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.
A Chihuahua mix named Honey is lounging on a bench wearing a blue tutu and pearl necklace. Its owner, Diana McAllister, feeds her homemade treats from a blue Ziploc bag and then puts one in her own mouth.
And 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,” says Yves Dudley, watching his 9-month-old collie-schnauzer mix play in the grass.
Across the country, 23 million families adopted a new pet in the first year of the pandemic. Others, working from home, began to pay more attention to the daily routines of their existing pets, 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 overwork and understaffing of the pandemic has affected vets as much as other doctors and nurses, and dealing with the constant moral dilemmas and emotional output drives many to burnout. At the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals veterinary hospital in San Francisco, so many vets and technicians have left that the clinic has had to reduce its hours, says veterinarian Kathy Gervais.
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,” says Laura Vittet, whose golden retriever, Gertrude, is one and a half years old. “You have to wait by the phone, you have to be ready to refresh your browser. It’s a very intense experience.”
Gervais says she works 12 hour days, constantly zigzagging between new puppies and dying cats. And all the while, she also takes care of humans.
“For these people, and especially in these times, it’s their love,” she says, 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.”
Even before the pandemic, vet mental health suffered from empathy overload and compassion fatigue. They carry the brunt of having to euthanize animals that could be saved, but their owners cannot afford the care — Gervais says his practice has to euthanize about five animals every day. Some upset owners get downright abusive, berating vets or bullying them later online.
“I challenge you to try to talk to a veterinarian who’s been in practice for more than five years and doesn’t know anyone who has committed suicide,” Gervais says. “I can unfortunately count on more than 10 fingers: classmates, colleagues, people I’ve dated.”
One in six veterinarians have considered suicide, according to studies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Female vets are 2.4 times more likely to die by suicide than the general population, and 80% of vets are female. Male vets have an elevated risk of 1.6%. The most common means is euthanasia.
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, says founder and director Katie Lawlor, who is also a psychologist, and they know all the issues that veterinarians care about.
“Burnout, compassion fatigue, coping with panic attacks, how to communicate with supervisors, co-workers, and clients when you’re under extreme deadlines or very intense stress,” she says. “And, the loss of their own pets.”
The initiative helped 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 cried. “I just knew I was exhausted.”
Through support groups, Mazaheri was able to see that others shared her concerns and she learned tools to deal with them. The initiative, housed under the nonprofit Shanti Project, has groups specifically for emergency vets, vet techs, recent graduates, like Mazaheri, and for longtime vets, like Kathy Gervais, who have more than 20 or 30 years of experience.
“I’ve had people look at me sometimes when they see me really tired, say, ‘Kathy, walk away,'” she says.
“I’m not ready to do it because, at the end of the day, I love my job. It’s a calling. It’s a passion. And it’s hard to walk away from it,” she says. “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.'”
This story comes from NPR’s reporting partnership with KQED and Kaiser Health News (KHN).