Pet Bite PTSD? Veterinarians Are Not Immune

Dr. Patty Khuly

Veterinarian - Dog Bite

I was recently bitten by a scared little dog. Though it wasn’t too bad, I spent a week soaking my thumb in Epsom salts and hoping for the best (I never take antibiotics if I can help it).Thankfully, I was able to do my job effectively with no repercussions, save a little adjustments when holding instruments in surgery.

Unfortunately, I can’t say that about some of the other injuries I’ve suffered. But the worst isn’t always the pain or the infection. The psychological aftermath of a bite –– or even a serious near miss –– can be profound.

Any significant experience in which violence erupts between a patient and a veterinary professional has a way of affecting the lens through which we view our patients. In many cases it affects us significantly enough to influence how we approach each and every patient we see after any significant tangle with animal teeth.

So it is that we find ourselves giving cats a wider berth than usual, muzzling more dogs than we normally might, and sedating a broader segment of our patient population than before.

Can you blame us? I mean, when you’re trying hard to fix a patient and she gets toothy enough that for the next week or two even a simple hand washing experience hurts, it’s understandable that you might approach the next batch of patients with something of a jaundiced eye.

And given the fact that most bites and scratches happen on the extremities, it might also stand to reason that those of us who make our livings with our hands would be disproportionately affected –– physically as well as psychologically. Consequently, it only stands to reason that serious bites and scratches might prove especially impressive to veterinarians.

Yet, for some reason, this very personal reaction isn’t what most pet owners expect. Plenty assume we’ve become inured to the effects of the significant bite or serious scratch –– as if we could somehow ever toughen up enough to resist normal mortal reaction to this kind of injury.

By way of illustration, consider the unwelcome comment offered by the owner of one of my past biters: “Wow. I guess you have to get used to pain in your line of work.” A comment which, aside from being highly insensitive when delivered to a bleeding person, also served to minimize the fact that she’d just claimed her pet was “the sweetest thing on the planet” and didn’t need a muzzle.

Now I’m usually understanding about how little people like muzzles on their pets but when an injury ensues and the owner isn’t even repentant, I tend to feel a little cranky towards them. (For the record, I always feel that, as the animal professional in the room, I’m the responsible party and can therefore only blame myself. But still … she didn’t need to be so rough with my feelings.)

Luckily, the truth is we really don’t get seriously injured all that much. As far as emergency room visits go, I’ve only ever experienced five major work-related injuries in thirty-three years (that includes my six years as a vet assistant, four as a vet student, and another twenty-three as full-fledged veterinarian). Which is pretty good odds, I think, especially since three of my five worst injuries happened even before graduating from vet school. In fact, if you consider a 1988 study in which 65% of vets were found to have suffered a major animal-related injury during the 12-month study period, I’m beating the house by quite a bit.

My luck on serious injuries notwithstanding, it’s undeniably the case that blood is drawn in this profession far more often than it should be. The veterinary workplace needs to be safer; if not for the sake of my hands and my ability to continue to provide services for the patients who need me, it’s for my sanity’s.

Which brings me back to what got me onto this topic in the first place: The state of my brain in the shadow of a recent injury. Because it’s absolutely clear to me that my ability to practice to my potential is dependent on my capacity to approach each pet with a healthy respect for her potential to inflict harm –– not with fear. After all, working in the context of fear is not only cripplingly stressful, but counterproductive when working with animals. After all, everyone knows fear is infectious to animals.

In case you’re wondering, I’m not being overly sensitive on this one. All veterinarians feel this way, though some more than others. For example, I know one tough-as-nails old-timer who won’t even go into a room with any Rottweiler unless the muzzle is firmly attached (and checked by techs to be sure it’s secure). It’s not exactly rational. But then, he was mauled by one once (I saw it happen and it was an impressive experience even for a bystander).

Yes, I promise you that every single experienced veterinarian you meet will have his or her own demons to contend with on this score (whether they admit to them or even conceive of them as such). In some cases they manifest mildly, as in the case of the above veterinarian’s aversion to Rottweilers (he’s just fine with cats and with other breeds of dogs). In others, the stressful events can manifest as nightmares, workplace anxiety, and full-on panic attacks.

In psychiatric terms, we refer to the disproportionally heightened stress we feel after psychologically-impressive events as evidence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Veterinarians who suffer from it unduly can even find they need to change their careers so that they avoid stressors like Rottweilers or cats or even veterinary hospital environments altogether. I even know one veterinarian who went to work for a pharmaceutical company, eschewing animal work altogether.

It’s sad but everyone handles stress differently and PTSD, as we’ve learned with combat veterans, is often a natural (if pathological) reaction to severe stress. And veterinarians are not immune.

So how do veterinarians cope?

In most cases, the veterinary approach is to apply tincture of time –– liberally –– to the wounds, and hope that these topical ministrations will be enough to see us through to a place where we’re no longer conscious of the deeper wounds inflicted. For others, seeking professional help is crucial. And changing careers is always on the table.

Despite all this depressing talk of mental healthcare, you should by no means consider this post a complaint or a curmudgeonly rant. Rather, my goal is that you should take it as a call to action. Because ultimately, everyone wants a veterinarian who not only loves animals but can work with them safely and sanely too.

References

(Landercasper, J., Cogbill, T., Strutt, P., & Landercasper, B. (1988). Trauma and the Veterinarian. The Journal of Trauma. 28 (8): 1255-1259.)