Veterinarians: Allies For Advocacy
Animal advocates are a group of people that love and care about animals deeply. Not all of us who love and care for animals, however, opt to become trained professionals in the field of veterinary medicine. Vets are often animals’ last hope for medical care and relief from suffering, and yet, not all of them are “animal advocates” in the way we think of that term. Should we expect veterinarians to join our cause in promoting various animal rights and welfare initiatives? Whether they consider themselves animal advocates or not, how can we support them in their life-saving animal work?
Veterinarians – Allies By Definition?
While browsing Faunalytics library entries, you may come across article summaries describing studies where researchers investigate how veterinarians take part in animal advocacy and stand up for our non-human fellows. Among these is a summary on how vets must deal with situations where the close human-animal bond may contradict the best interests of the animals on a nearly day-to-day basis. The study shows how veterinarians in training must learn not to dismiss or belittle the human-animal bond while also assessing the physical and mental welfare of companion animals competently and scientifically. This process needs to be married with ethics and ethical reasoning for the professionals to be able to challenge various long-standing or traditional practices that do not ensure high animal welfare. This is, no doubt, not an enviable position for most animal advocates to find themselves in.
The interdependence between companion animals and their caregivers gives rise to vets having to advocate for the wellbeing of animals during visits where humans may not have the best interest of their companions in mind — the phenomenon of declawing is just one of many examples of this. In these cases, vets have to be wary of, and adjust their approach for, human psychology. Their ability to show sensitivity and compassion towards caretakers is crucial in being able to convey pro-welfare information. In their day-to-day work, vets have to adapt their language to navigate the complex inner worlds and motivations of caregivers, while steering them in a good direction in terms of their companions’ care. In this context, vet advocacy — whether they see it as “advocacy” or not — is both active and highly challenging. They need to be empathetic to guardians, while doing what they can for animals.
On the topic of empathy, several studies have found that veterinary students’ empathy and attitudes towards animals decline throughout their education. This seems to go against the idea of vets as animal advocates, but it is not unlike cases of decreasing empathy (sometimes referred to as “compassion fatigue”) towards people in human medicine. One study in Italy showed that a sample of first year Italian vet students exhibited significantly higher empathy towards animals than those in their last year of academic training. Previously suggested explanations for this phenomenon include that:
- lowering of empathetic responses may aid in coping with moral conflict and emotional distress encountered at work;
- it could be the result of a role-modeling process, similar to what happens to medical students, where hegemonic masculinity traits (e.g. tough-mindedness) are emulated.
Vets are supposed to be animal advocates by definition — they are charged with caring for animals and healing them in a variety of situations. However, they also consistently end up in unique and potentially traumatic situations, be it due to exposure to abused animals, or conflicts with ill-advised caretakers. It is only natural that professionals in such a position develop resilience and coping mechanisms to continue their work helping animals. Those coping mechanisms may sometimes complicate our view of them as “advocates.”
The Complex Ethics Of Vet Work
While most vets surely go into the field out of respect for animals, the practice often entails thorny ethical issues, compounded by economic concerns. Compromises are made when juggling altruistic care for those in need, running a business, and having to generate enough revenue to pay for staff, supplies and upgrades. Even back in the 80s, it was clear that the decisions (or indecision) of vets always involves asserting one’s belief in a complex ethical web. Although they are taught to use scientific methodology and approach their work impartially, vets are encouraged to participate in evolving the field of veterinary ethics where most questions raised are surely provocative. Think: What’s more important, pleasing the caretakers (i.e. your direct clients) or doing what’s right for the animals? What about participating in veterinary medicine for farmed animals, where no matter how healthy you can keep them, their life will ultimately be shortened by slaughter?
More recently, researchers are finding that in the field of veterinary science, there is a focus on the experiences of the animals themselves. Veterinary science is continuously changing, and the fact that it is considering the experiences of animals in need as the focus of ethical relevance is promising. The field’s openness to this evolution may mean it is open to some external influences, and that is where we as animal advocates may have the chance to express our concerns.
A recent study looking into veterinary medicine students from Finland sheds some light on how this process might unfold. Complementing previous research, the study sought to measure students’ views on animal pain perception, and how the ethical school of thought the students subscribed to changed throughout their university years. Interestingly, although most agreed with a utilitarian viewpoint (i.e. maximizing human and non-human animal welfare), students in later years had more contractarian views (i.e. that we are obliged to animals insofar as they matter to other humans). On the other hand, in terms of pain perception, the students’ tended to attribute a higher likelihood of subjective experience towards the latter years of study. This suggests that certain views become more aligned with state of the art knowledge as students progress through their curriculum. It is not yet known how animal advocacy interventions could play a role in vet education, helping to keep a strong ethical foundation in place and encouraging vets to keep their focus on the animals’ well-being above human concerns.
Enabling Vets To Act
Ever since the sixties, when psychiatrist J. M. Macdonald first proposed “the link” between animal cruelty and interpersonal violence, research has been continuously conducted, adding to the evidence. In 2017, we summarized a review which highlighted many studies exploring the link, and showing just how much the dynamic between animal abuse and domestic abuse can have a cascade of negative effects. The researchers found reliable evidence that many women delay relocating to shelters because they are afraid for the wellbeing of their companion animals, and with good reason: up to 50% of companion animals in such situations have to stay with abusive partners as shelters will not house them. Although vets may be in a unique position to identify such risks (think about various possible observations made during vet visits), only a handful of studies so far have looked into educating the professionals on this complex issue and suggesting how they can intervene. Fortunately, many vets in Australia, New Zealand, and the U.S. report feeling morally obligated to intervene when suspecting animal and human abuse.
How do dynamics of intervention change when caring for companion vs. farmed animals? A 2018 study of Italian veterinary students found that, perhaps surprisingly, the intention to work with farmed species was associated with a generally less positive attitude towards animals and their welfare. Similarly, the students also considered the freedom to express normal behaviors and the freedom from fear and distress as particularly less important for farmed animals than for companion species. This raises the issue of speciesism prevailing among veterinarians, too. Such a self-reinforcing spiral of poor attitudes among veterinarians and farmed animal workers is something that very much needs to be addressed. Here, animal advocates need to find ways to build coalitions with farmed animal vets and work towards ensuring a consistent approach is taken towards high animal welfare in the field, irrespective of species in question. There is still a dominant idea among farmed animal vets that their job is to increase and ensure high farm productivity, and that needs to change if we ever want to consider farmed animal vets as proper allies.
Besides the more direct and obvious risks of getting scratched by Tabby upon inspection, vets face clandestine hazards that often affect their mental wellbeing. A recent study looked into the situation in New Zealand, where researchers found that besides common work-related stress factors typical of jobs in many fields, vets often cited challenging interactions, unexpected outcomes, euthanasia, and fear of client complaints or making mistakes as issues they often encounter. Although many of us are aware of the stressful nature of veterinary work, strategies aimed at mitigating this reality have not yet been put to the test widely enough to find out whether they’re actually effective. The review cited above concludes that the issues of burnout and depression, among others, are prevalent in veterinarians and New Zealand is in dire need of implementing well-researched and efficient means to address them. No doubt the same could be said for virtually any country around the world.
Yet another condition that many vets experience is the aforementioned compassion fatigue or secondary traumatic stress. Vets’ reluctance to acknowledge the issue or seek help can actively exacerbate the condition. As mentioned before, vets have to deal with conflicting interests and, to make matters worse, do so in a setting of trauma, illness, injury, abuse, and death. There is a lack of research into the working mechanisms of compassion fatigue. One proposed solution is for vets to be in continuous contact with social workers. While that level of intervention may be out of reach for most, this is one area where animal advocates can help to build support networks and institutional resources to safeguard the psychological well-being of vets.
Moral distress is yet another issue that vets often encounter — its positive counterpart is moral comfort, which we feel once we’re satisfied with an outcome and experience personal growth. Moral distress has been widely studied in human healthcare professionals and it often leads to problems such as patient avoidance and increased staff turnover within institutions. However, few studies have analyzed the phenomenon in veterinarians. In one study, researchers found that the ethical dilemmas that vets often face, combined with other factors such as certain personality traits are the perfect breeding ground for moral distress. Therefore, the researchers expect the issue to be prevalent among veterinarians and call for more study into moral distress in this field, and to build a better understanding of the relationship between moral distress, job satisfaction, wellbeing, and attrition.
We can learn a bit more about moral distress from a scientific paper on how vets involved in spay-neuter surgical practices reacted to and coped with adverse events during procedures. 32 vets were surveyed and responded with their experiences, thoughts, and reactions. They reported having experienced immediate and visceral reactions to adverse events during which they described feelings of guilt, sadness, anxiety, and self-doubt. In terms of personal development, nearly everyone emphasized the importance of technical learning aimed at decreasing future occurrences. Many also found conversations with other veterinarians important, both for technical advice and psychosocial support. However, despite currently practiced approaches and despite the fact that some were able to process and move past the effects of the unpleasant feelings within a day to a week, others were deeply affected for months or even years after a severe adverse event — some affected so far as to consider leaving the field, and, in some cases, stop performing surgery altogether. The study suggests that it is vital to understand how vets deal with adverse events so that we can offer adequate support and see to it that these skilled workers remain in the field longer, and fall into negative states of mind less frequently.
Sometimes, unfortunately, the pain that vets experience does not stop at moral distress. Some studies strongly suggest that specific risk factors lead to higher suicide risk and that higher rates of depression, suicidal ideation, and suicide risk are reported in veterinarians all over the world. A recent paper looked into whether this was also true among German vets. In total, just over 3,000 active vets, aged 22 to 69 and mostly female, were surveyed, with their responses compared to the general public (GP). The findings were disturbing, to say the least:
- Suicidal ideation was found in 19.2% of vets, compared to 5.7% in GP;
- 32.1% of veterinarians were classified with increased suicide risk, compared to 6.6% in GP;
- 27.8% of vets screened positive for depression, compared to 4 % in GP.
In a similar study, a group of U.S. researchers put out a report on suicide prevalence among American veterinarians. They combed through more than 11,000 death records of vets who had passed away during the period of 1979 through 2015. Overall, 3.4% of the deaths were self-inflicted. 82% of the decedents were male and most were younger than 65 years of age. The proportionate mortality ratios of vets in clinical and non-clinical positions alike were significantly higher than that for the general U.S. population. These results show just how urgent it is to protect the wellbeing of veterinarians worldwide. Prolonged and repetitive exposure to traumatic experiences within the workplace, combined with consistent navigation of ethical dilemmas and quandaries, must be counteracted with counselling, and effective suicide prevention strategies designed specifically for vets.
It is only natural that, due to their active work with treating ill and injured animals, veterinarians often advocate for their wellbeing. They are in a uniquely strong position to do so, too, even with farmed animals, as many have knowledge of animal farming and of industry-specific vocabulary. Furthermore, as our animal tracker shows, vets are often perceived as more credible than your average advocate, not to mention that, due to their trained resilience to seeing injuries, they may be better equipped to take part in site visits or investigations. However, as our “inherent” allies, veterinarians need other advocates to step in and call for improvements in both their training and working conditions. Animal advocates can join the cause in promoting relevant and well-researched changes in education, as well as mental and emotional support.