

Photograph by Brenda Eckhardt