Veterinarians, among their many gifts, have a way of making the remarkable seem ordinary. Take, for example, the vet who removed my English bulldog’s prolapsed eyelid gland and abdominal cyst in a single afternoon, or the one who sewed up my 12-year-old dachshund and gave him six more years of life after he was hit by a Nissan.
The scope of a small-animal veterinarian’s job is dizzying: a general practitioner can morph between a surgeon, dermatologist, ophthalmologist, pediatrician, geriatrician, interspecies detective, grief counselor, and more, sometimes all in one shift. As a general rule, veterinarians are brilliant, compassionate, and altruistic.
They give their all to our pets, and many struggle with debt and mental health as a consequence. Yet, compared with the doctors who treat humans, they get shockingly little in return. It’s time for pet owners to show a little more love for those who care for our four-legged family members.
Nationally, the median salary for doctors of veterinary medicine is about $99,000. That’s about half of what family medicine physicians make, despite the fact that becoming a vet requires an education with the hallmarks of medical school: hyper-selective admissions processes, an undergraduate degree plus four rigorous postgrad years, and wildly expensive tuition.
In Massachusetts, vets earn $111,470 on average, according to a recent analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data by Veterinarians.org. This might seem reasonable, but when taking into consideration the rigors of the position and factors such as tuition and cost of living, it’s hardly sustainable.
Debt remains a leading source of stress among veterinarians, and for good reason. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, the average debt for 2021 graduates of vet schools stood at $147,394, with significantly higher numbers for Black and Hispanic or Latino graduates. (As usual, younger generations carry more baggage than those before them, with average veterinary student debt nearly tripling between 2000 and 2020.)
Even so, the number of veterinary school applicants spiked 19 percent in 2020 and continues to grow. For prospective veterinarians, pursuing the profession generally means fulfilling a lifelong dream. “[Becoming a veterinarian] was an unquenchable fire in me since I was a young child — I can’t imagine doing anything different,” says Dr. Monica Mansfield, president-elect of the Massachusetts Veterinary Medical Association and an associate veterinarian at Medway Animal Hospital, who’s been practicing for 35 years and has a son in veterinary school.
Animal medicine obviously attracts animal lovers. But veterinarians are also high achievers with a tendency to shoulder heavy burdens — assets in a job with long hours and high patient loads — and offer innate empathy during our pets’ worst moments. There are, however, downsides to this work style. “Although they’re wonderful traits to get into vet school — and get through vet school, and be a good doctor — they don’t always have a turn-off switch,” Mansfield says.
Veterinary medicine will always be taxing, and that’s without mentioning added strain during the COVID pandemic, from staffing shortages to hospitals at capacity with few options for overflow. Turnover is high. Diversity is low. Just a third of veterinarians would recommend the job to others.
Vets, vet techs, and support staff regularly confront pet neglect, abuse, and other dark hypocrisies of our purportedly animal-loving culture. They recalibrate treatment plans for people with lower budgets. They watch our pets deteriorate and tell us what we don’t want to hear, like the vet who told us our dachshund, who had survived that car, had finally had enough. Euthanasia — for illness, aggression, and sometimes for no reason except the owner demands it — is an obligation that professionals working with humans don’t have to bear.
As in human medicine, veterinarians have long reported higher rates of stress, depression, and burnout. And vets’ mental health has declined further during the pandemic: nearly 1 in 10 reported “serious psychological distress,” according to a study published last month by Merck Animal Health and the American Veterinary Medical Association. (That figure is even higher among veterinary support staff.) And while the contributing factors are complex, veterinarians were already 2.7 times more likely to attempt suicide than the general population prior to the pandemic. Virtually every vet knows of someone in the field who has died by suicide, Mansfield says.
Lately, there’s a growing acknowledgment of that great within the profession. Soon after losing a co-worker several years ago, Mansfield spearheaded the Massachusetts Veterinary Medical Association wellness initiative, which grants veterinary practice employees and their families confidential access to in-person counseling and referrals for mental health issues. (“I worry about the quiet ones that don’t have a place to turn,” Mansfield says.) Wellness programs are increasingly common, as are workplace cultures that elevate self-care and work-life balance.
There are efforts toward larger reforms as well: In a letter to the US Department of Education last year, the medical association proposed changes such as letting graduate borrowers refinance federal loans at lower interest rates.
If pet owners want to help veterinarians, we can start by doing the things we should do anyway. Set aside emergency funds. Get pet insurance when it makes sense (if, for example, you own an ailment-prone French bulldog). Trust your providers and talk to them before ranting online. And, speaking as someone who hasn’t always followed this advice, don’t mistake your bill for evidence that your vet is ripping you off. In fact, Mansfield says practices struggle to keep rising costs down and ease clients’ sticker shock, which means veterinarians frequently undercharge for their services. Ultimately, that means less to pay veterinary technicians, support staff, and veterinarians themselves.
Before groaning about your vet’s bottom line, remember: The veterinary care system isn’t like the one for people. There’s no Medicare for dogs, insurance is relatively rare, and there aren’t many middlemen to obscure the true cost of care. Whatever your vet is asking for, chances are they’re getting less than they deserve.
Jeff Harder is a writer based in Connecticut. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’re feeling suicidal or know someone who is, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
This file has been updated to correct a reporting error. An earlier version of this story attributed to a wellness initiative for veterinarians to the incorrect organization. The correct group is the Massachusetts Veterinary Medical Association.