Study Examines Empathy in the Veterinary Profession

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Equine vet

Is your vet
empathetic toward your horse? Is she empathetic toward you? Empathy
is the ability to share someone else’s feelings or understand what
they’re going through from their perspective. It can be a helpful
trait for doctors so that they see their patients as fellow humans
with complex emotional lives rather than just a list of conditions
and symptoms to be treated.

Although their
patients aren’t human, veterinarians can have empathy for the
animals they treat, too. But a veterinary practice is about more than
just treating animals; the owners of the animals being treated are
part of the equation, and their concerns and perspective must be
considered, too.

Researchers in Italy
wanted to know more about empathy in veterinarians and how it varies
based on a vet’s gender and length of service. In a study published
online in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior this month, researchers
studied 107 veterinarians using the Animal Empathy Scale and the
Empathy Quotient to assess the vets’ level of empathy toward their
animal patients and human clients, respectively. The Empathy Quotient
is a 60-item questionnaire designed to measure a participant’s
ability to understand and feel appropriate emotion in response to
someone else’s emotions. The Animal Empathy Scale is a
questionnaire that was developed for a 2000 study on the links
between empathy with animals and with humans and has been used in
similar studies since.

The researchers
discovered a link between gender and empathy toward animals. Overall,
female vets showed more empathy toward animals than male vets did.
There was no apparent link between length of service and empathy
toward animals. In other words, the amount of time a person had spent
working in the veterinary profession didn’t reduce or increase
their level of empathy toward their animal patients.

There was, however,
a change in empathy toward human clients over time. The longer a
veterinarian had worked in the profession, the higher their empathy
level toward people. Although the researchers don’t speculate on
why, it’s easy to imagine that anyone entering the profession does
so with an existing love of animals, and that doesn’t change. But
over years of working with human clients, their understanding of pet
owners’ feelings could certainly have an impact on their ability to
empathize.

The veterinarians
observed for the study worked mostly with cats and dogs, but there
could be similar trends for equine vets, especially those whose
clients are primarily owners of recreational and companion horses.

A high level of
empathy isn’t necessarily an advantage in the veterinary profession
in all cases. The career is one with a high rate of burnout, and it’s
possible that being highly emotionally connected to one’s patients
could increase that. The researchers conclude by pointing out that
their study is one of the first to look at vets’ empathy toward
animals and people, and that more research would be necessary to
evaluate “the role of empathy in the quality of care, pet-owners’
satisfaction and vets’ well-being.”

Empathy towards
animals and people: the role of gender and length of service in a
sample of Italian vets
Colombo, Elisa Silvia et al.
Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research , Volume 0 , Issue 0 ,
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2016.10.010


Leslie Potter is a writer and photographer based in Lexington, Kentucky. www.lesliepotterphoto.com

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