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‘The caring-killing paradox’: Workplace challenges of veterinary and animal care workers

Updated: Mar 16, 2023

Professionals who work in the veterinary and animal care sector are at risk for a number of stress-related conditions brought on by their work.

This week the focus is on the difficult topic of euthanasia faced by veterinarians and animal care workers on a regular basis.


Many animal care workers choose their occupation because of their love for animals and a desire to help them. However, part of their job also requires that they participate in the killing of these animals.


Many animals are euthanised at veterinary clinics and animal shelters because they are sick, for behavioural reasons, or because they are simply unwanted (Rohlf & Bennett, 2005).


Due to this, animal care workers can experience a great deal of stress and emotional turmoil when facing the prospect of euthanising an animal.


Vets and animal care workers often form strong bonds with their animal patients and their owners, and having to end a life can feel very emotionally challenging.


This element of the job is known to cause moral distress – a type of distress resulting from performing a behaviour that is in conflict with what one believes they ought to do (Montoya et al., 2019).


It can arise when practitioners are confronted with difficult ethical decisions, such as end-of-life care, allocation of resources, or issues relating to informed consent (Montoya et al., 2019). When workers experience moral distress, they may feel frustrated, helpless, and conflicted, which can lead to feelings of burnout, anxiety, and depression (Hanrahan et al., 2018).


Performing euthanasia has also been linked to trauma which can manifest in the form of intrusive thoughts and images, avoidance of reminders of the event, emotional numbing, irritability, and difficulty concentrating (Rohlf & Bennett, 2005; Whiting & Marion, 2011).


Performing euthanasia is also related to these other stressful factors:

  • Managing the animal owner’s emotions: Vets may also have to manage the emotions of the animal's owner, who may be distraught or emotional during the euthanasia process (Scotney et al., 2015)

  • Fear of making mistakes: Vets may also worry about the possibility of making a mistake during the euthanasia process, which can cause added stress (Moir & Van den Brink, 2020)

  • Compassion fatigue: The cumulative stress of performing euthanasia over time can lead to compassion fatigue, a state of emotional exhaustion (Hilton et al., 2022)


Sentient – as our name implies - is deeply passionate about working with the animal care sector and other sectors to support human and animal well-being.


We work with and support veterinarians and animal care workers affected by the stress of euthanasia. Some techniques our therapists utilise include prioritising self-care, seeking support from colleagues, and other clinical and psychological approaches.


We also believe it is essential for veterinary clinics and workplaces to provide adequate support to their staff to help manage the stress of euthanasia and burnout.


Sentient Professional Wellbeing is strongly dedicated to the well-being of vets and others in the animal care sector. If you would like to speak with a mental health specialist, please don't hesitate to reach out for a confidential chat or for support: https://www.sentientpsych.com/contact.











References:


Hanrahan, C., Sabo, B. M., & Robb, P. (2018). Secondary traumatic stress and veterinarians: Human-animal bonds as psychosocial determinants of health. Traumatology, 24(1), 73–82. https://doi.org/10.1037/TRM0000135


Hilton, K. R., Burke, K. J., & Signal, T. (2022). Mental health in the veterinary profession: an individual or organisational focus? Australian Veterinary Journal, 2022. https://doi.org/10.1111/AVJ.13215


Moir, F. M., & Van den Brink, A. R. K. (2020). Current insights in veterinarians’ psychological wellbeing. New Zealand Veterinary Journal, 68(1), 3–12. https://doi.org/10.1080/00480169.2019.1669504


Montoya, A. I. A., Hazel, S., Matthew, S. M., & McArthur, M. L. (2019). Moral distress in veterinarians. In Veterinary Record (Vol. 185, Issue 20, p. 631). Vet Rec. https://doi.org/10.1136/vr.105289


Rohlf, V., & Bennett, P. (2005). Perpetration-induced traumatic stress in persons Who euthanize nonhuman animals in surgeries, animal shelters, and laboratories. Society and Animals, 13(3), 201–220. https://doi.org/10.1163/1568530054927753


Scotney, R. L., McLaughlin, D., & Keates, H. L. (2015). A systematic review of the effects of euthanasia and occupational stress in personnel working with animals in animal shelters, veterinary clinics, and biomedical research facilities. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 247(10), 1121–1130. https://doi.org/10.2460/javma.247.10.1121


Whiting, T. L., & Marion, C. R. (2011). Perpetration-induced traumatic stress - A risk for veterinarians involved in the destruction of healthy animals. Canadian Veterinary Journal, 52(7), 794–796. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22210948/


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