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Helping People Who Help Our Pets

It is the end Erica’s shift and she’s staring at the list of pet owners she needs to email or call back before leaving work. She glances at the clock. It is 30 minutes past the end of her shift…but earlier, she couldn’t walk away from Mrs. Kendrick, who was struggling with the news that her Prince has a large mass that appears to be cancer. Mrs. Kendrick’s husband passed away last year, and Erica knew Prince was her everything. So she sat with her, a little longer than usual.


She was pulled away from her computer screen when she heard a loud voice coming from the lobby, a woman saying “What? I can’t afford this!” Erica saw the new customer service rep looking up at a woman demanding that she “get a manager here to tell my kid that his cat is going to die because all you care about is making money.” Erica felt her heart break. She wanted to tell the woman that their top priority is taking the best care of her pet… but free care doesn’t keep clinic doors open.  


Seeing a manager heading that direction, Erica turned back to her desk. She slumped forward, head in her hands. Her friends and family have been concerned about her lately.  Erica can’t help but agree. She thought she was following her dream, working with animals, but some days she feels she can’t keep this up much longer.




For people who do not work in this field, the job seems like heaven. Wagging tails, furry head bonks, and sandpaper lick kisses. But the veterinary profession is suffering. Veterinarian deaths by suicide occur at more than 3 times the national average -- 7 out of 10 veterinarians have a friend or colleague who has died by their own hand. 2 out of 3 report history of depression, and 8 out of 10 describe their occupation as stressful or very stressful. And mental health stigma is high in the field, which can prevent treatment seeking.


That’s where this post begins. We want to help the people who help our pets.


Our lab created an evidence-based, stress-reducing program that is tailored to the needs of people working in veterinary medicine. We started our work by asking people in the field about the challenges they face. An important theme was the large number of difficult interactions that can occur with owners, particularly when owners are upset about their own sick pet. Stressed owners are more likely to act in ways that can be stressful for veterinary healthcare teams. This might look like lashing out in anger, refusing treatment that is the best chance at a good outcome, or refusing to pay for services that have already been provided. We call this “burden transfer” -- when the burden of the owner transfers to the person working on the veterinary healthcare team.


But when it comes to stress and burnout in veterinary teams, the frequency of these difficult encounters is not nearly as important as the REACTION they have in response. And the fact that reaction is so important is key.


It would be hard, maybe even impossible, to control how pet owners behave. But what we can do is help people working in veterinary medicine buffer themselves from some of the stress that is walking into their clinic at the other end of the leash.


We developed an educational program that uses the evidence-based framework of Acceptance and Commitment Training, and apply it to these burden transfer situations. We teach veterinary teams to identify when burden transfer occurs, and provide hands-on skills to use in these moments. People who complete our training leave with a step-by-step action plan that is tailored to their most common burden transfer situations. And by bringing the program directly to people working in veterinary medicine, we can get around that treatment reluctance that comes from mental health stigma.





The direct impact on people’s lives is plain to see when we hear from our participants about how the program has changed their lives. For example, a small animal veterinarian who was feeling really stressed after 16 years of practice said:


“At the time of the workshop I was 100% burnt out. I'm so thankful to have attended to get ACTUAL tools that turned everything around. I've adopted what I learned into my work life and my everyday life. The difference has been enormous.”   ~Small Animal Veterinarian, 16 years in practice


We originally created the program for interactive, small group delivery. Stay tuned -- we are now working on scaling the program up for broad delivery through an online, interactive tutorial. We hope to make it available to everyone working in the field.


Through our ongoing work, we hope to help the people who help our pets.



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