Skip to main content

Is being powerless leading to increased pressure on staff?

Written by: Simon Toye
Published on: 16 Apr 2024

Powerless

Image © Syda Productions / Adobe Stock

Becoming part of the veterinary profession is a calling. It calls to young people from a very early age, almost out of the blue, and long before many have any real experience of how the world works.

This is before you have to deal with the things that life throws at you: the mortgages, bills, relationship ups and downs, family issues and career choices. Those with an affinity for animals know, deep down, that helping them and ensuring they are cared for is what they want to do in life.

They see animals in need through no fault of their own, and they are possessed by the drive to aid them and become a vet.

Being a vet is always on the list of aspirational jobs shouted when asked during future career talks at school. It is usually a pilot, doctor, pop star, firefighter, actor, spy or vet. It shapes a young person’s life; everything is put into chasing good enough grades to get into vet school.

Not only that, but outside of education, gaining appropriate experience is paramount by volunteering at rescues, farms, stables or anywhere that has animals that need care. All of these actions are to one end: to become a vet and be able to care for animals when they need it most.

It is what drives many through the intense education, not only in their formative years, but during one of the longest undergraduate degrees offered in the UK.

Vet students must remember why they are putting themselves through it when they see friends, studying other courses, who get to go travelling or having a rest during their semester breaks, while they are in a cold field mucking out stables or working in the local animal shelter for free.

Each of the many years spent in education have all been to learn the ins and outs of many a species’ bodily functions and physiologies. Universities teach the gold standard of care to ensure patients can have the best possible chance of getting better and surviving whatever ails them.

Factors at play

However, the vets’ knowledge, their access to the best medicines or their ability to perform surgical procedures is not always what dictates the level of care patients receive. So many factors are at play that can, and do, trump the vet’s competency and expertise.

Sure, the knowledge of the treatment required is down to the vet and the vet alone, but owners, in most cases, have the power. The vet is at the mercy of the owner. Their financial situation is, most likely, to dictate what can be done.

Vets are able to advise on the tests, scans and appropriate treatment protocols, but if the owner cannot afford the cost of this plan – it will not happen. This financial argument extends itself to issues such as paying for travel when a referral to a specialist is required. Clients exist who do not have their own transport, so going even a few miles to a referral centre is something they might not be willing to do in their circumstance.

Many members of the public will, of course, state that veterinary care is too expensive, or even accuse the vet themselves of profiteering from inflated costs of care, further increasing the pressure on the vet in this stressful and taxing time. They do not seem to understand that the vet has little control over pricing in the modern surgery, much like those who work in supermarkets cannot override the till when you are buying your weekly groceries. Add this to the fact some clients will add to the pressure by guilt-tripping the vet.

The author would bet a serious amount of money that many vets reading this have heard the phrase, “I thought you cared about animals,” when they suggest a treatment plan owners cannot, or will not, afford. It is almost as if they think the vet should pay for their animal’s care out of their own pocket. It plays with the vet’s emotions for these animals as, remember, they only got into this profession to care for the animals, and now are told on a regular basis that they do not care.

It takes a further toll on the vet when the owner is able to afford the cost of the treatment, but makes an active decision not to pursue it for whatever reason. Perhaps the owner is not willing to give up their Friday night takeaways for a few weeks to free up the cash, or some other similarly fatuous argument. It boils the life of the patient down to a financial transaction, no different than scrapping a car because the cost of repair outweighs the resale value. However, a car is not a sentient being, wagging its tail, cuddling up to you, licking your face or falling asleep in your arms.

Implications

The owner’s power extends to decisions that have moral or religious implications, such as Buddhists not believing in euthanasia or followers of Islam not wanting any organs removed from their pets due to their belief system.

In fact, anthropomorphism such as this rears its head in many ways in the day of a veterinary surgeon. It occurs when they are faced with clients who believe that every female animal should have at least one litter, as, “that is what a female is supposed to do”, instead of what may be a medical necessity or a socially responsible thing to do.

The vet’s power is further diminished in scenarios where the client has been advised by a non-medical professional, but someone they believe is in a position of knowledge. It might be the person they bought their pet from, who they believe has more knowledge than the person who has dedicated their life to veterinary medicine. It might be the increasing number of clients who have spent five minutes with a laptop and a search engine. Vets face so many scenarios on a daily basis in which they are powerless.

The only power the vet has is to have the animal signed over to them or their practice, but this brings multiple issues with it and, as such, is an uncommon occurrence. Who will look after them? Who will pay for the required treatment? Who will find a permanent home for them?

This may potentially happen more if the need for it was less regular, but it is such a common scenario in every practice across the country that thousands of animals would be being signed over every week. All you have to do is look at the state of many animal rescues or shelters, which are bursting at the seams with animals being turned over to them.

The only realistic solution for many is to euthanise the animals in question, but the impact this has on vets is immense. The emotional burden placed upon them when they are asked to euthanise an otherwise healthy animal due to the multitude of factors discussed in this article cannot be underestimated. The people who only got into veterinary care because of their love for animals, and their compassion and drive to ensure no animal is left behind, are being forced to kill patients that could easily be treated, but for the choice of the client.

The people who have spent years of their life studying the way to heal most ailments in most species of domestic animal are being asked to ignore their own feelings. They are being asked to bury their emotions and disregard their knowledge because their client thinks they are money grabbing and uncaring human beings, who know less than the person who bred their pet.

It is no wonder that the veterinary industry has some of the poorest mental health statistics of any profession. Kind, caring and empathetic people are absolutely powerless to help, and have to carry an unmanageable and unsustainable amount of emotional baggage.