Veterinarians in Canada say they are experiencing extreme burnout and plummeting mental health due to staff shortages, a booming number of animal patients and the round-the-clock stress of the job.

Neil Pothier, a veterinarian since 1985 who runs an animal hospital in Digby, N.S., said caring for animals has never been easy, but it’s a job he’s always loved.

“But now, all day long, people are talking about burnout and thinking of quitting," Pothier said following a meeting with veterinarians from across Nova Scotia. "We are struggling to try and make it.”

Pothier said the increased workload, which in many rural areas comes with on-call emergency care 24 hours a day, is resulting in severe stress and exhaustion that has worsened over time. “People are just at the point where they don't know what to do. And there is already a high suicide rate in the country in our profession, which is terrifying.”

Survey data compiled in 2020 suggests that veterinarians in Canada were far more likely to think about killing themselves when compared with the average person. The study, published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, found 26.2 per cent of 1,403 veterinarians surveyed had suicidal thoughts within the previous 12 months. Statistics Canada data from 2022 found that 2.5 per cent of Canadians surveyed had thoughts about killing themselves within the last year.

Pothier, who has lost veterinary colleagues to suicide, said the mental health of veterinary workers has been strained by a pandemic boom in pet numbers and a shortage of vet technologists, technicians and vets available to work.

“It really exploded during COVID,” Pothier said. “It seemed everybody sitting at home decided, ‘I should get myself a pet.’”

“After that, it was just out of control,” he said, adding that his patient roster increased by 40 per cent in the two years after the pandemic began.

Earlier this year, his patient list grew again after two vets shut down an animal hospital in nearby Yarmouth, N.S. “Two of them, who are in my age category, they just burned out . … They could not hire help and they walked away.” 

The registrar of the New Brunswick Veterinary Medical Association said stress levels among veterinary staff in the province is much higher today than it was 18 years ago when she started as a veterinarian.

“We have had veterinarians and registered veterinary technicians leave the profession entirely or go on medical leave for burnout, fatigue,” Nicole Jewett said.

The province's veterinary community was dealt a blow last summer when the sole veterinarian in a northern New Brunswick community died by suicide.

“We are a relatively small province … so it’s not just a (vet) licence number. It’s a person we all know and we’ve met,” Jewett said. Vets from across the province have volunteered their time to keep the colleague's rural animal hospital open.

Some veterinary staff may feel trapped in their jobs and unable to get help, Jewett said.

“Unfortunately, they might feel that the only option is to leave. So whether it’s leaving the profession or leaving, you know, taking their own life,” she said.

Trevor Lawson, president of the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association and vet of 20 years, said euthanizing animals has a major impact on the mental health of vet staff, who often build long-term bonds with the pets they care for, and the pets' owners.

"That connection and those relationships are very important," Lawson said. "So I think that end-of-life care is a fair bit of weight for our colleagues to carry.”

As well, Jewett said an additional stressor is the “moral crisis” tied to the financial reality of operating a vet clinic and requiring clients to pay. “If the client doesn't have the finances to cover that (treatment), then that's a very terrible feeling for those veterinarians and the staff,” she said.

Jan Robinson, registrar and CEO of the College of Veterinarians of Ontario, said the veterinary sector is “feeling huge pressures from many different angles.”

Robinson said she is hearing from veterinary clinics that are struggling to hire workers and emergency animal hospitals that are understaffed and cannot maintain scheduled hours. 

“And we’ve been hearing from the public that are concerned about long wait times for animal care … or the individual needs to travel quite a distance in order for their animal to receive care,” she said.

Veterinary medical associations in other provinces say they are experiencing staffing shortages, including Manitoba, where the registrar said the province is “undeniably facing a severe veterinarian shortage.”

The P.E.I. Veterinary Medical Association said there is a shortage of vets working in emergency positions, and the Quebec Order of Veterinary Doctors said it has become increasingly difficult to access vet services across the province in recent years.

In Ontario, the number of practising veterinarians has remained flat, Robinson said, but the college has noticed a change in how vets choose to work, which may be due to the strain of the job.

“Veterinary medicine provides 24-7 care to animals, and it’s not a large profession …. So the attitude toward work has altered over the last five to 10 years, where individuals are more concerned about work-life balance,” she said.

Robinson said she’s noticed there are fewer veterinarians who own their own practices, and an uptick in vets who work in roles that allow them to limit their hours.

“We’re seeing individuals move into locum positions, which gives them loads of control around saying things like, ‘No, I don’t work Tuesdays and Thursdays,’ or ‘I’m only going to work weekends because I want to be around for my kids during the week,’” she said.

Pothier said at his age, nearly 64, he had hoped to be slowing down at work, but instead he’s putting in “as many hours or more than I ever have.”

“I should be thinking of retirement, but there’s no one stepping up and there’s not enough new people moving into it. So we’re stuck holding the line until things change.”  

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 5, 2023.