In the park near the Dubos Triangle in San Francisco, 5pm Canine Happy Hour. About 40 dogs are running around, chasing the ball and wrestling as their owners push through 90s hip-hop portable speakers.
A Chihuahua mix named Madhu lounges on a bench wearing a blue tutu and a string of pearls. Her owner, Diana McAllister, feeds her homemade food from a blue ziplock bag, then makes a pop in her own mouth.
And after spending two years at home through the epidemic, it is clear that for many of these owners, their dogs are their children.
“I always say dogs are humans, so I love them,” said Yves Doodley, his 9-month-old collie-snooker mixer looking forward to playing in the grass.
Across the country, 23 million families adopted a new pet in the first year of the epidemic. Others, working from home, notice symptoms such as vomiting or coughing and begin to pay more attention to their existing pet’s daily routine. As a result of pet health concerns, Spike is putting pressure on a corner of the medical world that is not getting the attention of doctors and nurses: veterinarians.
The epidemic’s overwork and poor staffing have affected veterinarians as much as other doctors and nurses have, and dealing with constant moral dilemmas and emotional outbursts is forcing many to burn. At the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Veterinary Hospital in San Francisco, so many vets and technicians have left that the clinic has had to reduce its time, says veterinarian Cathy Garvis.
Dog owners say they have to wait a few months for a vet appointment or go to a veterinarian far away from home for care.
“Meeting your dog with a veterinarian is as competitive as trying to buy a cochlear ticket online,” said Laura Wittet, whose Golden Retriever, Gertrude, is 1 1/2 years old. “You have to wait for the phone, you have to be ready to refresh your browser. It’s a very intense experience.”
Garvis says he works 12-hour days, constantly zigzagging from new puppies to dead cats. And the whole time, he also took care of people.
“To these people, and especially at this time, this is their love,” she says, especially considering owners who dress and cook and cook for their dogs. “It’s their existence, that’s why they survive. And for veterinarians, it’s very difficult for us to draw the line.”
Even before the epidemic, the mental health of the vets was suffering from sympathetic overload and sympathetic fatigue. They carry the weight of euthanizing animals that can be preserved, but their owners cannot take care of them – Gervais says his practice involves euthanizing about five animals a day. Some upset owners become directly offensive, beating veterinarians or later threatening them online.
“I dare you to try talking to a veterinarian who has been practicing for more than five years and does not know anyone who has committed suicide,” Garvis said. “I can, unfortunately, count on more than 10 fingers: classmates, coworkers I’ve been dating.”
According to a survey by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, one in six veterinarians has considered suicide. Female veterinarians commit suicide 2.4 times more than the general population and 80% of veterinarians are female. Male vets have a 1.6% higher risk. The most common remedy is Ethnic medicine.
In the early months of the epidemic, Gervais saw things get worse. He helped organize the Veterinary Mental Health Initiative, which provides free support groups and one after another support to veterinarians across the country.
Katie Lowler, founder and director, is a psychologist and they are all familiar with the problems that veterinarians cause.
“How to communicate with both supervisors, coworkers and clients when you are in extreme periods or under extreme stress,” he said. “And, the loss of their own companions.”
The initiative helped Razih Mazaheri work through the anxiety he felt every day about caring for animals at a clinic outside of Chicago last year. The clinic was regularly booked twice or thrice. As a new veterinarian – Mazaheri graduated from veterinary school last spring – juggling so many cases was terrifying.
“I think if I make a mistake, that’s a problem. And if I make a mistake and kill something, it’s my fault,” he says, tearing up. “I just knew I had been burned.”
Through support groups, Mazaheri was able to see that others shared their concerns and learned the tools to manage them. The initiative, run under the nonprofit Peace Project, includes groups specifically for emergency veterinarians, veterinary technicians, recent graders like Mazaheri and long-term veterinarians like Kathy Garvey who have more than 20 or 30 years of experience.
“I see people sometimes when they see me really tired, ‘Kathy, go away,'” she says.
“I’m not ready to do it because, bottom line, I love my job. It’s a profession. It’s a passion. And it’s hard to get away from it,” he says. “But if it keeps hitting me in the opposite direction, I hope I can just say, ‘OK, it’s done. I’m done.’
This story comes from a reporting partnership with NPR KQWD And Kaiser Health News (KHN).