When he graduated from veterinary school about 15 years ago, Dr. Ivan Zak was passionate about emergency and critical animal care. Around five years into his career, though, the veterinarian was grappling with severe burnout, largely because of grueling work hours, and he nearly lost his life to suicide.
Zak was far from alone. Nationwide, veterinarians have a significantly higher risk of dying by suicide than other professionals. Compared with the general public, male veterinarians are 2.1 times more likely to take their own lives, while female vets are 3.5 times more likely.
Eventually, Zak got the help he needed and later switched gears by focusing on technology, software and management in the veterinary health care industry. These days, he’s the CEO of Galaxy Vets, an employee-owned veterinary health care system, and he’s motivated to understand what’s driving animal doctors’ burnout.
One difficulty vets face is having to euthanize a pet whose owner can’t afford the treatment to make them better. It’s the only profession that as part of your job, “you have a license to kill,” Zak said.
“You’re facing the dilemma where you know how to help someone,” he said, “but due to lack of finances, you’re making a decision for the owner — and they hate you for it — to let go of their loved ones one.”
On top of that, vets’ pay is much less than what regular medical professionals make, Zak said. Despite the fact it takes eight years to become a vet, 44% want to leave the profession in the first five years after graduation.
North Texas vets are especially getting stretched thin. Zak said there are just 1.3 veterinary employees per 1,000 pets in Dallas. By contrast, South Texas’ Bexar County has 2.2 animal doctors per 1,000 pets. In California, there are 4.4 per 1,000.
“There’s not more vets graduating every year, and so the demand is much higher than the supply.” – dr Ivan Zak
Like professionals in other industries, such as Texas’ teachers, veterinarians are feeling the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on their work. According to Galaxy Vets, in 2021, more than a quarter of veterinarians (26%) said they’d like to work fewer hours. Many want to achieve a better work-life balance and are experiencing anxiety, stress and burnout.
Some veterinarians also have cited child-care issues as reasons for wanting to work less.
During the pandemic, many people adopted a puppy as they pivoted to work from home, Zak said. So, there was an uptick in pets at the same time their owners were more present to notice concerning symptoms, further leading to overtaxed clinics.
Pets have also become increasingly humanized by their owners, he added. Around 40 years ago, it was standard practice to leave a dog chained out in the yard, but these days, there’s been a spike in the number of pets who sleep in their owners’ beds.
Zak continued that at the same time people are becoming more attentive pet owners, “There’s not more vets graduating every year, and so the demand is much higher than the supply.”
Vet burnout is still a relatively under-the-radar issue, but the problem has been fixed for years. In 2019, TIME reported on a 33-year-old veterinarian, Dr. Will McCauley, who was seconds away from taking his own life after clocking out from a Dallas clinic.
McCauley was saddled in student debt, overwhelmed by work demands — including euthanizing beloved pets — and sick of not living up to owners’ expectations. “I was tired in this miserable state of mind,” he said at the time, according to that article. “It just drained me so much.”
To help improve the problem, Galaxy Vets has become one of the three US companies that don’t have non-compete agreements. It’s also allowing vets to switch up their work routine to reflect their schedules and what they’re passionate about, be it doing surgeries, telemedicine from home, or seeing patients at their practice.
Another way Galaxy Vets hopes to boost mental well-being is by nixing a pay model based on commissions and redefining full-time work as 24 hours per week.
There are also online support groups, including Not One More Vet, which was founded in 2014 shortly after the suicide of an innovative California veterinarian. They had more than 16,000 members around the world as of 2019.
The organization’s founder, Dr. Nicole McArthur, told TIME that his high membership reflects the mounting need for help. “There is so much comfort in knowing that you are not alone,” she said.