Mental Health in Veterinary Medicine

Dear Readers,

I recently attended a Mental Health First Aid course so I am now a “Mental Health First Aider”. Many people have asked me what this actually means and unfortunately many have also initially thought I wasn’t serious when I told them.

In the veterinary profession mental health is an important part of the vets well being and good mental health results in a much happier lifestyle and enhances performance. This is also applicable to aspiring vets like myself, and our ability to have fun as well as study hard. The most important thing is to find that balance!

It has taken me a lot of time and I have put a lot of thought into how I could phrase this post, however if I could take away one thing from my course it would be to not be afraid of talking about mental health.

Mental health issues affect us as much as physical illness – the biggest problem is the stigma attached to mental health. People fear that if they talk about how they feel they will be pushed aside and thought of as ‘attention seeking’. They may feel as though they won’t get the promotion they wanted or an interview at a company they’ve always wanted to work for, living in fear that someone may find out their ‘secret’ of suffering with poor mental health and think less of them. Yet this attention is what they may well need to show themselves they have enough support around them to deal with whatever it is they’re struggling with. Just because people cannot directly see an illness definitely doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

I have looked at some statistics on mental health specifically in the veterinary profession and I found that:

  • 5% of VET STUDENTS wouldn’t want anyone to know if they were suffering from a mental health problem
  • 1 in 4 people in the UK have experienced a mental health problem in the last year
  • According to the results of a 2012 study of veterinary surgeons with a history of suicidal thoughts or behaviour, which was published in Social Psychiatry & Psychiatric Epidemiology, half the participants had not talked with anyone about their problems because they felt guilty or ashamed.
  • 24.5% of males and 36.7% of females in veterinary medicine have experienced depressive episodes since leaving veterinary school, which is about one-and-a-half times the prevalence of a U.S. adult throughout their lifetime.

These are difficult statistics to read and I have purposefully left out some of the more shocking data. When attending the course I was asked by a lady “How are you coping with this? You are very young.” I found the comment very interesting, while yes I agree that some of the topics we covered were very profound I feel as though as young adults we are protected from topics such as suicidal crisis and psychosis and we tend to shy away from learning more about them. On the other hand, young people who have suffered with mental health issues may have isolated themselves resulting in the knowledge adolescents and teenagers have of mental health being very limited – perhaps this is the reason even adults believe myths and false information that society has made up about certain mental health conditions as a result of not knowing enough.

Everyone I know has in some way helped another person by listening when something has been bothering them, proving as humans we naturally do care about the feelings and thoughts had by a friend/peer. What we need to change is how we treat the idea of putting a ‘label’ or a name to the certain mental health problems – this label is nothing to be afraid of. Admitting you’re struggling to someone you trust, appears to be half the battle! A friend with a mental health problem is still a friend. The same person you have been friends with for 10 years is still the same person and it is a compliment to you if they feel they can trust you enough to tell you they are struggling with depression, anxiety or any mental health problem for that matter.

One of the important things to note about mental health in this occupation is the raised suicide rate in vets compared with other professions. On this course a lady mentioned she had heard this described as ‘the cowards way out’ or a ‘sign of weakness’. I hope that one day society will believe that the controversial and very difficult topic of assisted suicide in terminally ill people, will be seen as the same reason people chose to take their own lives when they feel their poor mental health is also terminal as they do not feel they could ask for the help and support they desperately need.

Thankfully wonderful organisations such as Mind Matters run by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons exist. They offer training and vet helpline numbers, which clearly shows the support for mental health is developing and increasing and that this area of society is heading in a very positive direction. The Mind Matters twitter page inspired me to look for a mental health first aid course and I have inserted the link to their website below:

Mental Health can still be controversial and people have many different ideas on certain issues. I would very much enjoy hearing your thoughts or am happy for people to get in contact with me if you would like to know more about the course I attended and how to sign up yourself!


Stats references

Ethics in pig farming

Hi Readers,

After a long period of revision and exams I am back and very excited to start my many weeks of work experience I have lined up this summer!

Today I’m going to be investigating pig farming as I always ensure I do some research into any new animal before working with them on work experience. I’m so glad I have the chance to work with such intelligent creatures in the summer and want to also look into the breeding of these animals and how they are kept beforehand.

It was brought to my attention that there are lots of laws and regulations on pig farming when listening to a talk on “Compassion in World Farming” in my school by Eileen Greeves that must be adhered to when keeping pigs.

The topics included are: Pig housing and design (making sure they have enough material to investigate and have the ability to stand up, lie down and rest without difficulty and able to see other pigs at all times), Feeding and watering pigs (making sure they’re fed at least once a day and have the correct amount of water available to them dependant on their size), Health and welfare (getting any necessary medical treatment at the correct time and dose), Protecting animals from hazards and emergencies (stock should be moved to a more suitable area if there’s no natural or artificial shelter to protect grazing stock from extreme weather – heat waves, flooding or being buried by snow).

However what caught my interest was the following criteria.

Mutilating pigs

Boar tusks

Boar tusks should only be reduced in length when there’s evidence that it’s needed to prevent injuries to other animals/for safety reasons.


Pigs shouldn’t be castrated wherever possible and other ways should be used to reduce aggression and avoid boar taint. Boar taint is an unpleasant smell that is smelled during the heating of pork. Boar taint occurs particularly in meat of adult male pigs due to changes in the hormonal system when the animal is growing older. Boar taint rarely occurs in female pigs or castrated male pigs. Research has shown that there are three  substances that can cause boar taint: androstenone, skatole and indole. Androstenone – substance that is important in the development of the sperm cells in male animals. Skatole – produced during the degradation of certain amino acids in the body. Skatole – affects both male and female animals. Castration of male piglets lowers the concentration of Skatole significantly.

If castration must be done, a method must be used that doesn’t involve tearing tissues. Farmers can castrate pigs up to 7 days old, as long as they’ve been trained to do so – older pigs must be castrated by a vet.

Tail docking

Pigs should be separated or stocking densities cut down to reduce aggression. If those methods fail then tail docking should be a last resort on pigs over 7 days old and must be:

  • carried out under anaesthetic and additional prolonged analgesia (painkillers)
  • carried out by a vet
  • done by a quick and complete cutting of the tail

Tail docking is performed to reduce tail biting and cannibalism among pigs.

Teeth clipping

Corner teeth shouldn’t be routinely reduced in piglets. Only if there’s evidence that they’re injuring a sow’s teats or other pigs’ ears or tails, and farmers are trained to do so, can they do this.

Carrying out grinding or clipping routinely is not allowed. When steps have been taken to improve the environment or management of pigs to prevent tail biting but there’s evidence it’s still happening, you can carry out grinding or clipping. But this should only be:

  • done in the first 7 days of the piglet’s life
  • a uniform reduction of the corner teeth

Nose rings

It is not allowed to put nose rings in pigs kept continuously in indoor housing systems.


In reading these rules and measures put in place to prevent certain behaviours in particular I have found that pigs can be rather aggressive compared with similar sized animals I have worked with (ie. sheep). I researched this a little more and found there are a few reasons for this. Piglets show aggression to other piglets within the first week of life while forming a teat order (they always suckle the same teat so much form this teat order). Introducing new pigs into a group may lead to aggression as the pigs establish social ranks. Pigs may spend 1–2 minutes nosing each other, vocalising, and then biting until one of the pigs retreats. It may take several days to establish a hierarchy in older pigs.

Crowding and limited amounts of food increase aggression. During breeding, boars may fight and become very vocal; boars will strut shoulder to shoulder, champ their jaws (producing pheromone-rich saliva), then finally face each other and attack. Serious injuries may result, especially among boars that still have their tusks. Breeds with lower body fat are more aggressive when handled.

Tail biting was one of the behaviours that really caught my attention. Tail biting is seen mostly in confined pigs. Overcrowding and boredom seem to be the main causes. Free-ranging pigs spend 5–10 hours daily looking for food and rooting, whereas pigs kept in pens consume meals in a short time. Slatted floors without bedding, low-salt diets, and low-iron soil seem to prompt pigs to start tail biting. Once the problem starts, blood from the injured tail seems to arouse the other pigs and can even lead to death of the victim however it rarely advances to pure cannibalism.

In terms of cannibalism, this is seen in first time mum gilts (young female pigs), cannibalism accounts for 4% of piglet deaths and is estimated to affect about 18% of litters. It is most common immediately after giving birth when the sow is stressed. Usually, the sow will bark to warn piglets walking by her head and then later attack them, biting them to death. This may raise some ethical questions such as should they become so stressed that they resort to killing their young? Can this be helped? Does it happen in smallholdings where space isn’t so much of an issue? From a veterinary point of view, how could we ensure that in farms that number decreases in order to help farmers produce as many piglets as possible?

I look forward to working with such a different species and hope I learn more about their behaviour in a commercial setting. As always, thoughts and personal experiences are very much welcomed in the comment section.