Why Is the Suicide Rate for Veterinarians So High?

Editor’s note: This Care2 favorite was originally posted on October 4. 2016.

Many animal lovers dream of becoming a veterinarian. Taking care of animals and making them well again feels like the best job one could ever have. Why then do so many veterinarians contemplate suicide — or actually take their own lives?

Would you be shocked to learn that the suicide rate for veterinarians is double that of dentists and doctors — and up to six times higher than the general population? A survey of 10,000 actively practicing American veterinarians determined that one in six of them had at least thought about suicide.

“People have a misconception that being a vet is all about vaccinating puppies and kittens all day long,” Dr. Marie Holowaychuk, an emergency and critical care specialist, told The Boston Globe. But vets are in a business that takes a real emotional toll.

Nearly 7 percent of males and nearly 11 percent of female veterinarians reported “serious psychological distress,” in the online survey. Despite this fact, veterinarians as a group seem unaware that their profession boasts a particularly high rate of suicide. The problem seems to hit women even harder than men.

“Going forward in the field of veterinary medicine, there’s going to be a greater number of female veterinarians than there even is now, based on veterinary school enrollment,” Dr. Randall J. Nett, an epidemiology field officer for the Centers for Disease Control, told the JAVMA News.

“Because females experience depression and suicidal thoughts more often than males, relatively speaking, you’ll likely have a higher proportion of veterinarians who are experiencing these risk factors for suicide, compared with other similar occupations,” Nett added.

You might recall reading about two high-profile female veterinarian suicides — those of Dr. Shirley Koshi and Dr. Sophia Yin.

In February 2014, Dr. Koshi, 55, took in a sick cat someone found in a park. She made him well and adopted him. A woman claiming that the cat was hers showed up weeks later. Her claim was based only on the fact that she’d been leaving food for the cat in the park. Nevertheless, the woman took Koshi to court. Protestors demonstrated outside Koshi’s office and assailed her online. The lawsuit helped drive business away from Koshi’s practice. Devastated, Koshi reportedly couldn’t take the abuse anymore and overdosed on pills.

Only months later, in September 2014, Dr. Yin, 48, a renowned expert on force-free, humane pet training methods, hanged herself. She was a well-respected veterinarian and animal behaviorist, consulting for animal shelters, zoos and Animal Planet TV shows. Dr. Yin’s work has even appeared on Care2. However, she was apparently despondent over business issues that may have taken up time that she wanted to devote to her practice.

A combination of many factors can lead to veterinarian suicide. Chief among them are:

  • Personality – Vets are achievers — or, perhaps, over-achievers. They work hard. Many vets do almost nothing but work.
  • Isolation – Veterinarians often have few colleagues to talk with. When they have a bad day, there’s no one to turn to. When they’re not sure about a treatment plan, they have no colleague to bounce ideas off of. Such isolation can be depressing.
  • Sadness – Vets often interact with animal hoarders and people who don’t care enough about their pets. Sometimes, there’s little the vet can do about these situations, which brings on sadness and anger.
  • Stress – People become veterinarians because they want to help animals. Typically, they don’t especially want the worries of running a business — but that’s exactly what a veterinary practice is. Add the stress of dealing with difficult clients and the pressure mounts.
  • Compassion Fatigue – Like many caregivers, vets experience emotional exhaustion or “compassion fatigue,” which is secondary traumatic stress caused by extreme tension and preoccupation with their patients’ suffering.
  • Student Debt – Veterinary schooling can be longer and more expensive than your family physician’s medical school training. Vets earn less than a third of what doctors and dentists take in. That combination means a huge student debt load and no easy way to pay it down.
  • Frequency of Patient Deaths – Veterinarians lose many more patients during their years of practice than doctors who treat humans do. It’s a constant source of sadness and stress. They also have to euthanize pets for clients who can’t afford or can’t be bothered with treating sick pets that could be easily saved. Each death weighs heavily on a vet’s emotions.
  • Attitude Towards Euthanasia – The frequency of euthanizing animals to save them from further pain and suffering can serve to make the idea of such a death seem more welcome and familiar.
  • Access to Euthanasia Drugs – Veterinarians have easy access to the type of drugs needed to carry out an effective suicide, if they so choose. They also know how much to administer to ensure the job gets done.

How can veterinarians avoid crashing and burning?

“Too many veterinarians have no personal interests,” Dr. Jim Wilson, a law-trained veterinarian, told DVM360. “They volunteer at the animal shelter. They work. Some have no way of getting away from the intense pressure of animal care. You’ve got to get outside of the profession and find a way to let your brain slow down, quiet down, be distracted.”

The vets who manage well are those who find ways to relieve all that stress. They run, practice yoga, meditate, lift weights, take up photography, become expert cooks or join the community theater. Healthy vets regularly focus on other activities, and they reach out to others in their profession for help. Groups like Not One More Vet offer online resources for veterinarians to discuss these problems with their peers in a safe atmosphere.

What’s the moral of this story? Your veterinarian works hard, long hours. Every week is challenging because he or she has probably had to put down two or three animals along the way. Your vet might carry a lot of school debt, too –  and may not do much other than work and sleep.

If you care about your vet, be a friend. Don’t be a difficult client, and don’t expect free treatment. Most especially, don’t be a jerk. Your veterinarian got into this business for the love of animals. You probably have that in common. Show some compassion for your vet, just as your vet cares for your furry friends. Your heartfelt thanks might come at just the right moment. You never know.

For immediate help if you are in a crisis, call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), which is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. All calls are confidential.

Related on Care2:
What to Do if You See a Dog With a Yellow Ribbon
7 Things Pet Owners Do That Drive Vets Crazy
Stop the Doctor and Medical Student Suicide Epidemic

Photo Credit: Austin Community College/Flickr

328 comments

Chad Anderson
Chad A1 months ago

Thank you.

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Christine Stewart
Christine Stewart2 months ago

thanks

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Georgina Elizab M
Georgina Elizab M2 months ago

tyfs

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Kathy G
Kathy G2 months ago

Thank you

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Kathy G
Kathy G2 months ago

Thank you

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Amanda M
Amanda McConnell2 months ago

Thanks for sharing

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Amanda M
Amanda McConnell2 months ago

Thanks for sharing

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Diane E
Diane E2 months ago

Thank you. I have great respect for my animals' vets. They have helped us at difficult times.

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Janet B
Janet B2 months ago

Thanks

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Kathy G
Kathy G2 months ago

Thank you

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