This is such a complicated issue, which is why it’s taken me so long to try to answer it.
Yes, a large percentage of our profession burn out, get compassion fatigue, depression, drop out of the industry or drop out of life. This seems more common in younger female vets and older male vets. A considerable amount of discussion goes into trying to figure out why, and to do something about it. If there was one easy answer, it would have been sorted by now, but it’s not. So here I go.
If your life revolves around animals, if animals are literally the only thing in your life that give you joy, if you can’t imagine not having them in your life and would rather spend your time with animals than people, then DON’T become a veterinarian.
You will not thrive.
You can survey a bunch of practicing veterinarians, and future veterinarians, and you will guaranteed find someone who says “I want/wanted to be a veterinarian because I like animals more than people.”
This poses an unexpected problem, that many may not have anticipated when they signed up.
Veterinary medicine is a fundamentally social career. Say somebody brings in their dog to see you. Your first instinct might be to talk to the dog but you will end up conversing with the human, if for no other reason than to find out why they are here,but you will often find yourself discussing their home life, family activities, sports, weather and sometimes their finances. Even if you go out to a farm, the farmer is going to have a good old yarn or natter about the sport of their choice. You can’t even avoid people working in zoos or wildlife, as you’re expected to educate the public and at a minimum you must get along with your nurses, or life becomes impossible. You have to be able to deal with people. All the vets who stay in the profession have figured this out.
What do I mean by you shouldn’t be a vet if animals are your only joy? That’s because the joy can be sucked out of you, leaving you nothing but an empty cynical shell in desperate need of help, with no ability to go back to how you were before.
If I go for a walk, or a drive, and I pass by dogs, I see problems. I don’t think how cute the pug is, I think of a list of medical problems. I pass a dog in the street and take great offense that the staffy cross still has testicles. I listen to people tell me how their cat comes home at 9pm every night and get angry because of all the potential dangers it is exposed to. For every species that I have studied, I can’t just sit back and switch off the veterinarian part of my brain and enjoy the ‘cute’ because looking for problems is so heavily ingrained in my soul.
I don’t tell strangers I’m a veterinarian in social situations. Why? Because it inevitably leads to “So I’ve got this cat/dog/horse and it does this thing and why do you think…etc”. I can’t switch off.
A brain needs to rest. The only way to stop thinking about these veterinary medicine things is to think about something else. Writing, Dungeons & Dragons, video games, gardening, whatever it is that lets you use the rest of your brain and switch off for a while.
If animals are the only thing that give you any pleasure, then that’s not going to work in veterinary medicine. You need something else as well.
There are also the finance issues, both for clients and ourselves. Sometimes you can’t help an animal to the best of your capabilities because nobody will foot the bill, and you can’t keep doing that off your own back either.
There’s also the issue of moral distress. That’s when you could help an animal, but the owner refuses to allow you to do it. Putting something to sleep with a treatable condition, for example, or for the owner’s convenience. You know it’s not the best outcome for the animal, but you are obliged to do it anyway.
It would be delusional to think that some of us get to work in fairyland practices where these issues are never faced, but some face them less than others. Rural practices are more isolated and often have more after hours. They can really be a trial by fire, but you gain experience quickly and can become a better vet if you can see it through.
But in any trial by fire, you can burn out.