Staying sane in the tough world of veterinary medicine

VET HEROES: Three of the five vets at the Kangaroo Island Veterniary Clinic - Felicity Stoeckeler, Jodie Maher and Elisa Nishimoto - with Elmo kitten, up for adoption, and the fantastic mural. Photo: Stan Gorton
VET HEROES: Three of the five vets at the Kangaroo Island Veterniary Clinic - Felicity Stoeckeler, Jodie Maher and Elisa Nishimoto - with Elmo kitten, up for adoption, and the fantastic mural. Photo: Stan Gorton

Many may be surprised by the fact that veterinary medicine is one of the most stressful careers in the world.

And the suicide rate among veterinarians is shockingly high.

According to the industry group Love Your Pet Love Your Vet, vets are up to four-times more likely than the general population and twice as likely as other health professionals to take their own lives.

Treating our beloved pets and valuable stock takes an incredible toll on the mental health on the vets at clinics around the world, including right here on Kangaroo Island.

The vets at Kangaroo Island Veterinary Clinic thankfully have good internal practices in place, many set up by previous owners Greg and Deb Johnsson.

Current owners, Jodi Maher, Lauryn Stewart and Elisa Nishimoto, have adopted and elaborated on the these measures, designed to head off stress before it impacts on the clinic's staff.

But even so, stress, emotional torment and sometimes even fear just comes with the job, and its not made any easier in this age of social media and being in constant contact.

Emotions range from the joy of new puppies to the despair of disease and accidents, and everything in-between, including explaining the costs associated with providing modern medicine.

Jodi Maher said dealing with heightened emotions daily was a big contributor to stress.

"We bear the brunt of emotions of people sometimes very upset and even angry about money and the cost of treatment," she said.

They say clients may not realise how much work goes on behind the scenes, doing research and getting quotes from specialists, tailoring treatment plans to individually suit patients within their owners' means.

Vets also have an ethical obligation to treat any animal presented to them with reviews by the national veterinary board always a possibility.

Being the sole practice on the Island also offered unique challenges as there was no alternative and the vets have to be available for everyone.

Staff members are on-call outside of clinic opening hours every day of the year, similar to any hospital.

The practice has protective measures in place such as having 30 minute consults instead of shorter 15 minutes that added pressure.

The vets also set up their own support networks on social media that were increasingly helpful.

"We also constantly talk amongst ourselves and actively encourage each other to be open and discuss how you feel and what you need," Elisa said.

Vets were not called in on their days off, as the strict on-call roster gave them the time off they needed.

This unfortunately does not stop Facebook messages and being stopped in the supermarket, often making the job more full-time than it should be, and adding to compassion fatigue and burn-out.

Fellow vet Felicity Stoeckeler knows from the experience of complications of treating her own beloved dog Caza, what it can be like for a pet owner and their families.

"You take on enormous responsibility when you take someone's animal into care and place them on anaesthetic," Felicity said.

"We need the client to trust us and we also need to be able to trust that the client understands the process and the risks.

"People have an expectation that it's going to be 100 per cent okay 100 per cent of the time, and unfortunately in medicine it's not."

The bushfire disaster two years ago had a huge impact on the Island's vets, who faced the horror alongside farmers and wildlife carers.

The pressures of the bushfire were immense and many of the staff had made use of counselling services.

Both Felicity and Elisa spent up to four months working at the wildlife hospital at the KI Wildlife Park and this was particularly stressful for Felicity who worked there full-time.

"The fires affected everyone differently but I think people are still very much processing what happened, and for me it's taken a while for me to feel happy again," Felicity said.

The vets do love their jobs and the community, and say helping people and their animals can also be incredibly rewarding, and that's why they became vets.

You can read more at Love Your Pet Love Your Vet

If you, or someone you know, needs support contact Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14.