Dear Veterinarian,

As you are painfully aware, veterinarians in the U.S. are at an increased risk of suicide, a trend that has spanned more than three decades, according to a new CDC study published in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The study also points to increased suicide mortality among female veterinarians. They are 3.5 times more likely, and male veterinarians 2.1 times more likely, to die from suicide than the general population. Notably, seventy-five percent of the veterinarians who died by suicide worked in a small animal practice, which is very likely your practice. No one can exactly explain the causes behind these statistics, but there are some ideas being discussed that might help understand the distressing trend.

You, as a veterinarian, are asked to take the lives of beloved pets, many of whom you have cared for since the pet was a baby. And you also know that many pets you euthanize, can be saved by medical interventions like surgery. But the cost is often too much for the pet parent to bear, and so you’re forced, not only to euthanize a pet, which is a major emotional stressor in the “best” of circumstances. But you have to go against your instincts and training and euthanize a pet because it was too expensive to save her.

This would never happen in a human medical situation. Add to this, the bone-marrow grief and anger of the pet parent directed against you. Holding you responsible.

Your practice is probably a solo or small one, maybe in a remote location, which can be lonely. There’s a “vet tech” and some kind of office staff, but it’s a far cry from the environments of your human-medical colleagues in major practices or teaching hospitals. They’re surrounded by the latest equipment, attend numerous workshops and share information with accomplished colleagues a few doors down the hall.

Then there’s the huge cost of your education. Nerd Wallet places the cost of four years of veterinary school at about $275,000. And this doesn’t include the cost of your undergraduate studies.

This whopping debt simply can’t be recouped by what you charge your patients. You simply can not charge what surgeons and specialists charge. Or even (especially) dentists.

Few pet parent can pay several thousands of dollars for a needed surgery or other procedures for their dog or cat or bunny. Even smaller amounts can be a hardship, especially in this stressful economy. And there is no kind of equivalent insurance to pay the bill.  At best, pet insurance is a dicey proposition.

Many of us have a love-hate relationship with you because of the deepest possible love we have for our pets, and usually, for you. But grief can quickly turn to anger when you, our pet’s healer, is the one suggesting the end of his life, and the one taking his life.

As an animal chaplain/pastoral counselor and pet grief and loss therapist, I see and hear the many stories of pet bereavement. And almost always there is an undercurrent of anger. My clients greatly wish that you, their veterinarian, understood their pain more.

That you were available to reassure and comfort them, not just in the few moments after a euthanasia, but to talk with them and answer their nagging questions days or weeks after the death of their pet. I know you don’t have the time.

But many clients feel you don’t fully grasp that this experience upended their world; changed their lives forever. And what they are feeling is irrational but real. And it needs your attention. But you have no way of comforting them. And you have no answers they are truly willing to accept.

And that’s an impossible situation emotionally and psychologically for you.

In my opinion, it’s you, the veterinarian, that actually needs the compassion and understanding. Needs the self-care and maybe some grief therapy as much, if not more, than the “client” whose pet just passed.

I’ve written more about the need for grief training and counseling for veterinarians in the veterinarian trade publication, Pet Vet Magazine.

I’m sure as your bereaved clients leave your office, you encourage them to self-care, remind them to eat well, take grief breaks. Above all stay connected to friends and family. Perhaps some few of you even recommend the services of Animal Talks.

You care deeply. Yet, of all the “clients” I have seen, none has been a veterinarian. I hope you and your colleagues are seeing some grief counselor or therapy for guidance and support. I also hope someday it will be standard practice for you to regularly seek help for your noble but often lonely and stressful practice.

These suicide and depression figures are an urgent call for help.

Who is listening? Who is paying attention?

Kaleel (Rev K) is one of the country’s few ordained Animal Chaplains, nondenominational Pastoral Counselors and Credentialed Pet Loss and Grief Counselors. His work in the field of Loss and Grief, especially Pet Loss and Grief, has earned him recognition from The Washington Post, People Magazine, New York Times and other media. He is a “thought leader” in the emerging field of the animal-human bond studies, and a practicing therapist. Reach him at [email protected]

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About the Author: Kaleel Sakakeeny
Kaleel Sakakeeny is an ordained Animal Chaplain and Credentialed Pet Loss and Bereavement Counselor, one of very few in the country. He also has BA, MA, and MS degrees, and is certified in Reiki, EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) and Animal Communication, which helps him tremendously in his work with people and animals. Kaleel specializes in grief and sorrow counseling for those who have lost their pet to death. He is very accessible, and looks forward to working with you individually or in a group setting. He especially loves working with small groups in workshops, schools, community centers and churches – talking about the beautiful bond between people and their animals. And, addressing your questions about love, loss and our animal companions. Please say “hi” and introduce yourself!

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