I recently read a comment online that being a large animal veterinarian is the most dangerous civilian profession. To be honest, I’m not overly surprised: since I first started talking to friends and family about changing careers, the warnings have poured in. They’re not just about physical injuries either: on one placement I was warned of high suicide rates in vets, whilst a neighbour made the damning comment that “all my vet friends are unhappy.” (She did follow up with “and only on £40k a year” which sounds like good money to me, but maybe I’m young and naïve.)
Sweeping generalisations aside, it’s very possible I’m giving my loved ones genuine cause for concern. Maybe their worries are well placed. So for this blog post, I’m going to explore how dangerous it is to become a vet – and why.
What are the risks?
The first, most obvious point has to be that animals are strong, unpredictable and often equipped with instinctive “fight or flight” responses. Being bitten by a dog or kicked by a cow is going to be a real risk in this job. I’ve spent just a few hours a week around horses for most of my life and have been dragged, thrown against fences, bitten hard enough to draw blood, trodden on, crushed… and I consider myself lucky. Almost every injury was caused by an animal I knew well. The moral of the story is that even usually docile, calm animals can lash out under the stress of a veterinary examination or because they are in pain.
And you don’t just have to take my word for it. A study commissioned by the British Equine Veterinary Association showed that over a 30-year working life, equine vets could expect 7 or 8 injuries which required time away from practice to recover. Most injuries were caused by kicking (60%). When this is compared to data on injuries in other professions from the Health and Safety Executive, vets come in as more likely to be injured at work than prison guards, fire fighters, police and construction workers.
The animals themselves aren’t the only risk: the little friends they bring with them can pose real problems. Zoonoses are diseases which can transmit between animals and humans. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimates that there are 40 zoonotic diseases in the UK which vets are at risk of contracting. These range from relatively harmless infections like ringworm to serious pathogens like anthrax. Although hopefully most vets will never see an animal with any of the truly horrible diseases, they could end up on the front line in the fight against these diseases.
- Equipment and materials
The equipment and drugs used in animal medicine can also be hazardous. Although safeguards should be in place there are cases when these fail. Surgically sharp tools and IV needles can pierce the skin and even administer drugs, some of which are cytotoxic (toxic to living tissue) or carcinogenic (may cause cancer). X-ray diagnostics and chemotherapy carry the risks associated with radiation. A study in the Canadian Veterinary Journal looking at how many vets had been accidentally exposed to undesirable substances or treatments revealed some high figures. 37% of small animal vets reported accidental exposure to x-rays, whilst between 69% and 94% of vets had experienced accidental exposure to anaesthetic gas. Although the effects of repeated small doses aren’t well understood, these are drugs used to induce unconsciousness, which depress respiration and may have other serious side-affects. For example, isoflurane, a common anaesthetic, is known to be fetotoxic (toxic to embryos) in animal studies. Unsurprisingly there are no conclusive studies in humans, but I think we can safely say you’d rather not be accidentally breathing it in.
- Mental health issues
Vets are also at risk from work-related stress and mental health issues. A study in the Veterinary Record found that vets were up to four times more likely to commit suicide than non-vets and or twice as likely as other health professionals. Although there are intricacies to understanding this statistic – one vet I spoke to put it down to easy access to barbiturates as a method of suicide, compared to non-vets who would have more difficulty harming themselves – it’s still shocking. Various ideas have been put forwards to explain the high rate, including long working hours, changes in attitudes to death as a result of repeatedly carrying out euthanasia and a vicious circle effect due to the existing prevalence of suicide in the profession. Only one thing is clear – vets need to safeguard their mental health and wellbeing as best they can.
So – why on earth would you want to do this?
Despite all of this, I’m not convinced to give up on my dream. I think the career satisfaction that becoming a vet can offer outweighs many of the risks for me. Of course, I’d rather not be injured at work – but I’d also like to avoid the frustrations of a job I don’t find fulfilling. I’ve thought long and hard about whether the veterinary profession will suit me and based on my experiences so far, I still want to go for it. And reassuringly many of the vets I’ve spoken to have told me that yes, it’s tough, but it’s also a privilege to be a veterinarian.
There is another angle I want to consider: whether working as a vet has to be so dangerous, and I’ll explore this in my next post. Thanks for reading and happy new year!