Westminster dog show puts new focus on mental health for vets

NEW YORK – The spotlight is on dogs, but the upcoming Westminster Kennel Club show is also highlighting a humanitarian issue: the mental health of veterinarians.

Show dog care vets

Judith Harbor, a veterinary social worker at the Schwarzman Center for Animal Medicine, on Wednesday in New York. John Minchillo/The Associated Press

In conjunction with the Vet of the Year award that will be presented on the final day of the show Wednesday, the club is giving $10,000 to a charity focused on the psychological care of veterinary professionals.

It’s new emotional territory for the 145-year-old event at a time when the coronavirus pandemic, and changing culture, has prevented internal struggles for people from schoolchildren to health care workers to college athletes and professional sports stars.

For veterinarians, too, the pandemic has added new breeds — exhausted clients, rising case numbers and more — and multiplied old ones.

“We love what we do, and there is a certain mystery about working with animals — a lot of people think we play with puppies all day long. There is a lot behind this,” said American Veterinary Medical Association President Jose Arce of San Juan, Puerto Rico. The Westminster Prize educates people about the well-being of veterinarians.

The show kicked off with an agility competition Saturday and runs Monday through Wednesday, with the Best Show award being presented live on Fox Sports FS1 on Wednesday night. For the first time, some actions will also appear on FOX Deportes in Spanish.

Approximately 3,500 dogs – the largest number since the 1970s – are expected at the historic Lyndhurst estate in Tarrytown, New York, David Haddock, co-chair of the show, said. Over 200 breeds and species include two newcomers, Moody and Russian Game.

It’s the second year in a row that pandemic fears have shifted the US’s most popular dog show to its June location and outdoor setting in the suburbs, rather than New York City’s Madison Square Garden in the winter.

Westminster has offered scholarships to veterinary students since 1987, but the new award recognizes a practicing veterinarian. Inaugural winner Dr. Joseph Rossi has treated several show dogs at North Penn Animal Hospital in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, and he and his wife, a Norwich terrier Dolores, won the breed in Westminster in 2020.

The honor, sponsored by pet insurance company Trubanion, comes with a contribution to MightyVet, which provides mentors, trainings and other support on topics including work-life balance, dealing with difficult conversations with clients and looking for signs that colleagues might be… in serious distress.

“We want to make sure our animals are taken care of, but to do that we need to make sure our vets are looked after,” said Westminster spokesman Jill Miller Beecher.

Concerns and research about burnout, depression, and suicide among veterinarians have permeated the field for decades.

But the issue received broader attention after a 2019 study in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association showed that the rate of deaths from suicide among American veterinarians is higher than in the general population. Various other jobs have higher than average suicide rates, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Just like in human medicine, vets feel the pressures of dealing with emergencies, caring for patients — and often, starting a career with six-figure student debt.

However, veterinarians also have a responsibility to advise pet owners about and carry out euthanasia.

There are emotionally painful and morally distressing moments when people cannot abandon a suffering pet – or, conversely, cannot afford treatment that could save their lives. (Some charities and veterinary organizations offer financial assistance.) Even when euthanasia is not under discussion, there are challenges in communicating with distressed pet owners and dealing with cases that do not go as hoped.

“As a vet, it really hits us hard,” Rossi said. “We love animals, which is why we do it.”

On an average week, many vets or other staff members seek individual guidance for a problem—whether it’s work-related or not—from veterinary social worker Judith Harbor, who also works with pet owners at Schwarzman Animal Medical Center in New York.

Vets need to be able to go from one crisis to the next at AMC, which treats more than 50,000 animals annually and has a 24-7 emergency room and highly specialized care.

“But then there has to be a time when the difficult trials are dealt with,” Harbor says. It aims to help vets and other staff talk through these experiences “in a productive way and not just as a vent session.”

She advises them to focus on their inner motivation and values, be kind to themselves and remember that many situations do not have perfect solutions.

The American Veterinary Medical Association also offers help, ranging from free suicide prevention training to a Workplace Wellbeing Certification program that engages entire veterinary practices in learning about topics such as providing feedback, managing conflict, and promoting diversity and inclusion.

Arce says the public who owns pets has a role to play, too.

“We understand how passionate people are about their pets and their pets’ health, but treating the vet harshly because you’re under stress, and because your pet is sick, is not the way to go,” he said.

“We are trying to help you as much as we can.”


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