“I’ll often play a song for these guys to just help them get relaxed,” Dr. Noah Arnold, proprietor of Dr. Noah’s Ark Veterinary Clinic in Shorewood, says on a 2018 TV news segment. He’s speaking over video of him smiling, singing and strumming a guitar for his animal clients.
It’s the vision of what we hope for in a vet – a person with a deep caring for animals, loving hands in which our pets will be placed. But underneath the surface, something dark was brewing within Arnold – something all too common in the veterinary field. This April 27, a sign was attached to the Dr. Noah’s Ark clinic door saying that the business was closed. Arnold, 40, had died by suicide the night before.
Studies by the CDC show that veterinarians are between 2.1 times (for men) and 3.5 times (for women) more likely than the general public to end their own lives; one in six vets admit to having suicidal thoughts. Vets say the job carries a particular blend of stresses not far removed from human-facing medical fields.
An open letter that Arnold emailed to his clients in August 2021 reads in hindsight like a cry for help. For approximately three pages, in a section titled “The Problem,” Arnold mentions student loan debt, angry and disgruntled clients, exhaustion, overworked support staff, pandemic stress, and how he often missed dinner and bedtime with his three children.
“Many days after work, you go into the utility room in the basement and sit on the concrete floor with your head in your hands, and no thoughts come, just the radiating trauma of the day, the dropping in your chest you can’t put your finger on, with 11 years behind you and 10 thousand more miles to go,” Arnold wrote.
The letter details plans to create a fixed annual fee for clients to get unlimited services at a location he called the “Sanctuary.” His childhood home, a former farmhouse located on two acres in Glendale, would be “repurposed into a place of quiet and healing for pets and people.”
By that point Arnold, according to a pair of lawsuits filed by three of his former receptionists, seemed to be in a downward spiral of substance abuse. The complaints paint a picture far from the gentle, singing caretaker of Arnold’s public persona. They allege sexual harassment and a hostile work environment, including “conversations concerning explicit and graphic depictions of sexual intercourse, drug use and marital affairs Noah Arnold was involved in,” according to one complaint. Another alleges that a receptionist was asked to help cover up Arnold’s affairs and drive Arnold to make house calls where he would “often ride shirtless and consume drugs.”
After an investigation by the DEA, Arnold surrendered his DEA registration number this February, restricting his ability to prescribe, administer or dispense drugs. The complaints by the first two receptionists, filed in 2020, were settled out of court. The third was filed April 18, 2022.
Just over a week later, Arnold died by suicide at the family home in Glendale that he hoped would be his “Sanctuary.”
Arnold’s case is far from typical, but it does relate to a widespread problem: Stress, mental health problems and suicide are far too prevalent in the veterinary field. Some 59.1% of vets and 75.9% of support staff felt “moderate to high burnout,” according to the Veterinarian Wellbeing Study published in January by Merck Animal Health. The percentage of psychological distress in the field is on the rise, too.
Three Milwaukee-area vets who spoke with Milwaukee Magazine about their practices agreed on the most rewarding factor of the job – helping families and their pets – and also the three top stresses: financial issues, work-life balance and the high emotions of dealing with animals and their owners.
“You have difficult discussions that focus around keeping the pet alive and the cost that might take,” says Dr. Peter Gaveras, who has been a vet for 35 years and currently works at Silver Spring Animal Wellness Center. That leads to “a complex dynamic we work through. Not everything works out the way we’d like it to because every circumstance is a unique situation. The end point in many situations is euthanasia, which I think is challenging for all of us.”
“It’s tough when you don’t win,” Dr. Shana Loomis-Bulgar agrees. Loomis-Bulgar opened her practice, Milwaukee Veterinary Clinic in Walker’s Point, with her husband in 2019. Finances are another stressor, as vets often are overworked, underpaid and accrue a lot of debt. “A lot of vets are in hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt from school with little chance of paying it off even through retirement these days, which puts people in bad work situations – hanging on to a job because it pays well,” Loomis-Bulgar says.
Dr. Elizabeth Ferguson left private practice to work for a service called Lap of Love, which makes house calls for pet euthanasia. “I was getting so burnt out that I wasn’t even recognizing myself anymore,” she says. “I felt like I was a shell walking through life. I was mad and frustrated a lot.” Ferguson says she was close to quitting the field when she found Lap of Love. She says that while there’s still job pressures, her “work-life balance and stress load is exponentially less.”
An important new factor is the unexpected level of stress that was created by the pandemic. Vets scrambled to figure out safe ways to take care of their clients while backlogs and wait times increased.
All three Milwaukee vets emphasized the importance of having a solid social structure to deal with the toll the job can take.
And that’s the goal of the Veterinary Hope Foundation, a national organization focusing on mental health and suicide among vets that formed last year after three veterinarians and a vet technician were found dead by suicide in the span of a single week. The foundation offers six-week support groups that pair a cohort of vets with mental health professionals for open discussions on topics like setting boundaries, conflict resolution and self-care.
“They’re encouraged to stay in touch with each other beyond that – colleagues they can reach out to talk to after a bad day,” says Dr. Elizabeth Chosa, the foundation’s vice president and co-founder and a vet who has her own practice in Florida. “It’s the power of genuine human connection. That is a powerful force in healing and understanding and resiliency – just knowing that someone else is in your corner.”
Vets turning to other ways to deal with stress, like substance abuse, is not uncommon. “It’s easy to want to repress or numb yourself to these emotions, and one way people do that is drugs and alcohol. And vets have access to controlled substances,” Chosa says.
Chosa says that while financial donations to Veterinary Hope Foundation are always appreciated, there is something more important people can do to support their local vet – show them kindness.
“I just want to be on the same team,” Chosa says, noting many people walk into a vet clinic with an already adversarial attitude about the cost and time it will take, “instead of realizing that if you have to wait it might be because we’re saving a life in the back or we’re sitting there holding the hand of an old lady who is losing her only friend.”