5 p.m. is canine happy hour in the park near Duboce Triangle in San Francisco. About 40 dogs run around chasing balls and wrestling each other while their owners coo and a portable speaker blasts ’90s hip-hop.
Honey, a Chihuahua mix, sat on a bench wearing a blue tutu and a string of pearls one recent afternoon. Diana McAllister, her owner, fed her homemade treats from a zip-close bag before popping one into her mouth.
After two years at home during the pandemic, it’s clear that many of these pet owners consider their dogs to be their children.
Yves Dudley, watching her 9-month-old collie-schnauzer mix play in the grass, said, “I always say, dogs are people, so I love him.”
In the first year of the pandemic, about 23 million families across the country adopted a pet. Working from home, other pet owners began paying closer attention to their animals’ daily routines, noticing symptoms like vomiting or coughing. The resulting increase in pet health concerns has put a strain on veterinarians, who don’t get nearly as much attention as doctors and nurses.
The pandemic’s overwork and staffing shortages have impacted veterinarians just as much as other doctors and nurses, and dealing with the constant moral dilemmas and emotional output was driving many veterinarians to burnout even before 2020. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual salary for veterinarians is around $110,000, which is about half that of physicians catering to people.
So many veterinarians and technicians have left the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ veterinary hospital in San Francisco that the clinic has had to reduce its hours, according to veterinarian Kathy Gervais.
Owners of dogs say they’ve had to wait months for vet appointments or travel long distances to get care.
Laura Vittet, whose golden retriever, Gertrude, is 112 years old, said, “Getting your dog in to see the vet is as competitive as trying to buy Coachella tickets online.” “You must stand by the phone and be prepared to refresh your browser.” It’s a harrowing experience.”
Gervais claims to work 12-hour days, zigzagging between new puppies and dying cats. She also looks after their humans during this time.
Veterinarians’ mental health is affected by empathy overload and compassion fatigue. They bear the burden of euthanizing animals that could be saved but whose owners cannot afford to care for them. Every day, about five animals are euthanized, according to Gervais’ practice. When a pet is in distress, some upset owners become downright abusive, berating veterinarians or later bullying them online.
According to studies from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in every six veterinarians has considered suicide. Though male vets are 1.6 times more likely than the general population to commit suicide, female vets are 2.4 times more likely, and 80 percent of vets are female.
Gervais could see things getting worse in the early months of the pandemic. She assisted in the formation of the Veterinary Mental Health Initiative, which provides free support groups and one-on-one counseling to veterinarians across the country.
All of the facilitators have doctorate-level training and are familiar with the issues that plague vets, according to founder and director Katie Lawlor, who is also a psychologist.
Dr. Razyeeh Mazaheri was able to overcome her anxiety while caring for animals at a clinic outside of Chicago last year thanks to the initiative. It was common for the clinic to be double- or triple-booked. Juggling so many cases as a new vet — Mazaheri graduated from veterinary school last spring — was terrifying.
Mazaheri learned coping skills and was able to see that others shared her concerns through the support groups. The initiative, which is run by the nonprofit Shanti Project, has groups for emergency veterinarians, veterinarian technicians, recent graduates like Mazaheri, and longtime vets like Kathy Gervais, who have more than 20 or 30 years of experience.