A study concerning three aspects of the provision of veterinary care which causes stress in veterinarians has produced some interesting insights. The first insight comes from me rather than from the document itself. Fifty-seven percent of veterinarians reported that they faced 1 to 2 ethical and stressful dilemmas weekly. Thirty-four percent said they faced 3 to 5 dilemmas per week.
The three situations that cause stress to veterinarians are (1) killing healthy animals, euphemistically described as euthanasia and (2) treating animals while under financial limitations so that the treatment cannot be ideal and (3) the client wishes to continue treatment against the veterinarian’s advice and because of poor animal welfare.
My observation – two opposing viewpoints from clients
The killing of healthy pets at veterinary clinics on the wishes of the owner is in stark contrast to the clients who request that their veterinarian continue treatment beyond the point at which the veterinarian believes it is in the best interests of the animal’s welfare. Both of these scenarios cause considerable stress to the veterinarian and I suspect no doubt to the client as well. These client decisions reflect the difficulties surrounding the euthanasia of companion animals.
Female veterinarians versus males
The chart below tells us that female veterinarians are more likely to suffer stress under these circumstances as you can see that the blue bar chart is significantly higher than the red (men) with respect to healthy animal euthanasia and wishing to continue treatment. The proportion of women entering the veterinary profession in America and I presume in the UK is rising. I believe that it is three times that of men in the UK. Therefore, the added stress that female veterinarians feel may be something that their associations should confront with more focus and commitment.
Studies in the USA confirm that female veterinarian show signs of early burnout more frequently than their male counterparts (compassion fatigue). Another study reported that females are more likely to feel suicidal. This division in the sexes is probably put down to the common sense observation that female veterinarians are more empathetic towards their patients. The study suggests that it might be because females “rate the human animal bond as more important than men”.
A further study in 1990 found twice as many female veterinarians compared with their male counterparts cried after they had euthanised a companion animal that they had previously tried to save. Crying was more common in female veterinarians at four times the rate of males when they could do nothing to save an animal. In addition, female veterinarians provide more painkillers for surgical procedures than male veterinary surgeons. One reason for this higher rate of providing analgesia is because there is a higher number of recent female graduates than men and I presume that the modern trend is to provide more painkillers than was previously the case.
The most stressful situation for veterinarians is the one described by the study as “client wishing to continue treatment despite poor animal welfare”. I suspect that this situation is one which describes a clash of opinion between the veterinarian and the client about how long to treat the patient when the prognosis is poor. It is almost, it seems to me, a question of at what point it is decided to euthanize and some clients are pushing along the route of keeping the animal alive too long as far as their veterinarian is concerned. This is in stark contrast, as mentioned, to those clients who terminate the companion animal’s life prematurely out of convenience.
More than three quarters of the veterinarians who participated in the study felt that they were not given enough tuition and training on how to deal with these ethical issues. It appears that experienced veterinarians felt the same levels of stress on these issues as less experienced ones. Experience does not lessen the stress which indicates that these are fundamental emotional issues which cannot be rationalised out of existence or ameliorated.
The study was quite a small scale but I think it is worth reporting on and if you want to read it you can click on the link below. It was published on December 29, 2017.