The end of the Year of the Dog also marked the birthday of the late Dr Sophia Yin. Dr Yin is perhaps better known in the US than here in the UK, although her influence on dogs and other animals was global. She was a tireless advocate for non-aversive training for humans and other animals and worked with owners and other professionals to make handling feral, captive and companion animals easier, safer and kinder for them and their handlers. Every time that I see a vet, show judge, groomer, trainer or owner manhandle an animal, I want to make them watch one of Sophia’s videos or at least read her books.
It doesn’t have to be this way!
Dr Yin not only pioneered co-operative handling techniques, she publicised them and started when she was still in veterinary school: her fellow students actually bought copies of her notes which became The Small Animal Nerdbook and which is still being used by students. This was the start of Cattle Dog Publishing.
Whilst Dr Yin’s legacy lives on, her innovative presence is no longer able to inspire in person. Sophia Yin, like many in the veterinary world, was very driven and seemingly very self-critical. In some ways, these qualities are essential for survival in a very competitive field where the demands never slacken, but the toll can be immense. Like too many of her colleagues, Dr Yin committed suicide on September 28th, 2014 at the age of 48.
In the UK where we are not used to paying at source for healthcare, the cost of veterinary treatments can seem excessive. Owners know little of the actual costs incurred by veterinary practices and, because they deal with companion animals, often seem to think that it should be undertaken at cost. Veterinary staff are constantly accused to their faces of profiteering and, having been on the sharp end of many an owner’s tongue, I can promise that it becomes very wearing. No one is obliged to own an animal but, once undertaken, owners have a duty of care. They expect the best professional support but complain about paying for it. Most vets earn far less than owners assume and work very long, very stressful hours. They must always be at their best because their patients’ wellbeing and often lives depend on it and their “bedside manner” is key to the success of the business. Their task is far more complex than that of a GP because of the number of species with which they have to deal and they also have to work within a commercial environment. Yes, they chose to do it but many other people chose their careers without the expectation that they should do it for the “love” and take the abuse to boot.
The mean UK salary for newly-qualified vets is £31,000. This rises to £43,200 following further training in small animal practice and is slightly higher in large animal practices at £44,184 where the on-call demands and poor working conditions can be far worse. Senior vets with more than 20 years’ experience can earn up to £72,360 as employees. The British Veterinary Association found that since student fees rose to £9,000 per annum in 2012, the expected debt for a UK vet graduate was £57,092. This had increased from the £20,000 expected debt faced in the year before fees were hiked. In addition to the difficulty of getting that all-important first job without experience, newly qualified vets not only have to pay all of the usual living expenses and service their student loan, they will be obliged to undertake continuing professional development. Courses are not cheap and are not always paid for or subsidised by employers. All practising veterinary surgeons and registered veterinary nurses must complete the minimum CPD requirement of 105 hours in any three-year period with an average of 35 hours per year for vets and 45 hours in any three-year period with an average of 15 hours per year for registered nurses, regardless of whether they are working full-time or part-time. Many professionals undertake considerably more than this.
Most owners will see vets in the context of small animal practice where vets do not have the livelihood of owners to consider when treating animals but instead need to cope with the huge emotional toll of illness and euthanasia as well as the joys of new animals and routine checks, often in busy, pressured environments and less than ideal facilities.
All this takes a toll. The veterinary profession has frequently had the highest rate of suicides amongst monitored professions in the UK, with women often being affected disproportionately. The US is no different.
We may not be able to influence the economy directly but we can all play a part in making vets’ lives’ easier by recognising that they operate in a commercial environment and that we need to pay a fair rate for the privilege of owning animals and for access to the increasingly sophisticated facilities that they offer. Their motivation is not to rip owners off and, when they offer you the best treatment available, it is because they also want the best for you and your animal.
Let’s us do two things to honour the life of Sophia Yin:
Make sure that we do nothing to contribute, even in a tiny way, to anything that would make another vet even contemplate suicide.
Perhaps there is a third thing: find out about Vetlife and how they support veterinary professionals and their families when depression and suicide strike and maybe consider making a donation.