How 'family friendly' is the veterinary profession, really?

Practitioner finds flaws in New York Times columnist's assertion

Published: June 21, 2021
By Megan Andeer

Photo by Jerry Foss
Dr. Megan Andeer enjoys time off with her daughter, Anna. By becoming a practice owner, Andeer could assume greater control over her schedule and accommodate her family life, but she said ownership isn't feasible for everyone.

As I sat down on my day "off" recently, I came across a New York Times column written by Nicholas Kristof extolling the virtues of the veterinary and pharmaceutical professions for their treatment of working moms ("Are Vets and Pharmacists Showing How to Make Careers Work for Moms?"). As a practice owner for the past four years and a veterinarian for nearly 20 years, I almost choked.

When my daughter was born, I returned to work after two months. One month was covered by sick leave I had accumulated over 10 years; the second month was unpaid. That was nine years ago. To this day, paid maternity or paternity leave is uncommon in veterinary practice. Larger corporate owners do provide paid leave for new parents, but many practices are still, for now, independently owned small businesses.

I have read many accounts of veterinarians returning to work after childbirth and wondering whether they would be given the time (much less a place) to pump milk while at work, a real concern where lunch breaks are often mythical. I know I struggled to find the time. Many of my clients grew accustomed to the background sound of the breast pump while I explained over the phone the nuances of renal disease and hyperthyroidism.

Despite women constituting a majority of the veterinary profession at this point, the pay is still not equitable between the sexes. Whether this is because fewer women own practices or otherwise hold higher-level positions, I am unsure. As one example, my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania College of Veterinary Medicine, has had only one woman dean since its inception in 1884. 

I made the choice to become a practice owner to ensure that I would be a more balanced person for my family and have some autonomy. Not all working moms have this opportunity. With the increasing student debt of veterinarians, corporate non-compete clauses that limit veterinarians' ability to strike out on their own, and the majority of childcare still shouldered by working mothers, owning a clinic — and the attendant benefits — are out of reach for many women.

The opportunity for our profession to improve the flexibility of the workplace for working mothers is dwindling unless we are able to occupy leadership roles in veterinary hospital corporations such as Mars. Larger companies may provide leave for new parents but not flexible scheduling, or they may change hours without warning. Supporting families is about more than parental leave.

Kristof's opinion piece begins with the statement: "Veterinarians and pharmacists may be able to help us with more than our pets and our pills. Perhaps they can also guide America to a society that works better for America's moms."

How are veterinarians leading the way? This is the extent of his explanation: "It used to be that vets, like top lawyers, financiers and management consultants, often worked long and irregular hours. Dogs triumphed; vet families suffered. But 77 percent of new vets are female, and they have nurtured a system of group and emergency practices that is more family friendly: If Rover gets sick at night you take him to a 24-hour emergency clinic."

To attribute the growth of veterinary referral and emergency centers to mothers in the veterinary workforce is curious. Who does he think is working in emergency clinics in our female-dominated profession? The increasing number of specialty centers is a reflection of the changes in standard of care driven by pet owners' expectation of and willingness to pay for complex and specialized treatment. Moreover, the presence of emergency and referral hospitals has not decreased the hours worked by many in the profession. Many of us are still on call like our physician counterparts, and working way beyond family dinner time.

I can't help but wonder whether Kristof talked to any veterinarians before he wrote the piece.

Reading his column, you would think all veterinarian mothers are seeing cats and dogs, and working 9 to 5. The reality is, in rural areas, general practitioners still see patients all day and night. Large animal veterinarians continue to work long, physically taxing hours for pay not commensurate with the hours worked. I know many moms who were forced to leave large animal practice due to the lack of flexibility that continues to pervade that sector.

Kristof also appears blissfully unaware of the growing mental health crisis in the profession. The pressures of caring for our patients, communicating with clients who are stressed and upset, and still being present for our families require a balancing act few of us truly achieve, and the ongoing attempt takes a toll on our well-being. During the pandemic, this has become even more evident. Who knows how much of the veterinary staff shortages of the past year were complicated by the lack of access to child care and accommodations offered by workplaces?

While I love my career, I cannot say it is a win for working mothers. My business partner (also a vet mom) and I strive to make our practice a better place for all women, mothers or not. Until we demand the same of society as a whole, I don't think there is a profession out there that can be called a career that works for moms.

About the author: Dr. Megan Andeer grew up in Philadelphia and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine in 2001. After completing a rotating internship at South Shore Animal Hospital outside of Boston, she returned to Philadelphia to dedicate her career to feline medicine. Andeer became co-owner of City Cat Vets in 2017. To support employees and their families, the practice provides places for children to stay in non-clinic spaces when there is a lapse in child care, enables team members to make it to important child events and encourages outreach for mental health and preventive care appointments. Andeer has a daughter, Anna, and six cats.

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