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Why most veterinarians don't recommend their profession

  • February 21, 2018 1:01 PM EST

    A recent headline that came over my Google alerts caught my attention: “Majority of veterinarians don't recommend the profession”.  At first, I was surprised, but when I considered this statement further, I realized that I am one of the mentioned majority.  It is not uncommon when someone learns that I am a veterinarian to tell me their (insert applicable family member here [daughter/son/niece/nephew]) wants to become a veterinarian.  I usually smile in return, but in my head (and sometimes said out loud) I’m thinking do they have any idea what being a veterinarian is all about?

    This is one of the reasons I believe the profession is struggling.  Too often students are drawn to veterinary medicine because of their love for animals or their desire to help pet owners.  They frequently have an idealistic view of the profession that was shaped by veterinary shows on TV, trips to the vet with their family growing up, or visits by the veterinarian to their farm.  What they do not realize simply due to lack of transparency on the part of the veterinarians they speak to, is that veterinary work is difficult. 

    Veterinarians often work long hours, make less money than human care providers, and deal with sometimes unruly or ungrateful clients.  Contrary to popular belief: veterinary medicine does not involve cuddling vaccinating puppies, kittens, and foals all day long. 

    One of the things that triggers me during these conversations with people is the comment that the son/daughter or niece/nephew has “wanted to be a veterinarian his/her whole life.”  This is when I become most cynical.  I remember wanting to be an Olympic athlete (basketball of course) or runway model (I was always tall for my age) throughout my childhood years, but as I grew and matured I knew that these career aspirations were not suitable for my talents, (looks), or abilities.   I am cynical then, when a child decides at the age of 5 after a trip to a veterinary clinic that they, too, want to become a veterinarian and whether they fully understand what sort of career they would be committing too. 

    Despite growing up in a family with both parents as veterinarians (my mom was a small animal veterinarian for > 40 years and my dad worked in regulatory medicine / animal welfare for > 35 years), it was not until I was immersed in my clinical externship during my 3rd year of veterinary school that I really appreciated what this profession is all about.  Don’t get me wrong, there are some incredible points: healing sick patients; performing life-saving surgeries; connecting with incredibly committed pet owners; feeling a sense of satisfaction working cohesively within a team; and knowing that while the work is hard, there are many pet parents who remain eternally grateful.  

    However, I think it behooves us to share with those who are considering this profession the realities of practice and the staggering statistics associated with this profession.  Being a veterinarian often means working outside of the conventional Monday to Friday 9AM-5PM schedule; many veterinarians are also on-call or work off-shift if in a 24/7 practice.  Being a veterinarian means not getting paid a large salary, especially in comparison to the amount of student debt that is acquired, sometimes exceeding $200-300,000 (NOTE: the average US veterinary student debt in 2017 was $138,000).  Being a veterinarian also means having to deal with disgruntled clients, manage conflict with co-workers, and sometimes euthanize animals that could be helped when an owner does not have the finances.  The last situation, which happens relatively commonly given that veterinary medicine is not publicly funded, results in moral distress, which is the leading cause of burnout and compassion fatigue among veterinary care providers. 

    Which leads me to my last point and that is the statistics regarding the mental health and wellbeing of veterinarians.  While a recent study revealed that American veterinarians are not more stressed than the general population, male practitioners < 45 years of age and female practitioners of all ages have higher rates of serious psychological distress.  And another recent study surveying 10% of the currently working US veterinarians found that thoughts of suicide were entertained by 1 in 10 practitioners.  This is a startling finding and accounts for rates of suicide in the profession that exceed those for other occupations and is 4-6X higher than the general population.   

    So, is it any surprise that only 41% of veterinarians recently surveyed would recommend the profession to a friend or family member? 

    I will end by saying that I whole-heartedly love the career that I have chosen and am passionate about the work that I do.  But I am increasingly concerned about the mental health and wellbeing of veterinarians and want to ensure that those choosing this profession are aware of the burdens and demands that it places on people.  If they understand this information and are given adequate tools to mitigate these stressors during their training, then I welcome them into the profession with open arms.   

    Marie K. Holowaychuk, DVM, DACVECC is a small animal emergency and critical care specialist and certified yoga and meditation teacher with an invested interest in the health and well-being of veterinary professionals.  She facilitates wellness workshops, boot camps, and retreats for veterinarians, technicians, students, and other veterinary care providers.  To sign up for newsletters containing information regarding these events and veterinary wellness topics, please click here.  More information can be found at        

    • 147 posts
    February 22, 2018 10:50 PM EST

    There are so many sad ironies in this.

    Most of us come into this work with a love for and desire to heal or protect animals, an intellect and connection to science, and an understanding / acceptance of the commitment required of any health care provider.

    For so long this profession has struggled to achieve respect and appreciation for the work that we do. So many op-eds or commentaries have been published over the years about the struggles related to student debt and low income of veterinarians (as compared to MDs or dentists, etc). The struggles we have with pet owners who spend BILLIONS each year on pet products but argue about bills related to their pet's health care. Veterinarians that have to be competitive in markets where pet owners price shop to find the best deal / cheapest fee for any service or even a SURGERY that requires anesthesia!!!!  It's not surprising that most do not endorse this profession and those struggles.

    It seems to me that veterinary schools have done little over the years to help future veterinarians deal with these issues.  I also think that corporate veterinary entities have failed MISERABLY in ensuring the wellbeing of their employees and the future of our profession. Whereas corporately owned veterinary care entities have grown in number in recent years (as well as expanded due to mergers and acquisitions), we only keep hearing more and more about stress, burnout, compassion fatigue, and SUICIDES in our profession.

    Corporations have generally benefited animal health care by promoting best practices and establishing quality / standards of care in their member hospitals. From my viewpoint, however - and based on various experiences - they've demonstrated little care or concern for the wellbeing of those providing that care for the animals.  What are they doing to promote the future of our profession and the longevity of people working in it?  Sponsoring an internship or residency training program is not one and the same.



  • March 8, 2018 9:49 AM EST

    All very good points Sheri, thank you for commenting.  There are some corporate entities who are making efforts to improve upon employee wellbeing, likely because they are experiencing more and more staff turnover and shortages.  Banfield is a company who has a long-standing tradition of employee wellness programming and BluePearl / VCA are independently starting employee wellbeing initiatives that implement wellness training into onboarding and training protocols.  I agree that there is much more to be done, but I think the tides are turning and even corporations are taking note of the need to support employee mental health and wellbeing.  Likewise, some veterinary schools are including wellbeing training into the curriculum, which is where it needs to begin.  I am feeling optimistic about the future wellness of our profession!