Suicide Rates Among Veterinarians Soar as They Are Burdened With Stress, Dealing With Death, and Debt

Jenny Kim, a veterinarian oncologist, listens to the heartbeat of Dannyboy, a labrador that she has treated with lymphoma, in the exam room at NorthStar VETS in Maple Shade Township.
MICHAEL BRYANT / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Even after 16 years as a veterinarian, 13 of them as a veterinary oncologist, there are many cases that still haunt Jennifer Kim:

The woman with end-stage ovarian cancer and her dog, her support throughout her illness, stricken with cancer, too.

“I ended up euthanizing the dog probably less than a week before she died. At the time of the euthanasia, she said, ‘I was supposed to die first.’”

There were other clients — 9/11 family members, a young mother suddenly widowed — who implored her to save the pet that was all they had left of their lost loved one. And there were the animals she’d cared for since they were puppies and kittens that were at the end of their lives.

“I’ve had patients that I’ve seen every month for years, and when they die, I hold it together in the room. But as soon as they leave or as soon as I get in my car, that’s when I cry,” said Kim, a veterinary oncologist with NorthStar VETS, a specialty and emergency practice in Maple Shade and Robbinsville, N.J. “I feel if you don’t cry about this job every once in a while, you’ve lost your heart.”

But for Kim and a growing number of her colleagues, losing heart isn’t the most dire consequence of the work they love. Increasingly, the veterinary community is marshaling efforts to address suicide rates that, according to recent research, are about twice that of the general public. That comes at a time when the overall suicide rate in the United States climbed by more than 30% from 1999 to 2017.

A study by researchers with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Auburn University published last month in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association found that from 2003 to 2014, male veterinarians died of suicide at a rate 1.6 times higher than the U.S. average. For female vets, the situation is worse yet: 2.4 times higher. Another study published earlier this year found that suicide rates among veterinarians were even higher.

Overall, suicide rates among men are higher than those among women. Not so with veterinarians. Nearly 62% of veterinarians are women, and that share is expected to rise, given high female enrollments in veterinary schools.

The CDC-Auburn study suggested that one reason for the high suicide rates is that veterinarians have ready access to drugs that can be deadly in excess.

“Poisoning was the most common mechanism of death among veterinarians; the drug most commonly used was pentobarbital,” the study states.

Pentobarbital, a barbiturate that can be used as a sedative and as an anti-seizure medication, is commonly used by veterinarians to euthanize animals.

‘Allowing ourselves to talk about it’

But access to lethal drugs doesn’t explain the despair. Many veterinarians say the recent studies have just proven what they and their colleagues have suspected in a profession fraught with high stress – emotional, moral, and, increasingly, financial.

The average debt from vet school is more than $152,000, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), and that doesn’t include undergraduate debt. That’s close to the average debt for medical school, but the average starting salary for a vet of about $82,000 is substantially less than that of a new physician.

Medical advances have increased care options for pets, but they are too costly for many pet owners, most of whom do not have pet insurance. Some veterinarians talk about being accused of “just being in it for the money,” and many say they are torn by the moral dilemma — as much as they want to do more for an animal and its anguished owner, they also have to pay the bills.

On top of that, many vets — just like their peers in human health care — work long hours and neglect self-care. They suffer burnout as well as compassion fatigue over the animals they were trained to treat and their owners, which they were not. And part of their job remains, at times, ending lives.

“I’ve gone in the bathroom and cried after euthanasias,” said Evan Gandler, a veterinarian for 19 years and owner of Sterling Veterinary Associates in Stratford, Camden County. “A couple times over my career, I’ve cried in the room with clients, too.”

“I think that as veterinarians, we’ve finally reached the place in our profession where we’re allowing ourselves to talk about it,” said Carrie Jurney, a veterinarian who practices in California’s Bay Area and completed her neurology residency at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine. Of the 86 people in her University of Georgia vet school class of 2005, at least three people have died by suicide.

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SOURCE: The Philadelphia Inquirer, Rita Giordano