By: Sofia Staderini, Leigh Dawson, and Julia Hodgins.

‘Death row dogs’ is not a headline that would be warmly welcomed at any time of the year, let alone in the midst of a global pandemic. With over 164 million virus cases and nearly 3.5 million deaths worldwide, it is hard to argue against the fact that COVID-19 has shaken the foundations of humanity to its core. Cases of rapidly deteriorating public mental health have skyrocketed, caused by excessive lockdowns, the closure of businesses, disconnection from loved ones and lack of time outdoors. The Australian Government has invested more than $5.7 billion (AUD) in mental health services and support in the past 12 months alone - and Australia has had very little COVID-19 spread since the virus’s inception. To cure our boredom pangs, the world turned to pet adoption creating a boom for the pet sector.  

However, as lockdown restrictions eased, people grew tired of their four-legged friends and began handing them into shelters, putting them up for further adoption and treating them with neglect. With many rescue centres at capacity due to ‘buyer’s remorse’, many pets are being euthanised - as they had not been adequately socialised with humans during the pandemic. Unsurprisingly, this began to overwhelm the vet services market worldwide - especially women veterinarians. Unfolding from that, and considering the safety protocols, a main consequence of this boom is the stress amongst vets, a factor powerful enough to impact human security and community health. 

This month, the team Culture Society and Security discusses stress within vets reviewing the VetsSurvey 2020,conducted by CM Research Ltd., a multi-method study that collected data from 5000 veterinary professionals (veterinarians, veterinary nurses, and veterinary technicians) in 91 countries spread across the planet, contrasting with other perspectives.

The veterinary industry as a mirror of the effect of pandemic management 

With an approximate 25% rise in pet adoptions during the first pandemic months, the stress level of new owners had a positive effect, inversely proportional to the psychophysical pressure felt by veterinarians. Indeed, to overcome the stress of anti-contagion measures, many people considered the possibility of adopting an animal.  Workers in the healthcare industry covered one of the areas that had been most challenged and jeopardized by the pandemic. According to the findings of “VetsSurvey” conducted by CM Research LTD, 66% of vets feel they have too much work and not enough time. 

Unsurprisingly, the countries with the highest stress levels among vets are in line with Bloomberg's "Covid Resilience Ranking," which analyzes both the Covid-status and the quality of life, based on government actions and the consequences at the societal, political, economic, and health levels.  The increased adoption of puppies is closely linked to lockdown interventions and the need for psycho-physical comfort. The policies of the respective governments, which have resulted in high levels of stress on the part of the vets, show a managerial incompatibility between the interests of different citizens. 

The study, on the other hand, points to a larger problem.  As we find great similarities between the data concerning the veterinary industry and global dynamics, we can only emphasize that the stress experienced by veterinarians is a drop in the bucket of the psychophysical consequences caused by the pandemic and its management.

Gender equality and stress

The “industry gender domination” argument turns into a fallacy with intoxicating ‘alpha-male-ish’ aftertaste, to say the least, when females are numerically superior. Gender distribution in the vet industry, unusually, looks as 68% women and 31% men, explained by an 8% increase of women entering the trade since 2016 based on comparisons of earlier data with survey findings. Despite women outnumbering men two-to-one, CM Research observes that this industry is, simply, as unequal as others.

While figures might suggest female domination, a juicy catch to dispute inequality at least in STEM, female superiority is not the equivalent of equality. The study found that women seem “more likely to want to remain an employee”, speaking volumes about career expectations and a supportive environment. Furthermore, female vets report being suggested to interrupt a pregnancy as it harms their careers, and being “the wrong sex” as reason for not being promoted or offered a partnership.

Figure: Vets' Career Prospects by Gender. CM Research - VetsSuvey 2020

Consequently, the levels of stress are more pronounced in women vets, who likely are the main caregivers at home while coping with higher workloads due to the COVID ‘Pet Boom’. According to the researchers, stress levels decrease over age but gender patterns prevail, proving to be structural. Interestingly, the gender difference in the “compassion fatigue score” is smaller than in other categories, suggesting that despite increasing demands women still find ways to exercise compassion. 

In the business of caring for animals, non-dimmable compassion added to consistent resilience do not mean drivers for women’s career advancement. Topping this with the peculiarity that women’s socialisation unfolds into greater empathy, seeking protection, and nurturing the group in the midst of crises, as analysts observed. Why is this happening amid numeric superiority? Why are we not surprised?

Figure: Levels of Stress, Burnout and compassion fatigue. By CM Research VetsSurvey 2020

The overwhelming surge of workload for vets worldwide disproportionately affects women despite gender outnumbering, suggesting that global trends, pre-COVID and COVID-driven, are profoundly underpinned in society; here is a call for policy support at local governments and professional unions levels. A larger and more urgent task is to explore new avenues to reach gender equality, as numeric superiority - let alone parity - do not work. Rather, those exacerbate the stress in female vets who exercise high levels of resilience, holding compassion up at the expense of their own sanity while enduring ferocious competition from their male colleagues.

As COVID-19 edges the planet into a multifaceted security crisis, its ripple effects on human and non-human beings are still to be spotted and understood. Amongst those taking the hardest toll, furry buddies and their female Vets should be counted.