Veterinarians With Drug Problems Go Undiscovered, Untreated

By Dirk Hanson 05/05/11

Addicted veterinarians fear being stigmatized and losing their licenses in a profession with few formal programs for dealing with substance abuse.

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Dog doctors do drugs, too.
Photo via thinkstockphotos

Your friendly dog doctor holds a unique place in the U.S. medical establishment—and not just because most of the clientele have four legs. Veterinary medicine is the only medical specialty with no established programs for monitoring and treating drug and alcohol abuse—despite evidence that medical professionals are statistically at higher risk for addictive problems. “Veterinarians in need of assistance fear losing their license and the stigma attached to suffering from an addiction or a mental issue,” according to Jeff Hall, DVM, a recovering addict and former chair of the Wellness Committee of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AMVA). Veterinarians, Hall contends, must “fight for the same programs that have been automatically granted to other professions for years.” Hall says the association has been out of step and engaged in rearguard actions: “AVMA dropped the ball in creating a program to address addiction issues,” he said, noting a general “lack of acknowledgement of a significant problem within the profession.”

 Submitting openly to addiction treatment was out of the question, one veterinarian who practices in the Southwest told the Fix. In addition, “One bust, and I could be out business,” he said, referring to the fact that while veterinarians hold government DEA licenses to dispense addictive and narcotic medications, there are no formal guidelines or procedures in place for dealing with such situations. Ketamine, the powerful dissociative, and nitrous oxide for anesthesia are routine temptations in a veterinary office. Dr. Omar S. Manejwala, the director of the Healthcare Professionals Program at Hazelden Foundation in Minnesota, said that while he had seen “many cases of ketamine addiction among veterinarians, by far the most common addiction we continue to see is alcoholism.” In “The Addicted Veterinarian" (PDF) , Manejwala writes that he has witnessed “assistants steadying the hands of trembling docs in alcohol withdrawal during procedures. Employees, peers, and colleagues are often reluctant to say anything out of fear that the doctor will lose his license, and they may lose their employment.” Quoted in Veterinary Practice News, Dr. Gregory Skipper of the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) said that “troubled vets especially seem to become reclusive, and their employees are reluctant to report them. Therefore they are more seriously ill by the time they come to our attention. We have empirically found that veterinarians are much more troubled and advanced in addictions or mental illness before they are finally reported.”

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]