Working with animals can affect your mental health

Working with animals could have serious consequences for mental health.
Working with animals could have serious consequences for mental health.

Veterinarians tend to the healthcare needs of animals, including pets, livestock, zoo and laboratory animals. While many people dream of working with animals for a living, new research has revealed that veterinarians and people who work at animal shelters face stressors which could lead to a greater risk of anxiety, depression and suicide

The research, presented at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association found that "people who work or volunteer with animals are often drawn to it because they see it as a personal calling, however, they are faced with animal suffering and death on a routine basis, which can lead to burnout, compassion fatigue and mental health issues", according to Angela K. Fournier, PhD, of Bemidji State University. 

Studies and statistics

A study from the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association found that veterinarians are at a high risk of death by suicide. It was found that from 1979 to 2015, veterinarians died by suicide between 2 to 3.5% more often than the general US population.

Katherine Goldberg, a community consultation and intervention specialist at Cornell Health and founder of Whole Animal Veterinary Geriatrics and Palliative Care Services said, "More research is underway to help better understand why veterinarians might be at an increased risk, but a combination of personality traits, professional demands and the veterinary learning environment all likely contribute."

Financial burdens

It was also noted that finances are also a problem for veterinarians, as it was reported that a veterinary school graduate could face having more than $143 000 (approximately R2 186 958.93) of school loan debt while earning a salary of just over $73 000 (approximately R1 117 064.83) annually in 2016. According to Goldberg, "Personal finance concerns are stressful for many veterinarians, especially recent graduates, and at the same time, many clients regularly question the cost of care for their animals and may be suspicious that their vet is trying to 'push' services that their pet doesn't need."

Trauma and symptoms

In an effort to understand what could be the cause of poor mental health among vets, a multi-centre study looked at the rates of adverse childhood experience (a term which is used to describe different types of abuse, neglect and other traumatic experiences) in veterinary students. However, veterinarians were not, on entry to the profession, more predisposed to poor mental health than the general population as a result of adverse childhood experiences.

Areas which were considered understudied included substance use among veterinarians, due to the fact that veterinary medicine is the only medical profession in the US that does not have a national monitoring programme for mental health issues and substance abuse. Goldberg says that while veterinarians dealing with mental health issues may exhibit symptoms common to all populations, symptoms to look out for include: 

  • Increased medical errors
  • Absenteeism
  • Client complaints
  • Spending too little or too much time at work
  • Missing drugs or missing prescription pads

What experts have to say

Goldberg said that she believes there needs to be a paradigm shift in veterinary training in order to better prepare veterinarians for animal-related aspects of their jobs as well as the human elements. 

Fournier looked at employees and volunteers in animal shelters or rescues as well as animal welfare and animal rights, who are at risk for compassion fatigue and psychological distress due to the fact that animal welfare agents are exposed to animal abuse, oppression and neglect and routine euthanasia. They may also be exposed to gruesome stories of animal abuse or witness the consequences when rehabilitating animals, which could lead to distress and compassion fatigue. 

Image credit: iStock

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