It’s almost midnight. Kacie Fox just arrived home from a 10-hour shift.
Today is a bad day. She’s exhausted physically, mentally and, more importantly, emotionally. She’s even socially exhausted. She doesn’t want to talk about her day.
Before bed, she watches cartoons with her son. She can’t watch dramas or other intense genres anymore since starting in this field.
Fox, 29, is a veterinary technician. She has worked in the field for just four years but the wear and tear of the job has taken its toll already. She is a representation of the standard “vet tech,” in that she appears strong and compassionate to clients, but beneath the surface, an internal war rages on relentlessly.
“Most days are fine and don’t bother me, but there are days I come home and just have to go to bed,” Fox said. “Some days I have to snuggle my animals for a good while. Some days I come home still on a hyped-up war path.”
A phenomenon known as compassion fatigue affects vet techs all over the world. The condition, also known as secondary traumatic stress, means the affected person gradually feels less compassion over time due to over-stimulation of the emotion. The condition is often associated with depression and anxiety.
Recently, Amanda Ryan, a veterinary technician from Charlotte, N.C., committed suicide after dealing with depression and anxiety she had developed in the workplace. Her death sparked an industry-wide showing of support for not only Amanda, but also other vet techs who struggle with similar, work-related issues.
AVMA, the world’s leading advocate group for veterinarians, says one in every six veterinarians considers suicide. This is a higher rate than the general population.
Veterinary professionals are first exposed to these conditions early on in their education.
Veterinary education programs teach students about the harmful effects of mental illness in clinics. More specifically, students are taught to look for the early signs. It is one of the first things they learn.
“Early signs are something kind of ground into your head,” said Fox, who graduated from Pittsburgh Vet Tech Institute. “Likely because it is becoming an increasingly fatal issue.”
Along with standard practices such as talking to a professional and finding a de-stressing mechanism to help decompress, students are also taught that it is okay to take short breaks when they are feeling overwhelmed, according to Fox.
In many veterinary clinics, workers rely on coworkers to get through days, and even minutes. Along with talking openly about emotions derived from the workplace, Fox, who works at Crago Veterinary Clinic in Boardman, Ohio, said technicians and workers of other similar professions are able to step away from a situation and another tech will step in, no questions asked.
“In a clinic you are one big family,” Fox said. “Luckily in ours, if you’re having trouble with a case, there are always two people who have your back. If you’re not comfortable doing something, someone else jumps in without hesitation.”
Comfort in a veterinary office may well be an anomaly. Every day, deathly ill, severely physically injured or dying animals are brought into clinics. Despite the grim reality of some animals’ situations, workers must tirelessly exhaust all available methods to save the furry creature.
Since most of the workers are pet owners themselves, seeing an owner struggle emotionally with the condition and inevitable fate of their animal is taxing.
Fox recalled a recent client who lost a pet that was a regular at the clinic.
Fox had been working on the animal regularly when she started at Crago Veterinary Clinic. The animal almost died, but then got better. However, the animal recently died.
“I still haven’t talked with my family about that one and choke up thinking about her,” Fox said. “I became very close with her mom when we almost lost her the first time, and she is still one of my favorite clients.”
Fox said another issue that causes distress for veterinary workers is unwilling owners.
“[There was a] super sweet pregnant stray cat about to give birth but the owners felt unable to take care of the babies,” Fox said. “Rather than part with the cat for 6-8 weeks for a foster, they chose an abortive spay.”
Despite the conditions in which they work, Fox is hopeful that education on depression in veterinary practices will continue to improve. However, she feels the issue needs more light.
For now, she uses the unrelenting compassion she feels as motivation. She harnesses it into inspiration to push forward and continue to help beloved pets that are much more than just pets: they are family members.
“It’s not possible to work in this field without compassion, especially not long term. Unfortunately, that is our fuel. We don’t make a great pay. We get physically injured on a daily basis. If we didn’t have compassion to help ‘just one more’ animal, I don’t think any of us would be in this field.”