Vet schools should prepare students for animal death and owner grief – study

A range of actions could be put in place before, during and after veterinary school to address the wellbeing issues, researchers suggest.
Photo by Joanne O’Keefe

Veterinary training should prepare students early to deal with animal death and the grief of pet owners, according to a fresh study.

Researchers, writing in the journal BMC Veterinary Research, noted that veterinarians and students are reported to be at higher risk of suicide, burnout, and depression compared to other occupational groups.

The authors noted that young and female veterinarians are at greatest risk of negative outcomes such as suicidal thoughts, mental health difficulties, and job dissatisfaction.

Main occupational difficulties are related to managerial aspects, long hours, a heavy workload, job demands, a poor work-life balance, difficult or challenging clients interactions, clients’ expectations, and suspected pet abuse by owners.

Marta Brscic and her fellow researchers in Italy set out to apply text mining and topic modelling analysis to scientific papers that have examined the issues.

The researchers in the University of Padova study said their approach can be used to comprehend more in-depth phenomena involving veterinarians and veterinary students, and to suggest potential changes needed in admission to veterinary school, veterinary training, and post-graduation initiatives to reduce the risks.

In all, the approach was applied to 211 abstracts and texts published between 1985 and 2019.

They said the results of their work indicated that several changes should be considered. Veterinary training should include courses that prepare students to deal with animal death and the grief of pet owners.

Students, they said, need to learn how to handle ethical dilemmas and moral stressors, to communicate with clients and staff members, to work in a team, to balance work-family life, and to promote individual and team resources.

Discussing their findings, the study team noted that most publications on suicide, burnout, and depression among veterinarians and students are either case studies, studies based on the voluntary response of respondents, or reviews.

They noticed a trend toward more publications on these subjects in recent times, perhaps reflecting a greater openness regarding the topic.

Veterinary studies, they said, involve a difficult curriculum and long study hours. In several countries, students are admitted to veterinary school according to tests that select for high-performance mindsets rather than being targeted to the future professional needs of resilience and self-development in order to cope with a difficult profession.

A range of actions could be put in place before, during and after veterinary school to address the issues, they said. These could include investigating prospective students’ level of empathy with animals and their animal welfare orientation; looking at the workload and theory-to-practice ration; and perhaps even prolonging the training.

Veterinary training could include psychology modules or alternative specific programs to teach veterinarians to handle future stressors; and there could be university-level courses for working veterinarians aimed at updating them on ways to look after their mental health. These courses could be used to provide feedback on risk factors around the psychological wellbeing of veterinarians.

The study team comprised Brscic, Barbara Contiero and and Cristina Marogna, all with the University of Padova; and Alessandro Schianchi, from Fornovo di Taro.

Brscic, M., Contiero, B., Schianchi, A. et al. Challenging suicide, burnout, and depression among veterinary practitioners and students: text mining and topics modelling analysis of the scientific literature. BMC Vet Res 17, 294 (2021).

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here

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One thought on “Vet schools should prepare students for animal death and owner grief – study

  • September 10, 2021 at 4:38 am

    As a horse owner learning to communicate with the herd and all it’s emotions I have learned from Karla McLaren the value of all emotions. McLaren has a lot of information out there that may resonate with especially with people understanding empathy, grief and sadness. An approach for Health Care persons:

    With a care giving population that is continually exhausted, there’s zero surprise that they can become overwhelmed. McLaren has great definitions that just give you a little space to consider, and to heal yourself.


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