Dear Second Opinion
Over the past year, I have encountered a series of traumatic incidents while working in the veterinary field that have left me deeply shaken and anxious. I believe sharing my story and seeking advice from experienced professionals may help me find a way forward.
Within a short time span, I was attacked by canine patients twice in the clinic and once in the emergency setting. I was not actively working with any of these patients at the time of these attacks. I now have physical injuries, significant emotional distress, and a pervasive fear of similar encounters in the future.
The first attack occurred while I was doing inventory in the hospital. The patient was initially calm and suddenly turned aggressive, resulting in a severe bite to my lower body. A few months later, another dog unexpectedly attacked, requiring 2 people to intervene and prevent further harm. I underwent 8 months of physical therapy for a shoulder injury, adding to the emotional trauma.
Seeking a change, I transitioned to the emergency department, hoping for a fresh start. Even in this new environment, however, a hospitalized patient with no prior reported behavioral issues attacked. The dog released its grip after briefly latching onto my arm, but the experience was profoundly distressing and led to an emotional breakdown.
I’m questioning my ability to continue working in the veterinary field. I dedicated over a decade to the profession, earning my degrees and obtaining my license, but the fear and anxiety I feel make it increasingly difficult to imagine returning to clinical practice.
Now I may have to return to work due to financial concerns, but I’m encountering clinics with protocols that make me uncomfortable and could potentially put my well-being at risk. There are instances in which patient temperament is disregarded, sedation and analgesia for radiography are refused, and safety measures are not adequately implemented. I fear these practices may expose me to further harm.
I want to find a way to communicate my concerns effectively to potential employers without jeopardizing my job prospects. In addition, I am unsure whether the pay is worth the potential risk to my physical and mental health. I have undergone therapy and can now manage public spaces with dogs, but I still struggle with anxiety when faced with unpredictable situations.
I would greatly appreciate any advice, insights, or recommendations regarding how to navigate these challenging circumstances. My ultimate goal is to ensure both my safety and the well-being of the patients under my care while continuing my career in the veterinary field.
Thank you for taking the time to consider my situation.
—Dog Bite Survivor
A Colleague’s Perspective
Dear Dog Bite Survivor,
I’m sorry to hear about your injuries, both physical and mental. I hope that the physical aspect has resolved or is at least improving.
We work in a profession that can be very rewarding but also very difficult. It’s important to remember the rewarding aspects and make sure that being a veterinarian is something that brings you fulfillment in life. If you are returning to a clinical practice environment, be sure it is something you want to do, not just something you need to do. There are many job options available to veterinarians; seeing clients and patients in a hospital setting is not the only option. For example, veterinarians can find opportunities in industry or government; these position may require little or no patient contact. Your degree would not be wasted on an alternative path. You should ask yourself whether you enjoy the day-to-day clinical work of seeing cases and/or performing surgeries. If this is something you want, then it is worth the work needed to move forward in the clinic.
Following my advice is that of a mental health professional, so I will leave those details to Dr. Maggid. I have been bitten myself more than once, though not as badly, and I know how tough it can be to regain your confidence. A bite is a case gone wrong, and after any negative event there are only 2 questions of value to ask: Why did this happen, and how can I prevent it from happening again? These are the questions you need to put to each of these situations.
When you first return to practice, muzzle all of your patients if that makes you more comfortable. You can communicate with the client what has happened and that muzzling is a temporary measure while you regain your confidence. No dog or cat has been harmed by a muzzle. I have learned to trust my intuition, and I use a muzzle if I have the slightest doubt about a patient. I would rather muzzle 99 dogs unnecessarily to prevent one dog from harming myself or a member of my staff. Remember that muzzling is okay while you work on regaining your confidence, but you cannot and should not muzzle every patient forever.
Employers should want a safe workplace. If that is not a priority to the employer, that is not somewhere you want to work. It’s also important that we function efficiently as veterinarians, including understanding animal behavior. There is a line between being safe enough and overly safe, which can render the job impossible. Work toward finding your comfort zone. If you truly love case work, and it is something you want to do, work toward becoming the confident veterinarian you want to be.
Barak Benaryeh, DVM, DABVP
A Mental Health Professional's Perspective
Dear Dog Bite Survivor,
Getting bitten 3 times by 3 separate dogs in a short span of time can indeed be traumatizing. You are describing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), including avoidance of situations that remind you of the event (ie, not wanting to be around dogs) and hypervigilance when such situations can’t be avoided (ie, increased arousal when a dog is near), that make it challenging to be a veterinarian.
Fortunately, there are many tools to treat PTSD. I recommend you continue seeing a mental health specialist. Medications can reduce the physiologic aspects of PTSD (eg, trouble sleeping, increased anxiety, difficulty concentrating), and talk therapy can provide coping strategies and relaxation techniques to rebuild your confidence. Exposure therapy, which involves repeated exposure to the feared object (eg, smaller dogs first, larger dogs later) in a controlled setting, may reduce your heightened response. A newer therapy technique called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing focuses on changing the emotions, thoughts, and behaviors linked to the trauma and promotes natural healing in the brain.
You are not alone in this. I have treated many patients (including animal experts) with fears of dogs after being bitten. In hindsight, many realized there were things they could have done differently to help reduce the chances of being bitten. Was there something stressful going on in your life when the attacks occurred? After the first dog bite, were the second and third dogs picking up on a different energy? It may be worthwhile to discuss each incident with a trusted colleague and see if they can provide insight.
Many people are able to return to work after PTSD is adequately addressed. Severe PTSD, however, may take longer to heal. In these cases, we try to formulate creative solutions. Can you work in a cat clinic or with large animals only for the time being?
It sounds like you are thinking of returning to hospital work. Based on what you have described, I do wonder whether you are ready. If this is the only option, then it is imperative you feel safe in your new work environment. A core symptom of PTSD is hypervigilance, so you need to make sure your safety concerns are truly an issue and not increased arousal signaling danger when the environment is actually typical. Try discussing your safety concerns with a trusted colleague to see whether they agree it is an at-risk environment. If so, you may want to look for work elsewhere.
If you choose to express your safety concerns to potential employers, you may want to write a letter. Be sure to cite well-regarded resources on the topic, rather than relying just on your personal experiences. Show the letter to a trusted colleague or even a therapist to make sure the tone is modest and constructive. We hope these tips set you up for success!
Wishing you all the best,
Michelle Magid, MD, MBA