What has made me a better veterinarian and restored my love for this profession? I could begin with obvious answers like enhancing my client communication skills, improving at medical records, learning about breakthrough treatments and procedures, or finding the best resources—but those things didn’t even make my list. They are important, however, they are not what motivates me to wake up each day and continue doing my job.
Though rewarding, veterinary medicine is a challenging field to work in especially as of recently with the unprecedented workforce shortage and burnout crisis. I have had my own existential crises through the years leading me to wonder where I fit in or if I belong at all. Since I know I am not alone in those feelings, here are some things that have helped significantly inspire and motivate me in my journey of loving veterinary medicine (again).
1. The Fear Free movement
Practicing Fear Free Medicine has deepened the bonds I have with patients and clients, and it has helped many pet parents develop a greater level of trust and appreciation for veterinary teams. While I never disagreed with the principles of Fear Free medicine, I was certainly guilty of doing things the way everyone else had before me: piling on top of scared dogs to trim their nails, withholding sedation when it was clearly needed, getting begging by terrified cats when they were displaying every sign in the book that I needed to stop, and giving in to owners’ requests to try “one more time” even when I knew it was a bad idea.
Thus, learning and intentionally practicing Fear Free principles freed me of the feeling that I was at war with my patients. Explaining Fear Free strategies to pet parents—while confusing and strange to some at first—would serve as a breath of fresh air for them because they were no longer complicit in their pet’s fear and anxiety, but instead included in a safer, kinder way forward .
2. Learning about boundaries
Early on as a veterinarian, I subconsciously learned that I should not have boundaries. In fact, I didn’t even know what boundaries were, but I knew if I were to be “professional,” I shouldn’t have them. I was always willing to stay late, take the extra case, come in on my day off to catch up on records, field calls at home that could wait until I was next in the office, and on and on. The example had been set by others: make veterinary medicine the cornerstone of your life, and everything else could fit around it. I felt guilty for even secretly wishing that my life didn’t have to be that way. It took years of learning about myself and interacting with others, both professionally and personally, to discover there was another way to live. It also took witnessing others to stand up for themselves, set boundaries, and demand respect. I am so appreciative of their examples that have changed my life and offered me hope and optimism about my future in veterinary medicine.
3. Making friends
This pertains to those in veterinary medicine such as coworkers, friends from neighboring practices you meet at conferences or from online communities, former classmates, and more. One of my favorite aspects of working in relief medicine has been the opportunity to meet other veterinarians and simply talk with them, learn from them, and support each other. Feeling connected to others has substantially improved my level of confidence as a practitioner. It also makes the day feel like much less of a grind. I’m so grateful for all the technology that connects us with others and enables us to receive necessary help in real time even when we are working alone.
4. My family
In my case, I’ve been married and/or a mom throughout my entire veterinary career. In some senses that creates an added level of stress in both my work and home life as I always wish I could be doing more for someone. However, my family is also my greatest joy, support, and my refuge at the end of a long day. Being a mother has made me a better veterinarian in many ways—it’s helped with my time management, empathy and compassion, conflict resolution skills, and more. My extended family and close friends round out my life, and I depend on them for so much. I love that I can share what I do with them, tell them my funny (and sometimes crazy) stories, vent about a challenging day, and hear my children speak with pride about the work I do. My 3-year-old is just starting to understand my career. Often in the mornings when I get ready for work, he will ask why I go to the animal hospital. Sometimes he will answer his own question: “Is it because you are the doctor?” Yes, son, mommy is the doctor.
5. Finding my niche
Veterinary medicine is unlike any other field. It often feels like we must be everything for our patients and clients throughout their pets’ lives. It’s impossible to be good at everything. I have struggled with feelings of inferiority because I wasn’t as knowledgeable in all the areas I believed I was expected to have mastered. Sometimes we need to just give ourselves permission to say, “I’m really interested in X and going to devote more of my time to it and not going to devote as much of my energy to Y.” For example, I love public health and preventive medicine and writing on veterinary topics for colleagues and pet owners. I will happily refer all the orthopedic surgery cases, gastropexies, and critical care cases to others. I know in the past, veterinarians were revered for doing everything themselves, but with pet owners now expecting levels of care that equal or surpass that of human medicine, we cannot expect to be experts in all realms.
6. Learning from younger generations
Maybe I’m making myself sound too old. . . let’s just say I’m a member of Generation X. The more I connect with younger veterinarians, the more impressed I am by their confidence, preparation, and approach to their personal and professional lives. Veterinary medicine is bursting with out-of-the-box thinkers who are challenging the past ways things have been done and innovating a plethora of advancements in our profession (eg, formal mentoring programs for new graduates, podcasts that explore everything from finances to mental health, new programs to increase the diversity, equity and inclusion in the field, etc). These are not things any of us were taught in veterinary school. They are remarkable creations made by inspired, determined veterinarians who want to take our beloved profession to new heights. I am in awe of and motivated by them all.
7. Getting social (media)
I know I’m behind the times, but I’m slowly learning about the methods veterinarians use to interact with each other and improve our profession via social media. Thanks to a veterinary career course I took a year or so ago, I have learned more about LinkedIn and have become more active on the platform. I had no idea how many veterinary professionals are innovating and talking about their work there! There are coaches who work with veterinarians to fight burnout, support mental health, negotiate their contracts, search for new jobs, and more. There are job listings and important discussions about non-competes and work-life balance. I have also taken advantage of various Facebook groups and Instagram accounts. The DVMoms Facebook group, for example, has over 15,000 members worldwide who offer support, commiseration, and advice on topics including cases, parenting, and general life.
8. Making a change
When I was in the deepest, darkest throes of burnout, I wanted to leave veterinary medicine entirely. I felt disconnected, resentful, and not good enough. Additionally, I felt that my career was interfering with my way of my life. I made a big change and left my private practice job of 14 years to pursue relief work. However, before I did that, I participated in a group coaching course for veterinarians to explore my strengths, values, and purpose and discover how I could better align what I do with who I am. That was the beginning of understanding and incorporating new pathways on my journey. Not everyone may need to make such a significant change. For others it may be setting better boundaries, incorporating more regular self-care, exploring a new area within veterinary medicine, prioritizing non-work interests or hobbies, or something else.
9. Reconnecting with my “Why”
I’m not referring to some nuanced, grown-up version of why I am a veterinarian. I’m talking about why I wanted to be a veterinarian when I was a young girl—because I loved—and still love animals. Growing up, I would put sandwich bags on my hands as “gloves” to try and save injured baby birds. I pushed my family to adopt a dog, make the 2-hour drive to SeaWorld every summer, and I even traveled to the Galapagos Islands to see all the extraordinary wildlife there. I volunteered at the zoo, rode horses, swam with dolphins, and visited alpaca farms. If there was an animal experience to be had, I was doing it.
A few years ago, a technician I worked with took us all to watch sea turtles lay eggs on the beach at night (with permission from the research group she worked with). It was an awe-inspiring experience, and I was as giddy as a little kid. I have occasionally gone horseback riding again after a 13-year hiatus. Plus, I found a local alpaca farm that provides tours and even has alpaca yoga! Reconnecting with the wonder I felt as a child through these amazing experiences has been instrumental in my decision of remaining in veterinary medicine and enjoying my love for animals outside of my 9-to-5 job has improved my outlook.
10. Learning about the human-animal bond from clients
Client interactions can be among the most stressful aspects of clinical veterinary practice. However, there are always great owners who share wonderful stories of love and friendship with their pets. When I was in private practice, there were certain clients that I looked forward to seeing, not only because I loved their pets, but also because I had inspiring interactions with them. There was the labradoodle therapy dog who went with his dad to hospitals 3 times a week to visit patients and their families. It was obvious these visits were just as therapeutic for the owner/pet partnership as they were for the recipients of the visit. When I would see this patient, I could always count on a heart-warming story from the owner of his dog’s ability to calm and comfort a sick individual or a grieving family. Additionally, I would learn how other patients would help their owners stay active, protect and watch over children, and bring joy to their owners’ lives in countless ways.
Currently, I love witnessing the excitement a family conveys when they adopt a new cat or dog. On the contrary, as I help bereaved owners say goodbye to their pets, I am privileged to hear stories of a lifetime of friendship and devotion. I do consider it part of my job to teach others about the beauty and importance of the human-animal bond, but I also learn more about it daily from my patients and their families. As much as I need to be there for them, I sometimes lean on my clients and patients to refill my cup a little.
So that’s my list. Yours may be totally different. The solutions to the challenges in veterinary medicine are not simple or straightforward. Finding ways to love veterinary medicine (or love it more) can make it easier for us to further strengthen and support our treasured profession. As we do this, remember we are not alone, and we all deserve to find joy and fulfillment in our lives and our work.