Veterinarians work long hours, routinely have close contact with multiple clients a day (or multiple clients in an hour) and frequently miss valuable hours of sleep. Despite this intensity, there is an imperative for veterinarians to be clear-headed and sharp in their practice.
The ability of some veterinarians to blast through the day while maintaining a positive attitude and maintaining their health is a mystifying feat. The level of physiological stress from the grueling work week potentiates the risk of illness from pathogens outside and inside the practice, including zoonoses.
So, how are so many veterinarians able to maintain such a rigorous schedule caring for the sick without getting sick themselves?
Well, the answer may lie in an ethos that undergirds the entire veterinary profession: Human health is closely connected to animal health and our shared environment.
Not only do veterinarians strive to maintain animal health, but safeguarding human health is also supremely important—including protecting the health of the veterinary healthcare workforce. Keeping the veterinary medical team healthy not only allows more animals to be treated, but it is also an integral component of public health. A healthy veterinary team promotes wellness and a more sustainable professional life.
Veterinarians already employ a myriad of methods to help keep our patients healthy; however, these techniques and practices are not just for our patients. These same techniques can be used for ourselves…albeit in a different form. Essentially, the preventative strategies that veterinarians espouse for our patients may also be the key to keeping ourselves healthy.
For Us: Exercise has long been understood to be one of key tenets to maintain both physical and mental health. For busy veterinarians, finding the time and energy to exercise can be a struggle. How much exercise is enough and does it really help to protect us from physical illness?
The science of exercise immunology concludes that there is a link between moderate exercise and a strong immune system for humans. However, the effects that vigorous exercise has on your immune system are less conclusive. Research indicates that the health benefits to exercise for humans mainly lie in the consistency. When moderate exercise is repeated on a near-daily basis, there is a cumulative effect that leads to long-term immune response. Research shows that individuals who walk 40 minutes per day at 70% to 75% of their VO2 max experience half as many sick days due to sore throats or colds as people who don’t exercise.1
If you’re having trouble staying consistent with your workouts, kick-start your exercise regimen by adding variety. Change your running route, try a new HIIT workout app, keep pace with and learn new workouts from your favorite YouTube fitness athlete, or you can even download a new fitness app that you can share with your coworkers so they can hold you accountable during your fitness journey.
For Our Patients: Veterinarians evangelize about the benefits of exercise for our patients. Depending on their health status and activity level, veterinarians may go as far as to prescribe a physical fitness program as it is well known that being moderately overweight may decrease an animal’s lifespan and increase the risk of inflammatory conditions like arthritis and other conditions. Prior to starting an exercise program, a full orthopedic exam can be performed to uncover any musculoskeletal conditions so the exercise program can be tailored appropriately.
Five components of a balanced exercise program for veterinary patients include flexibility, proprioception, strength, balance and stamina. No matter what the breed or the physical ability of the animal is, these components can be incorporated into any exercise program.
One Health: Both veterinarians and their patients can stay healthy during exercise by incorporating a warm-up prior to any physical activity. A warm-up is important for both people and animals. During the warm-up period, blood flow to the muscles increases (which carries additional oxygen and nutrients) and muscle temperature increases. Warm muscles have a greater force of contraction and greater speed of relation. The power and speed by which the muscles contract is greater and it also mitigates the dangers of overstretching. Warm tissues help to avoid the perils of the “Weekend Warrior Syndrome” which can include muscle strains and sprains. When muscles, ligaments, tendons and fascia are warm, they are more elastic and have a greater range of motion.
For us, a good warm-up could include a brisk walk, low-intensity movements and some stretching. For animals, it may include trotting for five to ten minutes, changing direction and moving in concentric circles. Sit-to-stand and stand-to-down exercises are also great low-impact warm-up exercises. A vigorous rub-down or massage at the end of the exercise is a great way to end the activity for us and animals as well.
For Us: If you ask a veterinarian when the last time was that they spent time alone, they might be able to remember a few precious seconds of solitude in the middle of the day. Whether you’re surrounded by people or animals in need, the work day doesn’t allow you any time to be by yourself. However, alone time should be considered precious because it can be richly beneficial for a veterinarian’s peace of mind. In fact, the daily engagement of the staff can be so intense that everyone involved in the veterinary healthcare team is likely to benefit from some quiet time.
Science also corroborates the truism that time by yourself is beneficial. After a busy work day surrounded by people and animals, your productivity may shift towards a personal project. Studies indicate that being surrounded by people reduces productivity.2 So, with a little privacy, people will perform better, and also help veterinarians practice better medicine. Perhaps you’re stumped by a complex case, or you would like to spark the idea for a new innovative invention, practicing solitude may trigger creativity. Similar to how a novelist or an artist looks to escape the cacophony of a busy environment to maximize their creativity, the same spirit applies to veterinarians. When you’re alone with your thoughts, your mind may explore some weird and wonderful places. Being alone with your thoughts gives your brain a chance to wander, which can help you become more creative.
Veterinarians often don’t get much longer than ninety seconds to establish rapport with their patients. In that tiny window, they have a mandate to make clients feel comfortable and understood and to gain their trust. That interaction is vitally important because the veterinarian is entrusted to protect the life of one of their species-diverse family members. The pressure of that responsibility can mount throughout the day and solitude can help you relieve that pressure. Solitude can be cathartic because it allows you to connect with your thoughts, opinions and emotions free from other people’s judgement and expectations.
For Our Patients: There are different manifestations of alone time for animals. One technique that has been popularized is mat training. Mat training for our patients is loosely analogous to our alone time. In addition to fostering a spirit of independence, teaching an animal to relax on a designated mat can help to settle them mentally—particularly during episodes of excitement, anxiety and fear.
In a similar fashion, some animals need an escape from the raucousness of children or the unfamiliarity of strangers. Many animals begin to regard this mat as their “safe place” when the doorbell rings or if there is a rapidly-approaching thunderstorm. Eventually the mat becomes a place both inside and outside of the home for an animal to seek out on their own. As time progresses, the location of the mat can be changed (i.e., placed in a different room or the car) so that the mat is the centerpiece of relaxation regardless of the environment.
One Health: A picture of someone relaxing by a fireplace while reading a book with a pet nearby conjures images of peace and tranquility. The ability to simply enjoy a good book while your pet is in the room is an aspirational experience for many overworked veterinarians. Relaxation, peace and creative exploration can be enhanced by having animals around you. For some, alone time doesn’t mean free from all animals and people; it just means that you want to have the right animals and people in your space that promote calm.
It has been shown that petting animals and being in their presence lowers stress and blood pressure for both parties. Closing the door on stress opens the window for imagination and inspiration. Alone time not only benefits us, but it can be a boon to animals as well.
For Us: In the midst of a pandemic, terminologies that may have existed before but were now thrust into the spotlight included “essential” and “frontline” workers. The definition of “essential workers’’ used by the CDC comprises nearly 70 percent of the American workforce, including grocery store clerks, emergency responders, medical professionals and veterinary healthcare personnel. Essential workers and frontline workers were among the first to be prioritized for the Covid vaccine to decrease the spread of infection among people.
To prevent getting sick from other people (including pet parents), a similar syllogism applies when considering the flu vaccine. Many medical professionals consider getting the flu vaccine each year because although it doesn’t provide 100% immunity, it helps the fight against acquiring the infection from other people.
The influenza (flu) vaccine can not only prevent illness that may cause a week or more of misery, it can reduce the likelihood of hospitalization in children and death in adults, according to two analyses of the CDC. Moreover, a meta-analysis—one of the most powerful methodological tools—supports current season vaccination regardless of prior vaccination history.3
Whether or not you plan on receiving the flu vaccine to protect yourself from other people, for veterinarians, the concern is greater than that. Veterinarians also have to protect themselves from animals. For dangerous zoonotic pathogens, hygiene remains the cornerstone of prevention. Some transmissible diseases and pathogens have no vaccine and therefore use signs to keep you faithful to washing your hands religiously. Common items that rarely get disinfected include the stethoscope, clipboards and keyboards. Many veterinarians are so busy that they eat lunch at their desk (for those who actually have an opportunity to eat lunch) and continue to touch surfaces including their phone and computer. To help protect yourself from dangerous pathogens, ensure that those surfaces are wiped down and sanitized at least once a day. Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth; they are gateways that allow bacteria and viruses access to your body.
For our Patients: Preventing the spread of infectious disease is difficult and veterinarians need every tool in the preventive arsenal to keep animals healthy. Vaccination remains one of the bedrocks of preventive veterinary medicine. Viruses and bacteria are extremely crafty and constantly evolving. Despite rigorous efforts and novel design strategies aimed at eradicating disease, infectious agents still can be opportunistic invaders in the absence of diligent prevention strategies.
Partly what makes fighting these organisms so challenging is the complexity of each infectious agent, their movement (transmission mode), their ability to jump from pet to pet (infectivity) and their ability to cause serious illness (pathogenicity and virulence). Individual-, population- and environmental-variability between pets makes the fight against these diseases more difficult. Importantly, some of these bacteria and viruses can cause illness in veterinarians or in their families which only further highlights the importance of vigilance and protection.
One Health: Both veterinarians and their patients can benefit from a laser-like focus on parasite prevention, vaccination and diligent hygiene.
Staying healthy is challenging regardless of the species. The main pillars of wellness in both veterinarians and their patients can be remarkably similar. The stress levels and sociability between veterinarians and animals are different in scope and detail, but the effect on the immune system can be profound.
Veterinarians are remarkably selfless. The daily focus of the veterinary healthcare team is on patient care and public health, so sometimes our personal health can take a backseat. Instead of choosing between our health versus our patients’ health—or worse, neglecting our personal health for the sake of our patients’—we can learn from the recommendations we make as veterinarians to help keep both our patients and ourselves healthy. +
- Sreenath S. Exercise and immune system. International Journal of Physical Education, Sports, and Health. 2017; 4(1): 200-202.
- Workspace satisfaction: The privacy-communication trade-off in open-plan offices. Journal of Environmental Psychology, Volume 36, December 2013: 18-26
- The impact of repeated vaccination on influenza vaccine effectiveness: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Medicine. LC Ramsay, SA Buchan, RG Stirling, et al. January 2019.