Vets: who’s taking care of the animal caregivers?

Our pets are members of the family, and we would do everything we can to make sure they stay fit and healthy. Sometimes this might involve a trip to the vets, which can be an upsetting experience not only for the animal and its owner, but also for the vet.

The challenging job of being a caregiver to animals from birth to death can take its toll for numerous reasons.

Mental Health

Distressing Situations

Most vets have an inherent love of animals, yet a daily task they face is putting down people’s animal companions. This can be particularly difficult in scenarios where the animal is healthy or curable but the owner simply can’t look after it any longer or afford the necessary treatments – perhaps an unsurprising occurrence given that vet bills cost the British public an astounding £3.8 billion in 2020. This is even more pronounced given the current cost of living crisis, resulting in a significant animal care gap in low-income communities.

There are also times when euthanasia is the most humane option but the owner demands major intervention which may lead to a poor quality of life, leaving vets with difficult ethical considerations. A vet’s best interest is the wellbeing of their animal patients, but ultimately it is the patient’s owner who decides the course of action, even if it’s not the best option.

The frequency of situations where pet owners are unhappy with veterinary services is reflected by the abuse directed at the staff. 1 in 2 vets were exposed to online abuse in 2021 in the form of unfair reviews, trolling, and abusive language, all of which can have a lasting effect.


Many people who train as veterinary surgeons are high-achieving individuals with a sense of perfectionism, so it is no surprise that mental health becomes an issue. Sadly, this manifests itself in a disproportionate suicide rate when compared with other professions. Shockingly, those working in the veterinary industry are four times more likely to commit suicide than the general population, and twice as likely as other healthcare professionals. On a particularly poignant note, most of these cases involves deliberate poisoning by medicines readily available to veterinary practitioners, such as barbiturates.

As in many walks of life, there is still a stigma around mental health. So much so, that one study found that three quarters of veterinary students would not let anyone know if they were struggling with mental health, and a staggering 39% of the students surveyed had experienced suicidal thoughts.

Thankfully, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) is aware of these problems, and they have established the Mind Matters Initiative which provides support and resources to help those across the profession. Practitioners who are particularly considerate of their staff’s wellbeing are recognised through the Vet Wellbeing Awards and for those in need of help, Vetlife provides a confidential helpline to veterinary workers, available 24/7, 365 days a year.

Workplace Stress

Workplace stress is an additional factor, which places a burden on the mental health of veterinarians. The average full-time vet in the UK works 57 hours a week, rising to 71 hours for practice partners. Working these long days and seeing on average a new animal with a new problem every 10 minutes, has resulted in 89% of those in the industry saying their job is stressful – stress and client expectations were cited as the two biggest challenges (according to a 2019 RCVS Survey).

This situation has only been exacerbated with the pet ownership boom during Covid, with 3.2 million households acquiring a new pet in the first year of the pandemic. Coupled with the staffing issues which have plagued so many industries and the continually rising cost of living, this results in an intensely challenging working environment.

As a result of these issues, less than half of vets would choose the profession again if they could restart their career, with only 34% believing that their degree adequately prepared them for the job.

Wider Responsibilities

Animal healthcare goes beyond making sure your neighbour’s Labrador recovers after eating one too many socks – 60% of infectious diseases in humans are zoonotic, this places a responsibility on vets to identify potentially dangerous pathogens in animals and livestock and to prevent there spread. In some cases this has tragic consequences, for example, the 2001 foot-and-mouth disease outbreak saw up to 10 million animals culled to prevent a national catastrophe.

Nowadays, the WHO’s “One Health approach” aims to unite animal, human and environmental research to optimise each of them. This is a double-edged sword: it puts more pressure on vets to be responsible for things other than animals, but it also provides additional support from outside the veterinary world.

Lack of Medicines

The challenges facing vets extends much further than the UK. A survey of vets across 36 different countries found that 80% felt they were limited by their access to essential medicines, with more than a third working without the drugs necessary for humane euthanasia.

Moreover, research into animal healthcare lags behind research into human treatments – veterinary research is less likely to carry out randomised studies, and less likely to report key information and statistical data, thus leading to inaccurate conclusions. Correspondingly, there are over 5 times fewer drugs on the European Union Register of medicinal products for veterinary use compared to human use. Additionally, the veterinary industry is lacking in evidence-based medicine due to the lesser availability of quality research.

Sadly, this can mean that despite having the best intention for the animal in their care, vets may be left with no choice but to let the animal suffer.

The Future

Vets do amazing work keeping our beloved family members fit and healthy. However, their mental health often takes a toll from the everyday pressures of this profession.

Animal healthcare is a huge market with constant innovation and research – in the last year there were nearly 4,000 patents published mentioning ‘veterinary oncology’. And there are many passionate individuals striving to improve the sector; for example Dr Clare Knottenbelt and her amazing work fighting cancer in animals. Through developments in animal healthcare leading to more efficient and affordable treatments, together with active efforts to enhance the veterinary workplace, the situation can be improved for the animal, its owner, and importantly, the vet. As a firm we understand the pressure Vets face and are there to help support the veterinary community with protecting and commercialising new developments in this space.