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Veterinarians suffer from fatigue, burnout and depression amid pandemic

dog grief
Posted at 12:43 PM, Sep 28, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-01 10:16:31-04

For a dog who barely weighed 20 pounds, Frank, the Chihuahua-Pug mix never cared much about his size; it was more about the joy he brought into the life of Lindsay Cohen the day he was adopted back in 2015.

Cohen, a Seattle resident, quickly found out Frank was up for as much adventure as she was. They were a perfect pair, especially as the world began to close down because of COVID-19.

“Having this constant and having an animal who will love you unconditionally was such an important part of getting through the pandemic for me,” Cohen said.

Cohen always knew that her senior dog had some health issues. Frank’s health slowly started to deteriorate as the pandemic dragged on.

“He would go through days where he was struggling to breathe and wouldn’t eat and I would look at him and say, ‘Please hold on another day, another week.’ There was so much uncertainty in the world and was hoping we could hold onto him for as long as we could,” Cohen said.

Then one day, a few weeks before Christmas, Frank was gone. He passed away after being taken to an emergency vet.

“He was my life, and one of the things I loved about Frank and people will tell you this about rescue dogs, it changes you,” Cohen said through tears.

For pet owners around the country like Cohen, this kind of loss has felt particularly painful given how isolating the COVID-19 pandemic has been.

“Everything changed in the pandemic, so losing something you cared for and cherished, compounds that grief,” she added.

And it is not just this pet owner who is experiencing this kind of grief.

As a veterinary social worker, Christina Malloy is seeing more families struggle recently with the loss of a pet. For the past few years, Malloy has been running a pet loss support group to help people who deal with the sadness which comes with losing a pet.

“A lot of what I do is validate the feelings people are having. There is grief and it is real,” Malloy said.

But it’s not just pet owners who are struggling with the pressures of the pandemic. Veterinary doctors, nurses and staff are also having a tough time. Juggling increased caseloads and demand because so many people adopted animals during COVID.

“People that work in this field are passionate about what they do, there’s a lot of empathy involved. So, it’s hard when you have back-to-back appointments. You’re empathetic all day. You’re feeling what these pet owners are feeling and it can take its toll,” Malloy said.

There's an estimated shortage of nearly 7,000 veterinarians in the U.S. They are suffering from fatigue, burnout and depression. So much so that veterinarians face a higher rate of suicide compared to other professions. The latest numbers from the CDC show nearly 400 veterinarians died by suicide between 1979 and 2015.

Christina Malloy keeps the Suicide Prevention Hotline number permanently displayed on a whiteboard in her office: 1-800-273-8255.

“I’m just here for our staff to have a place they can use their voice. It’s hard to talk about the toll your job can be having on your emotionally,” she explained.

There are only a handful of veterinary social workers like Malloy across the country. She's doing what she can to help anyone who comes into her office.

“I really promote self-care. Whether that’s coming up with a plan for a doctor or time in their schedule to practice self-care and take care of themselves,” Malloy added.

Back in Seattle, it's not all tears for Cohen.

After weeks after losing her dog Frank last year, some friends gently nudged her to try fostering, which is how she ended up with Otis, a rescue dog who found his way to a shelter in Seattle by way of Tijuana, Mexico.

“I was not ready to keep this dog. It was so soon after Frank passed away, but so many people had met him and said this is a wonderful dog. And I love him,” Cohen said.

While her heart still hurts for the dog she lost, she has a new companion to help her find her way.