Contrary to what many people might think, the veterinary profession isn't always warm and fuzzy.
Like any other health-care worker, those who care for others all day may feel drained, as though their well of empathy has run dry. It's a phenomenon known as compassion fatigue.
"Just like there's a physical cost to running a marathon, there's an emotional cost to working with patients who are in pain or hurting," says Enid Traisman, a certified grief counselor and director of the Pet Loss Support Program at DoveLewis.
"It's different from ordinary stress, because with compassion fatigue, the causes are always related to caring for another person or animal when they're in crisis or pain."
Symptoms include increased negativity, isolation, difficulty separating work and personal life, self-destructive behaviors and apathy.
The key to combating compassion fatigue involves two simple steps, Traisman says: Awareness, which helps people prevent and heal, and maintaining a healthy work-life balance.
"Left untreated, though, it can lead to physical, mental and emotional exhaustion, which we know as burnout," Traisman says.
During her third year as a certified veterinary technician at DoveLewis, Josey Kinnaman began to feel depressed and irritable.
"I felt like a little kid who needs a nap," says Kinnaman, who has worked at the hospital for six years. "I was just not excited to come to work."
The hectic and unpredictable nature of an emergency veterinary hospital can be stressful even for those who thrive in a fast-paced environment.
The grueling 10- to 12-hour shifts, five days a week, can be physically, mentally and emotionally taxing, she says.
Upset pet owners can take out their displaced anger, grief or fear on hospital staff, who may in turn take out frustrations on each other.
Those who work in veterinary medicine must also face death on a regular basis, which may provoke difficult existential questions about life and death and why some animals suffer but not others, says Kate Davis, a clinical social worker who practices in southeast Portland.
"Another big emotional stressor is situations about money," says Dr. Katy Felton, an associate veterinarian at Powell Veterinary Center. "The cost of care is a stress for the pet's family, and that can be really difficult."
Veterinarians may also have their own financial pressures.
The average educational debt of a 2013 veterinary school graduate was $162,113, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.
Felton has been out of veterinary school for nearly eight years and still owes more than $100,000 in loan debt.
Dr. Timothy McCarthy, a board-certified veterinary surgeon at Cascade Veterinary Referral Center, contemplated suicide after a pricey lawsuit arose following the sale of his former practice to a corporation.
McCarthy sought help from a psychologist. The experience was so transformative that he now speaks on the value of seeking help when needed.
"A lot of it was just that I didn't have the skills to deal with the things that I was faced with," he says.
Suicide is a serious issue in the veterinary profession, and it's generated more attention over the past year in the wake of two high-profile deaths, of a renowned veterinary behaviorist in California and a New York veterinarian.
Combating compassion fatigue
Good self-care, just as proper diet, exercise and sufficient sleep, are crucial.
For Felton, that includes lots of physical activities such as yoga, running and tennis.
"I do things that make me feel that make me feel really good inside and out," she says, "so when I come back I have 150 percent to give."
She's also careful to set healthy boundaries, take a break from her smartphone and spend quiet time with family.
Kinnaman, the vet tech, got certified to teach yoga so that she can help her colleagues.
She and Traisman even organized a self-care month at DoveLewis last month featuring guided meditation, healthy potlucks and a "healthy challenge" to encourage staff members to take care of themselves.
"Part of surviving a hard job is having a philosophy that supports you," adds Davis, the social worker, who provides mental health support for people working in the animal field.
For Felton, that philosophy means an "attitude of gratitude" approach - even toward those student loans, which enable her to work at a job that brings her joy.
Mindfulness is also a critical component for Dr. Kim Freeman, a board-certified veterinary oncologist at Veterinary Cancer & Surgery Specialists in Milwaukie
"To me compassion fatigue is about losing sight of why we as veterinarians became veterinarians," she says.
Early in her career, she was beginning to feel compassion fatigue creep in, so she attended a workshop based on Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen's "Finding Meaning in Medicine" program. She learned a journaling exercise there that helped her shift perspective dramatically.
"There are all kinds of positive things that come out of what I do," she says. "Trying to focus on those parts of the day rather than the exhausting and draining parts of the day was really helpful for me."
The work has dramatically increased her self-awareness, keeps her mentally present with clients and shifted her focus to the positive aspects of each day.
Now, she reminds herself of all the reasons she loves her job - working with animals and people, the art and science of medicine and the human-animal bond - which helps keep her focused on the upbeat aspects each day brings.
"Ultimately," Freeman says, "it's about being mindful and living in the moment. This is not easy and takes constant practice, but it is essential to finding balance and not letting the down sides of being in a field of service take over."
By: Monique Balas