A Veterinarian’s Guide to Getting Away

ArticleLast Updated September 202212 min read
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For many veterinarians, the idea of taking a vacation is nearly laughable. Between overwhelming caseloads and understaffed practices, taking a vacation has never felt more impossible, but has also never been more important to veterinarians' well-being.

Read on to see how these 4 veterinarians handle negotiating vacation time, being denied time off requests, and the case notes that pile up when they do get away.

Does your practice support you and your coworkers in taking time off? Have you ever canceled, changed, or not taken a vacation because of a work-related issue?

They do [support vacation time]. Now more than ever, since COVID. We're seeing it become more important to veterinarians… The first 10 years I was in practice, I worked in a mixed animal practice, with an older owner. The attitude was, “You took a vacation a year ago, why do you need a vacation? That's a ridiculous idea.” Now, more veterinarians are moving into more modernly managed practices. I think it’s really improved.

Among my veterinarian friends, I have the luxury of knowing that I don’t have to work where a decent amount of vacation is not allowed. It's an associate’s market. I'm an experienced vet. I love both of my jobs. For a lot of us 15 to 25 years out, it’s “give me my vacation or find yourself somebody else.” It's a big reason people switch to relief and alternative veterinary jobs.

—Veterinarian, splits time between general practice and specialty orthopedic practice, Maryland

I fought for 144 hours of paid time off in my contract. That includes sick time too. They give us three days for CE outside of that. I don’t typically use all of it, but when my daughter got COVID and had to quarantine, I had to use five days.

Certain doctors request their time off far in advance and it's been the rule that they get approval. If both of us requested the same day off, we both wouldn't get approved. Particularly for Christmas, the message was, “That person has always done it that way, so you can’t have that time off.” I have a young daughter, so that's challenging.

My practice doesn’t like to use relief vets. I know my decision to not be there will weigh heavier on my coworker, especially with how COVID has increased our caseloads. It feels like taking a week off is a lot to ask.

—Veterinarian at a two-location small animal practice, DC/Virginia

The practice I’m at now absolutely supports time off. At my previous practice, there were only two other doctors on the night shift. If I took vacation that left whoever I was working with by themselves. There was no real willingness to help cover shifts. Nobody would take my night shift. It truly felt like you were just screwing somebody else over. It was hard mentally to do that to somebody else because you knew that they were just going to drown. You had to almost do extra work to get somebody to cover that shift.

—Veterinarian, mixed-animal practice, Kansas

Does your practice truly let you get away? Has your workplace ever contacted you when you've been on vacation or taken days off?

Yes, but we always talk about it beforehand and say if it's okay for them to reach out to us. I’ll say the only reason I want you to call me is if my animals are sick, or my house is on fire. Otherwise, don't bother me. That's what's nice about that kind of vacation. There's something very special about being able to completely disconnect.

—Veterinarian, splits time between general practice and specialty orthopedic practice, Maryland

They try not to, but there's always one or two texts that come through to clarify something or ask something.

I graduated in 2006, and when I first started working, I had a hard time separating work and life and shutting off the work. As I've come along, I’ve had to learn that I have to set boundaries for myself so that I have time with my daughter. No one else is going to look out for that. I tell myself that it is important that I leave at 6 today to go see her recital. And if it doesn't happen, I'm not going to remember what case kept me late. I've learned that as I've gotten older.

—Veterinarian at a two-location small animal practice, DC/Virginia

What happens at the clinic when you're gone? How are your patients managed? Do you face a backlog of work when you return to the clinic?

We are a 3-doctor practice at each location, so only one of us is off at a time. If I'm not there one day, then it all falls to the other doctor. They would get all the client calls, as opposed to half of them. And all the blood work results. They can sift through them, and some can wait, and some can't. Ultimately, it's a lot on one person.

Even when we know well in advance that there's not going to be 2 doctors on, the schedule isn’t ever adjusted to reflect that. Instead of leaving more openings for those same-day sick patients to fit in, they'll just completely book our schedule and then ask, “Can't you see one more patient on your lunch break?”

—Veterinarian at a two-location small animal practice, DC/Virginia

Most things are handled by the other veterinarians. We do a pretty good job at both practices of picking up each other's urgent questions. I normally ask most of my clients to email me how their pet is doing in 2 weeks. I put an out-of-office reply on my email that says to call the clinic for an urgent matter. I answer email when I can. If I'm at the beach, I might take half an hour in the afternoon and answer a few emails. If I'm on a cruise, I'm not turning on my email. We all try to help each other out to prevent a big backlog situation. We also try to keep clients happy. If there are urgent inquiries, we handle them. We screen out questions that can wait until we get back.

—Veterinarian, splits time between general practice and specialty orthopedic practice, Maryland

Somebody else fills in. Our practice owners are not full-time on the schedule, so often they end up being the ones to fill in if somebody's away. Occasionally relief doctors come in, too. When I get back there’s usually some catching up to do, but a lot of the time the team keeps up with things so that there's very little that needs to be caught up on.

I’m preparing to open my own practice. I'm hiring an associate right off the bat so that we can continue to take week-long vacations. I want to be able to step away. That was a big priority for me. I do have a manager and I will have an associate.

—Veterinarian, small animal general practice, Virginia

They don't bring in a relief vet. They just block out my schedule, so there are no appointments in my column. My coworkers are then picking up a bit of slack because there's not another person to cover clients who call day-of. But what I do like about this practice is they leave blocks for day-of emergencies. We always leave a block of time in the afternoon for vomiting, diarrhea, or an urgent case that needs to be seen today. That hour is already built into the schedule. It's very rare that the time slot is not filled. It helps keep the day on track and prevents a train wreck.

At my previous practice, I was 1 of 9 doctors. We had fully booked schedules, there was no built-in time anywhere, and we saw walk-ins on top of that. We typically saw 20 to 40 walk-ins a day. They had a rule that you could not leave your shift if there was a walk-in who arrived before your shift ended. I worked the late shift and there was nobody to pick up slack. I typically worked 2 hours after my shift ended.

—Veterinarian, mixed-animal practice, Kansas

What kind of prep work do you do in advance of taking vacation to reduce stress?

If there are crucial labs, or a patient is ill, I’ll round with the doctor who will be there, so that they don’t have to wait for me to get back to move forward. I don't want them waiting for me to come back. I will pick those most important cases and ask the team to watch for those. I’ll have my technician screen the labs as they come back in to look for anything majorly wrong or that needs to be addressed right away.

—Veterinarian at a two-location small animal practice, DC/Virginia

I prepare my notes and make sure everything is up to date. If one of my patients revisits while I'm gone, then [the other doctors] know what I did and my thought process behind it so they can better handle that follow-up.

It was the same at my previous practice but getting time off involved a big trade. A colleague would offer, “If you'll work the night shift, I'll cover your on-call when I get back,” to sweeten the deal.

At my current practice, when I told them I had a big trip planned, they just built the call schedule around it so that I wouldn’t have to trade with anyone. I was on call the weekend before and the weekend after I got back. So there was no need to switch and swap and try to get people to cover shifts.

—Veterinarian, mixed-animal practice, Kansas

Do clients ever react positively or negatively to you taking a vacation?

I've had a lot of the same clients for 15 years. It's inevitable that if you take vacation, one of your clients will need you and you're not going to be there. That's just reality. I'm a human being and I'm allowed to take vacation. I'm reachable most of the time, too. I answer emails, answer text messages.

Quite honestly, I've planned for the next five years to be a veterinarian who takes a fair bit of vacation. If that's not a good fit for [my client], they’re welcome to find somebody else. I'm a good veterinarian 48 weeks of the year. But I work with wonderful veterinarians, we always have someone wonderful here in this office. And if that's not good enough for you, then sorry.

—Veterinarian, splits time between general practice and specialty orthopedic practice, Maryland

I try to warn clients ahead of time if I'm not going to be the one doing their follow-up or lab work. But in general, most people seem to be neutral to it.

—Veterinarian, small animal general practice, Virginia

What strategies do you use to put work aside while on vacation? What travel tips and advice can you offer for your fellow veterinarians who might struggle to truly get away?

It's about making time off a priority. The more you do it, the more you get used to it. We've increased our trips over the years as the kids got older. Ever since they were born, we have traveled. The more we do it, the easier the planning becomes and it’s less stressful because we know what we're doing. We know the things on our checklist that we need to get done. Now that the kids are starting to get older, we're starting to think about taking them internationally and on bigger trips.

—Veterinarian at a small animal general practice in Northern Virginia

You must give yourself permission. I think this is something that's a learned skill. I don't think I was good at this early on. I also think the attitude of my coworkers and my employers helps, when everyone agrees it’s OK to be on vacation. Communicating with your coworkers and planning is also important.

Decide what your priorities are and find a job where the way vacation happens fits your personality. A good vacation policy is part of what attracts me to a job. I'm old enough that my debt problem is not what it is for new graduates. For me, compensation means something different.

You might not be able to find a $30,000 sign-on bonus and excellent health insurance and 4 or 5 weeks of PTO and CE. But if vacation is what's important to you, you can find jobs where that's valued and allowed.

—Veterinarian, splits time between general practice and specialty orthopedic practice, Maryland

Vacation is important. You think you’re doing clients or patients a favor by staying and toughing it out. But the problem with that is they're not getting the best you. Your brain can't function past that capacity. You need a break to practice good medicine, to provide service that people want. To provide that kind of medicine, time off is just as necessary as time on. 

At the end of my 2.5 years [at my previous practice], I was getting super emotional about things that I had never gotten emotional about before. After a tough case, I would have to take 30 minutes and go cry it out. That was my brain saying, “You need to slow down. You need to take a day off.” The next patient I saw after a meltdown was not getting what they needed from me. I was just so scared to take time off. Vacation is just as necessary as being there.

It is hard to stop and it's hard to feel like you're abandoning people. But you can't just keep your nose to the grindstone and think that one of these days it'll get better. You must take that time off and recollect and recenter yourself.

—Veterinarian, mixed-animal practice, Kansas