September 05, 2022

Emotional Labor and Animal Care

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

My cat recently needed oral surgery to have three teeth removed. It was an expensive procedure, as it required anesthesia and monitoring for most of the day. The local animal clinic is a busy place, too busy for its small storefront location, and humans are required to wait outside due to space limitations and the ongoing COVID pandemic. There is constant shuffling of newly arriving animals and those who have finished their appointments.

But staff there do a great job; they are quick to recognize when a patient arrives outside and immediately check in with the patient’s person. Vet techs later come to greet the animal with care, and the vet comes out after an examination, sits down with the person to discuss their findings. I received several phone calls throughout the day with updates about my cat’s progress, including when she was out of surgery and in recovery. When I came to pick her up a vet tech sat down and talked with me about her medication and follow-up care.

Working with animals and their humans can be an emotionally charged occupation and requires a great deal of emotional labor. My mother recently lost her pet, Shaggy, to brain cancer and received both a sympathy card and a follow-up call from the veterinarian. For people who choose a career because they love animals, it’s not easy to regularly deal with sick ones, especially when in poor Shaggy’s case there is nothing that can be done for them.

Not only are people emotionally attached to their animal companions, but as The Atlantic recently reported, getting care is now often difficult thanks to national staffing shortage, especially for service-industry workers. Many people decided to retire during the pandemic, including older veterinarians, leading to fewer people to perform needed services and many frustrated pet owners.

What helped create this staffing shortage? High costs, relatively low salaries, and stress.

The Los Angeles Times reported that student debt is high to earn a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree, but pay is relatively low in comparison and many vets can’t afford to stay in business. The Journal of the American Veterinary Association reported that the mean student loan debt was just over $157,000 in 2020, and for MDs mean student loan debt was just under $200,000. Thanks to the high cost of medical supplies, medications, and lab work, vets don’t earn as much money as people might think. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), DVMs median earnings in 2021 were just over $100,000, while MDs median incomes were double, at just over $200,000.

Nonetheless, people might direct their frustration at big vet bills on their vet or be unable to pay for care for a pet that might not survive because of the inability to pay. The toll on veterinarians adds up. In 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that suicide rates for veterinarians were higher than the general population: 2.1 times as high for men and 3.5 times as high for women.  And a veterinary practice requires a whole team of clerical staff and vet techs who might make just over minimum wage. Like all public-facing occupations, they might encounter stress from dealing with difficult situations and the emotions of their clientele.

One acquaintance shared the story of trying to get her dog care when he was sick and was unable to get an appointment. After he died, she was extremely angry and said that veterinary clinics in her area must just not care. But as this veterinarian's video describes, clinics are overwhelmed and the work has become extremely stressful, creating a vicious cycle of people leaving the profession. I can only imagine the emotional toll on a receptionist with a full clinic having to tell someone pleading for help for their dog that there is nothing they can do, not to mention dealing with the frustration and anger of the person on the other end of the line.

When I picked up my cat after her surgery, the receptionist cheerfully asked me if they should charge the procedure to the card I had on file. She didn’t mention how much it was, and I didn’t ask. I had the feeling the office staff avoided any difficult conversations when they could, and I understood. When the invoice and receipt came via email, I braced myself. Health care, even for a cat, is expensive.

I had read about the issues facing veterinary care before my cat’s procedure and the subsequent bill. I thought about how well they handled the emotional minefields of a surgical procedure, how caring the vet techs were when they took her in and brought her back out and decided to respond to the emailed invoice with a brief email of gratitude for their service. Their days are no doubt stressful, and they probably get invoice replies from people with complaints.

If I could make one person’s day a bit less stressful, help one person in veterinary care to decide to stay in the profession, it would be worth it. I got a smiley face emoji back, and that made my day too.

Next: how do acts of kindness create better mental and physical health?


Thanks so much for proving me the knowledge about emotional labor and animal care.

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