At the park near Duboce Triangle in San Francisco, 5 p.m. is canine happy hour. About 40 dogs run, chase balls and wrestle, while their owners coo and 90s hip-hop blasts out of a portable speaker.
One recent afternoon, a Chihuahua mix named Honey lay down on a bench wearing a blue tutu and pearl necklace. Her owner, Diana McAllister, gave her homemade treats in a zip-top bag and then put one in her own mouth.
After spending two years at home during the pandemic, it’s clear that for many of these owners, their dogs are their children.
“I always say dogs are people, so I love him,” Yves Dudley said, watching his 9-month-old collie-schnauzer mix play in the grass.
Across the country, about 23 million families adopted a pet in the first year of the pandemic. Other pet owners, working from home, began to pay more attention to their pets’ daily routines, noticing symptoms such as vomiting or coughing. The resulting spike in pet health issues has put a strain on a corner of the medical world that doesn’t get as much attention as doctors and nurses: veterinarians.
The pandemic’s overwork and staffing shortages have affected vets as much as doctors and nurses, and dealing with constant moral dilemmas and emotional output was driving many to burn out even before 2020. is about $110,000 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about half that of doctors caring for people.
At the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals veterinary hospital in San Francisco, so many veterinarians and technicians left that the clinic had to reduce its hours, veterinarian Kathy Gervais said.
Dog owners say they have had to wait months for vet appointments or travel to vets far from home for treatment.
“Bringing your dog to the vet is as competitive as trying to buy Coachella tickets online,” said Laura Vittet, whose golden retriever, Gertrude, is 1.5 years old. “You have to wait by the phone, you have to be ready to refresh your browser. It is a very intense experience.
Gervais said she works 12-hour days, constantly zigzagging between new puppies and dying cats. And all the while she takes care of their humans too.
“For these people, and especially in these times, it’s their love,” she said, thinking especially of owners who dress, groom and cook for their dogs. “It’s their being, it’s what they live for. And for vets, it’s very difficult for us to draw the line.
Empathy overload and compassion fatigue affect the mental health of veterinarians. They bear the brunt of having to euthanize animals that could be saved but whose owners cannot afford to care for them. Gervais said his practice euthanizes about five animals each day. Some upset owners become downright abusive when an animal is in distress, scolding vets or bullying them later online.
“I challenge you to try to talk to a vet who’s been in practice for over five years and doesn’t know someone who has committed suicide,” Gervais said. “I can unfortunately count on more than 10 fingers: classmates, colleagues, people I’ve dated.”
One in 6 veterinarians has considered suicide, according to studies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While male vets are 1.6 times more likely to die by suicide than the general population, female vets are 2.4 times more likely, and 80% of vets are female.
In the early months of the pandemic, Gervais could see things getting worse. She helped organize the Veterinary Mental Health Initiative, which provides free support groups and one-on-one help to veterinarians across the country.
All of the facilitators have doctoral-level training, said founder and director Katie Lawlor, who is also a psychologist, and they know all the issues that veterinarians care about.
“Burnout, compassion fatigue, dealing with panic attacks, how to communicate with supervisors, co-workers and clients when you’re under extreme deadlines or very intense stress,” she said. declared. “And the loss of their own pets.”
The initiative helped Dr. Razyeeh Mazaheri overcome the anxiety she felt every day caring for animals at a clinic outside Chicago last year. The clinic was regularly double or triple booked. As a new vet — Mazaheri graduated from vet school last spring — juggling so many cases was terrifying.
“I just feel like if I make a mistake, it’s a problem. And if I make a mistake and kill something, it’s my fault,” she said, crying “I just knew I was exhausted.”
Through support groups, Mazaheri was able to see that others shared her concerns and she learned coping tools. The initiative, housed under the nonprofit Shanti Project, has groups specifically for emergency vets, vet techs, recent graduates like Mazaheri, and longtime vets like Gervais who are over 20 or 30 years of experience.
“I’ve had people look at me sometimes when they see me really tired, saying, ‘Kathy, walk away,'” she said.
“I’m not ready to do it because, at the end of the day, I love my job. It is a vocation. It’s a passion. And it’s hard to walk away from that,” she said. “But if that’s going to kill me on the other hand, I hope I could just say, ‘OK, that’s it. I’m done.'”