Why I Love (and hate) Being a Veterinarian - is becoming a vet worth it?
Being a veterinarian can be an incredibly rewarding job, it might even be the best job in the world.
At the same time though, being a veterinarian is not just about cuddling puppies and kittens all day. There is a dark side to the profession.
Let me take you into my world as a companion animal GP veterinarian as I discuss the five best, and five worst things about being a veterinarian.
This is clearly going to be quite a personal list. There are so many different jobs that we veterinarians can do, and as a result, something that I really love (or hate) may well generate the exact opposite emotion in many other vets.
Why I Love Being a Veterinarian
Building client relationships
Practical not paperwork
Working with animals
Building Relationships with My Clients
When you picture the work of a vet you probably concentrate on the animal aspect, but first on my list of why I love being a vet is actually building relationships with my clients.
Being a vet involves working with people just as much (if not more) as it involves working with their dogs, cats, or whatever species you are dealing with as a vet. This means that it is so important that we are able to communicate well and effectively with our clients, building strong relationships as a result.
I have said time and again that having a trusting relationship with your vet is incredibly important. If you don't trust what your vet is telling you, then you should do everybody a favor and try and find a vet who you can trust, rely on, and confide in. It is really important that this relationship is as strong as possible when it comes to looking after your pet to the best of your ability. You need to be able to let your vet do their job, knowing that they have your pet’s (as well as your own) best interests at heart.
I really enjoy building these relationships.
It's amazing sometimes what my clients will tell me in a consultation, sometimes even when they are seeing me for the first time. Stories about their own lives, about their own health, and about any struggles that they are going through. I think of this as a real privilege. People who are otherwise strangers are trusting me with this information, and in some way, I hope are made to feel that someone is always there to listen.
Thinking Outside The Box
Veterinary care can sometimes get very expensive very quickly. That could be because a really expensive piece of equipment is needed, or some specialist skills are required. It could just be that a patient is very sick and needs a lot of medication and intensive care from multiple vets, nurses, and technicians.
It may well be that the gold standard, the number one plan is simply out of your pet’s reach. It could be too expensive, or the equipment or skills are simply not available in your part of the world.
If this happens, then as vets it is our job to think outside of the box and work through the different options that are available to come up with a plan that will hopefully have the same end result, without compromising your pet’s care too much.
We need to work within that budgeting, equipment, or skills availability and come up with the next best option.
This can sometimes involve thinking about very different ways that we can pursue things. Our pets are all different. They have different temperaments and different histories, they may be suffering from other diseases or taking specific medications that all need to be considered.
Working through these challenges means that as vets we need to try and put lots of different pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together to try and end up with the best outcome possible.
This can be incredibly mentally stimulating and is a challenge that I definitely find rewarding.
The Variety of Vetting
Next, they say variety is the spice of life, and certainly, as a veterinarian, we can get plenty of variety in our day-to-day job.
As a general practitioner, GP vet, I'm a radiologist, an oncologist, a surgeon, an internist, a criticalist, an ultrasonographer, a cardiologist, an anesthetist, and so much more.
Human doctors have got it easy, they only do one thing AND their patients can talk! (Joke - they have an incredibly challenging job!)
There are so many different roles that we play in our day-to-day job, and this brings great variety. It is certainly true that no two days are ever the same.
As with every job, there are certain routine procedures or tasks things that we do. This could be the number of vaccinations, dealing with skin case after skin case. Now, that's not to say that they are boring, far from it if they involve an area you are passionate about, and these all provide a different challenge in themselves.
No matter who you are though, as a veterinarian there is always going to be one type of case or another that you’d rather not see multiple times every week if you could make that choice.
Equally, we never know what's going to come through the hospital door.
I tend to say to people when they ask, "How busy are you?" that a quiet day (and if you work in a vet clinic you must never mutter the “Q” word!) can switch to being incredibly busy in the blink of an eye. It only takes one patient to walk through the door and everything changes. Your plans for the day go out the window.
We need to think on our feet. We need to perform lots of different jobs and this variety can be very stimulating.
The practical aspects of the job in being a vet is the next thing that I really love. This is one of the things that actually brought me to veterinary medicine in the first place.
I enjoyed my sciences and I wanted to work with my hands. I didn't want it to be sat at a desk all day on the computer (which is a bit of a joke considering how much time I spend on the computer running Our Pet’s Health!) or doing paperwork. Being a vet fulfills this aspiration.
Of course, we do have to do a certain amount of paperwork and a certain amount of work on the computer, writing our clinical notes, doing billing, sending off for labs, writing reports and the like.
The majority of our time, however, we've got our hands on our patients doing practical work in the consultation room, in the operating theater, or pursuing different diagnostics and treatment modalities.
Unless you’re a tradesman, I wonder just how many other jobs are quite so hands-on.
Finally, and possibly the best thing about being a veterinarian is getting to work with my patients.
We have puppies and kittens where we are crucial in setting them on the right path, getting their vaccinations, parasite control, and preventative health care all in a line to try and ensure that they stay as healthy as possible.
We have young-adult and middle-aged animals who have had an accident or developed an unexpected illness where we work to cure their condition.
There are also senior patients who have got different diseases that they will need to live with for the rest of their lives. This could be arthritis, kidney disease, or diabetes to name but a few. Helping them stay as happy and healthy as possible and looking out for them is our job, and one that can be incredibly rewarding.
Working with our patients is why every vet does their job. We get a real kick out of spending time with them, optimizing their health, making them better, and ultimately ensuring their life is as happy and healthy as possible.
I believe that as veterinarians, we play a crucial role in ensuring that this does happen, and without veterinary input, a lot of animals' lives really would be sub-optimal.
Why I Hate Being a Veterinarian
Dealing with owner neglect and indifference
Expectation of miracles
Being a veterinarian is not all about cuddling puppies and kittens all day.
There are some really difficult, challenging, and at times upsetting parts to being a part of this profession. I think it is important that everyone is aware that being a vet is not all the sunshine and rainbows it’s portrayed to be on popular TV shows and glossy instagram posts.
The first real challenge is seeing dogs and cats with problems that are easily treatable, easily managed, or easily avoidable, and their owner is just completely ignoring the issue.
It is really hard when we see an animal in suboptimal health, or is on the path to suffering, but their owner just doesn't care.
They are not interested in exploring any treatment options, no matter how cheap. They are not interested in listening to the impact that the problem has on their pet’s quality of life or life expectancy.
It’s not that the costs are too high, and I get that costs can sometimes be a real barrier to action, there is simply no desire to make any changes or put a bit more effort into optimizing health.
The most frustrating situations are typically due to “simple” problems, like obesity, dental disease, and arthritis. Issues that very often pet owners will actually dismiss as not being a problem at all, not being a high priority, and not recognizing the impact they have. All this despite being told in no uncertain terms the detrimental effect this is having on their pet (and sometimes I do get pretty blunt).
It is really hard not to care more than the pet’s actual owner, and thankfully owners like this are definitely the exception than the rule - at least among owners who do actually take their pet to the vet.
Next up is being expected to perform miracles. Now clearly, this isn't every pet owner. Most have realistic expectations, especially if tests or treatments have been declined.
But we do get some people who will come into a consultation room and expect you to be able to diagnose and fix their pet without giving permission to run any form of diagnostics, any form of surgeries, and any form of treatment trials. And heaven forbid they actually turn up for that revisit appointment you advised.
Effectively, they are asking you to go into the boxing ring with your hands tied behind your back and expect you to land that K.O. blow.
I absolutely don't expect everybody to be able to afford everything that needs to be done. That's just not realistic, and it is perfectly acceptable (in a lot of cases) to say, "No, we don't want to do these diagnostic tests. Let's try a treatment trial."
That's absolutely fine, but for every Grade A plan that gets turned down, we have to accept that there are going to be some compromises made, some corners cut to try and do the best for your pet. You need to accept that vets can't be expected to perform miracles and guarantee a successful outcome.
If I’m not allowed to perform any diagnostic tests that I feel are required then I'm relying on my experience, your pet’s history, and the clinical examination. This is all well and good, but many similar conditions present in exactly the same way, and for a lot, there is simply no way the correct diagnosis can be made without running tests.
Equally, if the best treatment is declined then plan B is just that. Plan A is going to be plan A for a reason!
This compromise can be really challenging and stressful at the best of times. Even when our pet owner is fully on-board with the realities of the potential outcomes. Stress is amplified no end when miracles are expected.
Unfortunately, the cherry on the cake is often the fact that those with unrealistic expectations also tend to be the same people who argue about paying their bill despite knowing the cost beforehand, leave negative reviews online, and start vindictive social media campaigns.
Talking about people voicing their opinions online, conspiracy theories have got to be the next worst thing about being a veterinarian.
If you spent any time online researching your pet’s health then you'll have read about vets earning hundreds of thousands of dollars by being paid off by drug companies or by pet food companies.
Other people will say that vets actually want to promote poor health and keep their patients unwell so that they can make more money from having more sick patients.
While this is clearly ridiculous, this negative portrayal from the vocal minority can really take its toll.
And it’s not just the online crazies that get in on the act. Mainstream media are often quick to jump on someone's sensational online claim without researching the other side of the story. Sensation sells after all.
We are a caring profession. We absolutely care about our patients. When we're being told that not only is this not valued, but we are all either corrupt, or uncaring, or greedy, it does take a toll on the profession's mental state as a whole.
These previous negatives all tie into, what is for me, one of the worst things about being a veterinarian. That is emotional blackmail.
When people say, "If you cared, you'd do it for free."
That's just not fair. That's not a fair criticism for anybody to make. We wouldn't expect anybody else to do their job for free and nor should you expect your veterinarian to do it for free.
We've gone through lots of training. We have saddled ourselves with an awful lot of debt and providing good quality veterinary care is actually very expensive. The drugs can cost a lot of money. The equipment that we need costs lots of money. We need a lot of support staff - our receptionists, nurses, and veterinary technicians who do a fantastic job. They all need to be paid (and should ideally be paid better than they generally are).
To expect us to do our job for free is completely unrealistic. To say that if we cared, we would do it for free is just simply not fair.
Getting a pet is an important decision to make. When you bring an animal into the house you need to make provisions to provide for their physical and mental needs. You should also have a plan should things go wrong.
Your veterinarian is not responsible for the fact that you have failed to put aside an emergency fund or that you chose not to insure your pet. Choosing the latest smartphone over saving for a rainy day is your choice to make. But you should not expect your veterinarian to subsidize your decision.
I believe that this emotional blackmail is one of the many reasons that mental health within the veterinary profession is so poor.
This is something I've spoken about several times in the past, but if you are not aware, the suicide rate among vets is about four times higher than the general population. The burnout rates are incredibly high. The numbers of people leaving the profession (veterinarians, nurses, and technicians) are high because the challenges that we face are extreme.
The final part of being a veterinarian I dislike is being on-call.
I've always worked in practices that cover their own emergency work, providing care for their patients 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Don't get me wrong, I absolutely believe that every veterinarian needs to be able to make sure that their patients have access to veterinary care when they need it. For many city clinics, this means that they forward their after-hours calls to the nearest emergency hospital.
For others though, this means working a full day, being on call overnight, and then working the entire next day regardless of how many patients you saw overnight and how little sleep you got.
Initially, when I graduated, I found being on-call very challenging, stimulating, and rewarding. A lot of the more “exciting” cases are seen once the sun goes down. We need to think on our feet and work with the challenges more limited staff availability brings.
There are two down-sides though.
The first is that I now finder it harder to function properly after being dragged out of bed in the middle of the night. I’m dead on my feet by the end of the following day and it does tend to take several days for me to recover.
The other issue is that working weekends on-call means that I miss out on time spent with my family. Something that wasn’t a factor when I first graduated.
Is Being a Vet Worth It?
What then is the bottom line? After all, every job has its pros and cons.
I still believe that being a veterinarian is a job like no other, and if I wasn’t a vet I have no idea what else I would do.
Would I recommend that you should consider becoming a vet?
In so many ways being a vet is absolutely worth it. One huge factor that I haven’t discussed in this list, however, is how much vets get paid along with how much student debt they graduate with.
This has changed dramatically since I graduated in 2006, and would definitely give me pause for thought if I had to go back in time and make my decision all over again.
So is being a vet worth it? For me, I would say yes, but if you are thinking of joining this marvelous, challenging profession you need to take your time, understand the negatives rather than concentrate solely on the positives, and understand the reality of graduating with huge levels of debt that you may be paying off for your entire working life.
Being a veterinarian is not just what you do, it’s who you are!