Adoptions are simply a hazard of the job

Does the emerging profile of veterinary workers reflect a predisposition to overwhelm and burnout?

Meet Totoro, the latest family member to join the Khuly brood. Photo courtesy Patty Khuly
Meet Totoro, the latest family member to join the Khuly brood.
Photo courtesy Patty Khuly

If you’re reading this, I assume you are a veterinary healthcare worker. At the very least, you are an animal-lover. For the purposes of this column; however, one prominent distinction between the two groups can be illustrated by the increased propensity for the former to take on extra professional responsibilities related to the personal caretaking of problematic patients.

In other words, we are more willing to spend our diminishing hours and hard-earned income subjecting ourselves to the financial, physical, psychological, and emotional strain of animal care than the average devoted animal lover.

Instead of investing our time taking care of ourselves in ways we know we should (exercise, family time, psychological therapy sessions, therapeutic massage, or extra-curricular reading, for example), our natural inclination often leads us to lean even harder into our work—even when we are not being paid for it, even when it dearly costs us.

A puggy Christmas

To wit, I spent the weeks leading up to the Christmas holiday in a near-futile attempt to keep a severely malnourished cleft palate pug pup alive. He’d arrived as a three-week-old (his congenital malfunction, theretofore undiagnosed) with a ruptured globe (the price of dehydration), the other almost as doomed, and a stubborn case of aspiration pneumonia to round out his presentation.

At one-sixth the size of his brothers and sisters, struggling to breathe and both eyes bleeding, he was as pathetic a specimen as “Homer the Blind Wondercat,” a week-old kitten I’d bilaterally enucleated more than 20 years ago (who, incidentally, became the subject of a New York Times bestseller written by Gwen Cooper, the family friend who eventually adopted him). Homer had the same kind of attitude, that je ne sais quoi we come to recognize in those we suspect may survive despite all evidence to the contrary. How could I resist?

In my defense, the pup was still vigorous, indiscriminately attempting to suckle on everything and anyone in his immediate proximity. Furthermore, it is not as if I hadn’t offered a poor prognosis and raised the issue of euthanasia, which his then-owner had declined, explaining he’d brought him to me hoping I wouldn’t offer “the same as my last vet.”

“Twenty-four hours,” I’d finally agreed, after which the inevitable sign-over ensued. (These cases always end in a sign-over, don’t they?) Thereafter, he and I had endured a month of touch-and-go, try-it-all treatment (including a weekend spent on the floor snuggling up to the dental table’s O2 tank).

It has been a month of three-hour feedings (though he now lets me sleep through the night) and I half-joked it is his breed’s insane food addiction driving his will to live. At this point, he still looks like a premie (albeit a fat one) with upright ears making him look more like a fruit bat than a pug.

He will eventually need his left eye enucleated along with his palate repair, but he is finally running, play-fighting plush animals and (shockingly) already trained to pee-pee pads. He is a miracle baby for this last feat, if none other.

Alas, there is a cost, of course. As I write this, there is less than a week left before Christmas. This is why I’m way behind on this column, my work notes, my house chores, and my gift shopping.

My gifts are unwrapped, there is no Christmas tree (the first year ever) and my tiny house looks more like a glorified dog den—dusty, toy-strewn and dog-haired—than a human domicile. And this is just the external stuff. All the sleep, yoga, self-help group meetings, and family meals I’ve missed can’t have done me any good, right?

Sleepless nights

In the throes of the worst nights I’d asked myself, why did I do this to myself, again? Sure, there’s the obvious: I felt called to perform my life’s primary practical function (and now have a tiny life to celebrate my holiday with—along with, I hope, the next 15 years). Yet, at what cost? How many times can I do this in my lifetime?

After all, little Totoro joins a family of four other misfit specimens whose trials, at some point, were almost as taxing: There’s the Mal with the head tick, another Mal with severe anxiety, the PDA GSD and the other one-eyed pug (this one with multiple severe limb deformities). And don’t get me started on the “rescue” goats or my clinic’s stray kitten and “unadoptable” cat program, which I struggle not to quantify financially lest I depress myself unduly. (I’d do it anyway, so why bother?)

One thing I know for sure? I’m not alone. You probably do it too, don’t you? (Sure you do.) When confronted by patients suffering illness, injury, abuse, or neglect, we would-be detached professionals tend to become de-facto foster parents who gravitate towards adoption in direct proportion to the emotional investment required to keep these creatures alive. Am I right? (Of course I am.)

Most animal lovers undeniably feel the pull. But veterinary professionals make it happen to an inordinate degree in ways conflicting—often dramatically—with the quality of our lives.

Consider a 2019 paper published in the Journal of American Veterinary Education detailing the stress, time constraints, and expenses related to pet keeping on the student population. It neatly underlines my point: veterinarians (or vets-to-be in this case), are wont to take on extra work (and greater debt) despite both short- and long-term costs involved. It defies reason and prudence, but is undeniably (and I suspect, increasingly) who we are.

To which we have to ask: Does this emerging profile of veterinary workers reflect a predisposition to overwhelm and burnout? (Probably.) It even begs the question: Is there some similarity between hoarders and veterinary workers in this regard? (Very likely.) If so, where does that line get drawn?

One would think we would draw the line when the negative consequences of animal caretaking exceed its benefits. However, what happens when the positives are so intangible? The drive to care for our own creatures is, to us, as fundamental as music to a musician. In fact, I’d argue engaging in this kind of personal, high-stakes caregiving can be every bit as necessary to our emotional health as making art is to an artist.

Of course, restrictions on caretaking are required in keeping with one’s financial, physical, and emotional capacity to take on the responsibility. Unfortunately, getting in too deep on all three is an occupational hazard I’m none too sure how to avoid, especially for those of us prone to making impulsive decisions. I’m open to any suggestions you might offer, but it seems to me nothing short of a 12-step program is likely to help the bulk of us.

Patty Khuly, VMD, MBA, owns a small animal practice in Miami and is a passionate blogger at drpattykhuly.com. Columnists’ opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Veterinary Practice News.

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