At the park near the Duboce Triangle in San Francisco, 5 pm is dog happy hour. About 40 dogs run around chasing balls and wrestling while their owners coo and ’90s hip-hop blasts out of a portable speaker.
A chihuahua mix named Honey lounges on a bench in a blue tutu and pearl necklace. Her owner, Diana McAllister, feeds her homemade treats out of a blue Ziploc bag, then pops one into her 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 it,” 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 paying more attention to their pets’ daily routines and noticed symptoms like vomiting or coughing. The resulting rise in pet health concerns has taxed 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 veterinarians as much as other doctors and nurses, and dealing with the constant moral dilemmas and emotional outlet is driving many to burnout. At the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals veterinary hospital in San Francisco, so many veterinarians 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 drive to vets far from home for care.
“Taking your dog to see the vet is about as competitive as trying to buy Coachella tickets online,” says Laura Vittet, whose golden retriever, Gertrude, is a year and a half old. “You have to wait by the phone, you have to be ready to update your browser. It’s a very intense experience.”
Gervais says he works 12-hour days, constantly weaving from new puppies to dying cats. And all the time, she takes care of humans too.
“To these people, and especially in these times, this is their love,” he says, thinking especially of the owners who dress, groom and cook for their dogs. “This is their being, this is what they live for. And for vets, it’s very hard for us to draw the line.”
Even before the pandemic, the mental health of veterinarians was suffering from empathy overload and compassion fatigue. They bear the burden of having to put down animals that could be saved, but their owners can’t afford the care: Gervais says his practice has to put down about five animals every day. Some upset owners become downright abusive, reprimanding vets or then bullying them online.
“I dare you to try talking to a vet who has been in practice for more than five years and doesn’t know someone who has committed suicide,” says Gervais. “Unfortunately, I can count on more than 10 fingers: classmates, colleagues, people I’ve dated.”
One in six veterinarians has considered suicide, according to studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Female veterinarians are 2.4 times more likely to die by suicide than the general population, and 80% of veterinarians are women. Male veterinarians have an elevated risk of 1.6 percent. The most common means are euthanasia drugs.
In the early months of the pandemic, Gervais could see things getting worse. He helped organize the Veterinary Mental Health Initiative, which offers 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, also a psychologist, and all are familiar with issues that concern veterinarians.
“Burnout, compassion fatigue, managing panic attacks, how to communicate with supervisors, colleagues, and clients when you have 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 of Chicago last year. The clinic regularly booked double or triple. As a new vet (Mazaheri graduated from vet school last spring), juggling so many cases was terrifying.
“I feel like if I make a mistake, that’s a problem. And if I make a mistake and kill something, it’s my fault,” she says, crying. “I just knew it was burned.”
Through support groups, Mazaheri was able to see that others shared her concerns and learned tools to manage them. The initiative, hosted by the nonprofit Shanti Project, has groups specifically for emergency vets, vet techs, recent graduates, like Mazaheri, and veteran veterans, like Kathy Gervais, who have more than 20 or 30 years of experience.
“People have looked at me sometimes when they’ve seen me really tired, saying, ‘Kathy, stay away,'” she says.
“I’m not ready to do it because, in short, I love my job. It’s a calling. It’s a passion. And it’s hard to walk away from that,” she says. “But if he’s going to kill me somewhere else, I hope I can say, ‘Okay, that’s it. I’m done.'”
This story comes from NPR’s reporting partnership with KQED Y Kaiser Health News (KHN).