Dr. Marty Becker With French Bulldog

Behind the scenes at a normal veterinary practice, you’ll find some of the most compassionate animal lovers anywhere. And that’s no surprise — the challenges of veterinary medicine are many, and anyone who doesn’t love animals wouldn’t have gone into this line of work in the first place.

But behind the scenes at the same practice, you’ll also often find raucous laughter and dark humor. And this, too, should not be surprising. In veterinary medicine, as in human medicine, having a big funny bone to go with that big heart can be the difference between surviving in a challenging work environment and thriving in a rewarding one. And often, the things that are funny to your vet and her staff may seem entirely inappropriate to you as a pet owner.

Veterinary medicine is very stressful; a demanding schedule, life-and-death decisions and money worries can wear on even the most dedicated veterinarians. Fortunately, those of us who work in veterinary medicine find comfort in many things: warm puppy breath, the earthy smell of kittens, a thank-you note or fresh-baked cookies from a grateful client. These all help us get through the rough spots, but none can be called on as readily as our abilty to laugh.

Setting the Stage for Laughter

An easy smile and a quick sense of humor has kept me going in veterinary medicine. I have always used humor in my practice to defuse stress, increase productivity and make it easier for my staff to handle some of the worst things veterinary medicine throws at those who practice it.

In fact, not only have I encouraged humor in my practice, I've planned it.

When I owned veterinary practices, we worked hard to keep the work environment upbeat. There were always “Far Side” cartoons on the employee bulletin board. We had a weekly office contest to write headlines for a funny picture, and parties where we would "roast" the doctors. We also played practical jokes on each other, and it would not be uncommon for what passed as “humor” behind the scenes to be considered callous to someone outside the profession. But “gallows humor” is normal in many professions that deal with life-and-death issues. Laughter helps us cope, so we can continue to do our best for the animals in our care.

Being funny and encouraging others to be funny can do more than blunt the stress of a difficult day; it can add energy, build camaraderie, even encourage creativity. That’s because humor draws on a different part of our brain than the one that handles the logic of dosages, settings, procedures and data entry. And that makes it an important part of our workplace.

When the Humor Gets Dark

Perhaps the most powerful benefit of humor is the way it can help soften the effects of even the most tragic circumstances.

Veterinarians frequently have to help clients make the decision to end a pet's life. This is never easy for the pet owner — or for the vet. But even this tragic situation can lead to laughs. We once had a favorite client coming in to say goodbye to a beloved pet. She was to enter by a side door around closing time, to be treated with the expertise and loving hand such a solemn occasion required. The problem was, she came in through the front door with her dying dog earlier than expected, during a time reserved for surgery. Rather than the soft classical music that would have been playing for her at 5:30 p.m., we had on a rock 'n roll compilation CD. And what was coming out of those speakers as she entered reception? Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust."

Horrified, the staff rushed with superhuman speed to turn off the music before she recognized the song, but soon every employee of the hospital had heard what happened. The result? A flood of gallows humor focused on inappropriate playlists for a pet's passing.

Scientists have long known that humor — even the kind of humor that makes outsiders cringe — is key to coping, both in good times and bad. That’s why awful jokes always follow any disaster. The same is true in veterinary medicine. Because some days you have to laugh or, well… you know the rest. And laughter is always the best medicine, even for your vet.